Teachers Learning in Community: Realities and Possibilities
reviewed by James Farrel Kilbane - August 10, 2010
Title: Teachers Learning in Community: Realities and Possibilities
Author(s): Betty Lou Whitford and Diane R. Wood (eds.)
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 1438430604, Pages: 190, Year: 2010
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Teachers Learning in Community relates the stories of actual teachers, schools, and districts that worked to improve teacher instruction by fostering teachers working and learning together. It provides insight into the complexities of developing what have come to be commonly known as professional learning communities (PLCs). These communities developed new ways of educators interacting professionally in order to change the working environment of the teachers, attempting to move to a culture of common accountability for student learning.
The researchers, and authors of the text, employed an ethnographic approach permitting the researchers to tell compelling stories; stories that at once illuminate and complicate the process of developing a professional learning community. As with any well-edited book it provides various perspectives on the development and sustainability of these communities of learners. In preparation the first two chapters define PLCs and their attributes using vignettes from two schools; describe the initiative that supported the PLC work; and explain the research process. These details provide the context necessary for the reader to better understand the stories told in the rest of the text.
In each of Chapters 3 through 6 the authors (each chapter is written by the researcher(s) who worked with that specific group of schools) relate the story of schools and districts in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Florida. While all part of the same funded initiative, there were variations in implementation that bring forth the interplay of factors in any school community doing this work. Having been part of work similar to that of the initiative, I was fascinated by the stories, finding that much of what occurred, in all of its variations, resonated with my experience. Each chapter in this text raises key issues in implementing a PLC as professional development with Chapter 6 providing the perspective of two teachers who coached the PLCs at their building. However, the strength of these individual stories (and this text) is that each echoes the benefits and lessons that are the focus of the others despite the variations.
The authors share the following, all of which impact any group implementing PLCs:
~ how the groups moved from initializing PLCs to institutionalizing their work and presence
~ how protocols both support and limit collegial conversations
~ whether PLCs work within the status quo or are able to question the status quo
~ how high stakes testing impacts the teacher efficacy of a PLC
~ how the nature of the participants, and particularly the principal and external facilitator, impact the PLC
~ the challenge of teachers coming to understand the inquiry process
~ the elusive nature of the connection between student learning and the efforts of the PLC
~ considerations of mandated membership versus voluntary membership
The development of PLCs is idiosyncratic, made so by the unique political, district, and school contexts in each setting, so this text cannot provide a step-by-step instruction manual. Still this text is a valuable read for those intending to employ professional learning communities in their schools or districts because the stories do provide both cautions and thoughtful insight for anyone considering questions such as whether PLCs should be mandatory or voluntary; how high stakes testing interfaces with a PLCs focus on student learning; or the challenge of developing groups that do more than just look like PLCs, but actually function well.
In the seventh chapter, Ken Jones, acting in essence as a discussant asks, Whats To Not Like about Professional Learning Communities? Jones opens his chapter taking a broader view, contextualizing the value/role of PLCs in the larger political/cultural context. While this discussion moves the conversation from the practical implementation of the other chapters, it is imperative to understand this larger context to truly understand what PLCs can actually accomplish in school reform. Jones follows with a discussion of points raised by the other authors. His questioning of the importance of protocols particularly resonated with me, as the discussion of protocols throughout the text gives the appearance that they are the critical element of what a PLC is about. As does Jones, I have found protocols to be an excellent tool, but not as central to the work as the attention given to them in this text suggests.
In the final chapter, A Look to the Future, the editors write about lessons from these various research studies aggregating around questions of who decides the work of the PLC, whether the PLC can advance teacher and student learning, and the value of PLCs as transformational. In their discussion of this last point, Whitford and Wood have developed an intriguing chart comparing PLCs as an enhancement to the professional school culture versus transforming that culture.
Too often in education good ideas are implemented only at a simple surface level. This text articulates well the complexities when the work moves beyond that level, so it is an important read for those not only implementing PLCs but policy makers who hear about PLCs and the successes they do have and conclude that everyone should be involved. While not definitively answering the question of whether PLCs should be mandated or not, the text identifies the challenge of doing so and still successfully implementing a PLC. It also clearly tells the story of the interaction of two policies, high stakes testing and collective professional accountability, that on one level appear to support the same end of improved student learning, but on another level actually are working from opposing theories of action.
For me, as a researcher in school reform, this text adds to the professional literature in two ways. First, it provides well-documented data that exposes the interplay between multiple factors that naturally come into play in all situations that involve human relationships. Due to the unique nature of the different contexts, the more stories we have that provide a detailed understanding of that interplay of factors, the better we can develop responses for addressing complex interrelationships in new situations. Second, it raises new questions, and provides data to inform the answers to those questions, about the success of PLCs when they need to exist in the context of high-stakes testing and how to define success as to whether the PLC enhances or transforms the teacher experience. In both cases, this text expands our thinking and understanding of PLCs to a deeper level offering a better chance that efforts expended are likely to be successful.