Professional Learning Communities: Communities of Continuous Inquiry and Improvement
Outcomes of Professional Learning Communities for Students and Staffs
"Our view is, by the way, that if you can't make a school a great professional place for its staff, it's never going to be a great place for kids" (Brandt, 1992, p. 21, quoting Hank Levin). Such factors, indicators, or variables that are supportive of the growth, development, and self-esteem of students are exactly those that are critical to gaining the same outcomes for a school's staff (Sarason, 1990). These authors suggested that the tight coupling of staff and students results in an environment where staff are communally organized. A review of staff and student outcomes that have been reported in the literature is the focus of this section.
Linkage of Staff and Student Results
Lee, Smith, and Croninger (1995), in a report on one of the extensive restructuring studies conducted by the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools (see Newmann, above), shared findings on 11,000 students enrolled in 820 secondary schools across the nation. In the schools that were characterized by professional learning communities, the staff had worked together and changed their classroom pedagogy. As a result, they engaged students in high intellectual learning tasks, and students achieved greater academic gains in math, science, history and reading than students in traditionally organized schools. In addition, the achievement gaps between students from different backgrounds were smaller in these schools, students learned more, and, in the smaller high schools, learning was distributed more equitably.
The schools in the study were communally organized and promoted a setting in which staff (and students) were committed to the mission of the school and worked together to strengthen that mission. Staff members saw themselves as responsible for the total development of the students and shared a collective responsibility for the success of students. In such schools, "teachers and other staff members experience more satisfaction and higher morale, while students drop out less often and cut fewer classes. And both staff and students post lower rates of absenteeism" (p. 5).
Lieberman (1995a) recommended teacher learning contexts that include the support of colleagues in a professional community that is nurtured and developed not only within but outside the school. In The Work of Restructuring Schools (1995b) Lieberman reported that providing ways for teachers to talk publicly with each other about their work in behalf of students reduces the isolation of teachers and mobilizes them to commit themselves to making major changes in how they participate in the school.
In commenting on the case studies of schools in The Work of Restructuring Schools, Darling-Hammond (1995) observed that the schools that initiated school improvement efforts by looking into teaching and learning, and discussing how the practices were effective for students showed academic results more quickly than schools that did not. She insisted that teachers need to have opportunities to share what they know, to consult with peers about problems of teaching and learning, and to observe peers teaching. Darling-Hammond noted that such activities in professional learning communities deepens teachers' professional understanding (1993).
Bryk, et al. (1994) concurred that schools with strong democratic practices and expanded local participation are more likely to undertake fundamental, systemic change. They advised helping schools to become professional learning communities in order to provide learning environments for adults as well as students, so that the full potential of reform may be reached.
A powerful form of teacher learning comes from membership in professional communities that extend beyond classrooms and school campuses (Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 1995; Wood, 1995). Such communities engage individuals in collective work and bring them into contact with other people and possibilities. These settings provide opportunities for teachers to reflect critically on their practice, thus creating new knowledge and beliefs about teaching and learning.
Lieberman and McLaughlin (1992) advised against pressuring individual teachers to develop new skills but rather recommended building communities of teacher/learners. Gary Sykes (1996) agreed that "an invaluable resource for teachers is a professional community that can serve as a source of insight and wisdom about problems of practice" (p. 466).
Teachers need opportunities for colleagues - someone other than the campus administrator - to observe them in trying new practices and to provide nonevaluative feedback. This helps them to understand the subjects they teach and the facilitating roles they play in the school. McLaughlin and Talbert (1993), from their longitudinal study of sixteen high schools in California and Michigan, reported that teachers' groups and professional communities "offer the most effective unit of intervention and powerful opportunity for reform" (p. 18) and that "participation in a professional community . . . supports the risk-taking and struggle entailed in transforming practice" (p. 15).
In a professional community, teachers can consider educational goals and their meaning in terms of their classrooms, their students, and their subject area. Teachers who made effective teaching adaptations for their students belonged to a professional community that encouraged and supported them in transforming their teaching. Through discussion with other teachers and administrators in the professional community, teachers' ideas of good teaching and classroom practice were defined (McLaughlin & Talbert).
Ernest Boyer's research (1995) concluded that the most essential factor in a successful school is that of connection; the most successful learning occurs when teachers teach effectively in their own classrooms but also find solutions together. In such schools, teachers operate as team members, with shared goals and time routinely designated for professional collaboration. Under these conditions, teachers are more likely to be consistently well informed, professionally renewed, and inspired so that they inspire students.
The work of the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools (Newmann & Wehlage, 1995) comprises four complementary studies including rigorous three- and four-year longitudinal case study approaches, as well as survey methods and collection of student test data. Data cover 1,500 elementary, middle, and high schools throughout the United States, with field research in 44 schools in 16 states. This paper makes specific reference to the studies reported by Lee, Smith, and Croninger; Bryk, et al.; Louis and Kruse; and Newmann and Wehlage. It seems appropriate to report briefly the conclusions generated by the results of all four of the studies (Lynn, 1995-96).
The results showed that comprehensive redesign of schools, including decentralization, shared decision making, schools within schools, teacher teaming, and/or professional communities of staff, can improve student learning. Four interconnected factors leading to improved student outcomes were identified.
- Student learning. Teachers agree on a vision of authentic (in agreement with real-world experience or actuality, not contrived) and high-quality intellectual work for students that includes intellectually challenging learning tasks and clear goals for high-quality learning. This vision is communicated to students and parents.
- Authentic pedagogy. High-quality student learning is achieved in classrooms through authentic pedagogy (instruction and assessment), and students of all social backgrounds benefit equally, regardless of race, gender, or family income.
- Organizational capacity. In order to provide learning of a high intellectual quality, the capacity of the staff to work well as a unit must be developed. The most successful schools functioned as professional communities, where teachers helped one another, took collective (not just individual) responsibility for student learning, and worked continuously to improve their teaching practices. Schools with strong professional communities offered more authentic pedagogy and were more effective in encouraging student achievement.
- External support. Schools need essential financial, technical, and political support from districts, state and federal agencies, reform projects, parents, and other citizens.
Similar key features of successful school-based reform studied by Quellmalz, Shields, and Knapp and reported in School-Based Reform: Lessons from a National Study (1995) include
- challenging learning experiences for all students
- a school culture that nurtures staff collaboration and participation in decision making
- meaningful opportunities for professional growth (section 2, pages not numbered)
The collection of research studies cited in this review clearly identifies the power of the organized professional learning community that makes possible the advancement of student achievement. Through the learning community, teachers learn "how to translate enhanced curricula and higher standards into teaching and learning for all of their students" (McLaughlin & Talbert, 1993, p. 5). It is, however, not simply the presence of the learning community but what the community chooses to focus on that influences the outcome. McLaughlin (1993) reminded us of this when she cautioned that professional communities, in and of themselves, are not necessarily a good thing. Values and beliefs shared by a group of individuals can be misplaced and may not support appropriate efforts to respond to the needs of students.
Staff learning communities could significantly respond to the issues raised by Alexander, Murphy, and Woods (1996), who contended that the "revolving door" of educational innovations, "the reason why educational innovations come and go with such regularity" (p. 31), may be attributable to two factors. The first is that education, like most human endeavor, focuses on doing what we know how to do. There is a comfort level involved, and the challenge of learning new practice (affected so significantly by time and other constraints in schools) prevents a rich understanding of the innovations, often leading to superficial implementation.
A second explanation is that implementors do not have "an extensive knowledge of the literatures or research that underlie these innovations, resulting in the reinvention or recycling of old movements under new labels" (p. 31). There is, of course, no certainty that organizing staffs into learning communities will eliminate these problems. But it seems quite plausible that the opportunities provided by regular meetings of learning communities, their inquiry into innovative solutions to student learning, and the thoughtful examination of new programs and practices could result in the kind of understanding and learning addressed by Alexander and colleagues.
The reports shared above indicate that outcomes for both staff and students have been improved by organizing professional learning communities. For staff, the results include:
- reduction of isolation of teachers
- increased commitment to the mission and goals of the school and increased vigor in working to strengthen the mission
- shared responsibility for the total development of students and collective responsibility for students' success
- powerful learning that defines good teaching and classroom practice, that creates new knowledge and beliefs about teaching and learners
- increased meaning and understanding of the content that teachers teach and the roles that they play in helping all students achieve expectations
- higher likelihood that teachers will be well informed, professionally renewed, and inspired to inspire students
- more satisfaction and higher morale, and lower rates of absenteeism
- significant advances into making teaching adaptations for students, and changes for learners made more quickly than in traditional schools
- commitment to making significant and lasting changes
- higher likelihood of undertaking fundamental, systemic change.
For students, the results include:
- decreased dropout rate and fewer classes "cut"
- lower rates of absenteeism
- increased learning that is distributed more equitably in the smaller high schools
- larger academic gains in math, science, history, and reading than in traditional schools
- smaller achievement gaps between students from different backgrounds.
If professional learning communities can be a significant force for empowering staff that leads to school change and improvement and increased student outcomes, how can such communities be developed in schools? The next section addresses this question.