Teamwork among teachers aims to improve learning

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

A model for reorganizing the teaching process has educators in two local towns excited about teachers working together to close achievement gaps.

In the North Branford and Guilford school districts, administrators and board of education members have spent a lot of time lately talking about the concept of “professional learning communities.”

According to the experts, the system will bring teachers out of their individual classrooms and have them working in groups to instill focus on learning rather than teaching.

Guilford Board of Education Chairman Bill Bloss called the new emphasis “a big deal.” The idea, he said, is to encourage teachers to work together when they encounter difficulties.

“I think all of us believe that it is an outstanding approach to learning,” Bloss said. “What this model does is to compel interdisciplinary cooperation and collaboration among everybody who might be involved with a particular student.”

Guilford Superintendent of Schools Thomas Forcella said the idea of collaboration and a focus on learning “sounds pretty simple.” Teachers are supposed to be asking three questions: What should students learn? How does the teacher know when they have learned it? How do teachers respond when students aren’t learning?

“At times we put kids into classes that are in a much lower level and we expect less of them, and kids will usually rise to the level of the expectation of the teacher,” Forcella said. “I think our expectations have been too low.”

Barbara Westwater, bureau chief for curriculum and instruction at the state Department of Education, said she has seen a growing trend in the past few years of school districts creating professional learning communities.

“We’re encouraging (it) as a means for professional development because it is not just a one-shot presentation, it is a continuous dialogue amongst teachers within a building and focuses on students and student work,” Westwater said.

Both the Guilford and North Branford schools began implementing professional learning communities district-wide this fall. North Branford Superintendent Robert Wolfe said that in the teachers’ contracts one hour a week is dedicated to meetings for the groups, which are made up of four to 10 teachers.

In Guilford, Forcella said, teachers meet at least twice a month. Next semester, teachers and administrators will begin sitting in on other classes to observe teaching styles.

Wolfe said that analyzing testing data, such as the Connecticut Academic Performance Tests and Connecticut Mastery Tests, can help teachers understand their weak areas. But he added that he thinks the point of the professional learning communities is not to raise test scores.

“The main goal is to improve learning,” he said. “I think a corollary or an offshoot if you improve instruction and you improve learning, then you’re going to improve your test scores.”

Bloss said that state standardized tests are not always useful for the professional learning communities because school districts do not receive the scores until months after the students take the test. The Guilford Board of Education is working on a plan to implement more uniform local testing that would take place a few times a year.

Several of the educators interviewed credited Richard DuFour, former principal of Adlai Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., with developing the model of professional learning communities. Forcella and about 50 other Guilford staff members attended a workshop with DuFour last summer.

In an article in the magazine Educational Leadership in May 2004, DuFour wrote that “the idea of improving schools by using professional learning communities is currently in vogue.” By applying the term to a variety of different configurations involving collaboration between educators, he added, it “has been used so ubiquitously that it is in danger of losing all meaning.”

In order to avoid becoming another educational fad, the model requires administrators to make an idea like “learning for all” more than a cliché or “politically correct hyperbole,” DuFour wrote.

Wolfe said he thinks North Branford has set up its professional learning communities in a way that will maintain them after the novelty wears off. Teachers have time dedicated to meeting in their groups and the district has committed to purchasing additional materials if necessary.

“Probably the most important thing is (teachers) assume ownership of it themselves, as opposed to some expert from the outside coming in,” he said. “By dedicating this time (once a week), we take away one of the biggest factors that tends to chip away at it.”

Forcella said that teachers are excited about the professional learning communities now, but the district and Board of Education will have to continue to support the program to sustain the enthusiasm.

“It’s hard to keep the momentum going … the problem we have in public education is there’s always the next new thing and we seem to always jump on bandwagons,” he said. “What I like about this is it’s not something new – it’s not a new technique, it’s not a new program, it’s a way you organize forever.”

Donna Pudlinski, the chair of the math department at Guilford High School, said she has had a positive response so far from fellow teachers.

“It’s not the same old thing — it’s very refreshing,” she said. “We want to see our students be able to achieve at higher levels, to reach into deeper problems. Once we start to see their advances, it will just feed off itself.”

The ways that North Branford and Guilford are implementing professional learning communities are not identical. At the high school level, North Branford’s teachers meet in departmental groups, while in Guilford the professional learning communities cut across disciplines.

Along with the professional learning communities, Forcella and board of education members in Guilford talk about a “culture change” taking place in the school district. Bloss said that the district needs to “reemphasize that as far as our schools go the point is learning – it is not just something to do to stay busy.” That has led to a renewed focus on some policies that were already in place, like the smoking ban and dress code.

Jeffrey Cash, a senior at Guilford High School and student representative on the Board of Education, said he had not heard the term “professional learning communities” mentioned, but a new emphasis on day-to-day discipline is apparent.

“There’s a different atmosphere … that’s certainly less liberal … than there has been in the past,” Cash said. He added that he has not seen an overall “culture change” at the school because most of the students are familiar with the past leadership style rather than with new Principal Rick Misenti.

Cash, 17, has found the high school to be “extremely rigorous academically,” and he thinks administrators and parents sometimes focus too much on comparing Guilford to other school districts.

“I think it’s important for understanding how Guilford’s performance fits into a universal kind of benchmark,” he said. “You shouldn’t use (test scores) exclusively because I think there are other factors and other indicators, sometimes even better than standardized tests, that truly demonstrates the learning in the classroom that’s been going on.”

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