Teacher Shortage Is Over
Ontario's widespread shortage of the past seven years has come to an end, though specific shortfalls persist.
by Frank McIntyre
How, When and Why of Teacher-Designed Sites
Part I: Exploring a World Wide Web of Possibilities
by Lynda Scarrow
The debate is just warming up and it promises to be lively. Are we seeing the start of another school-improvement bandwagon? Or will professional learning communities endure - enabling schools to become models of reflective and collaborative continuous improvement?
The idea of professional learning communities originated decades ago in connection with effective business organization. Peter Senge coined the term learning organization in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (1990). He defined the learning organization as a place where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free and where people continually learn how to learn together.
In Canadian education, professors Coral Mitchell and Larry Sackney have defined a professional learning community (PLC) as one where teachers and administrators take an active, reflective, collaborative, learning-oriented and growth-promoting approach to the mysteries and challenges of teaching and learning. PLC has come to mean schools where the entire staff is involved in data-based decision making about student needs, where they define school goals and directions to meet those needs and engage in ongoing study, discussion, testing and reflection to change their practice.
The ideals surrounding PLCs are neither new nor unique. In his 2001 book on educational change, education theorist Michael Fullan argues that after years of top-down reform, schools are suffering from overload and that any success is "in spite of the system."
Fullan says collegiality best supports true improvement. He advocates that teaching should be collective and reflective, not an individual activity. He states that successful schools value consistent standards, and successful teachers trust and appreciate others and ask for and share expertise.
Avis Glaze, Ontario's Chief Student Achievement Officer and CEO of the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat at the Ministry of Education, believes that ongoing learning and reflection are pivotal in the practice of true professionals.
"Teachers learn with and from one another," says Glaze. Professional learning communities are about collegiality among individuals who can discuss what works and share resources that can make a difference. They are results-oriented and use research to guide their decisions. "When we build PLCs, we embed learning to ensure a lasting effect on both student achievement and organizational effectiveness."
The question is: Can PLCs help implement lasting and significant change that will truly improve student learning? We decided to look at the realities of PLCs in the Kawartha Pine Ridge DSB.
On the ground
"Education tends to be rather conservative, and many educators see change initiatives as fads that come and go," says Debbie Kasman, principal of Courtice North PS. "As a result, we don't often make major, long-lasting changes in our schools."
But Kasman wanted her school to be a professional learning community and staff members are now working to that end.
"Teachers have always worked with colleagues to some degree, but the majority most often work alone, within their classrooms," explains Paul Reid, Courtice North's vice-principal, who believes that some of the most successful classrooms, divisions and schools are those where teachers work collaboratively, dropping their guard to share both frustrations and successes. "Instead of personal islands, we envision a community of teachers focused on a common goal."
Last fall, CNPS staff reviewed board-assessment data, diagnostic early-literacy assessments, primary division-running records and EQAO results to identify their greatest area of need (GAN). Kasman talks about the role of the data: "We value assessment for learning, not assessment of learning." From this process the area of need was identified. Courtice North would address students' reading skills, which they saw as key to success in all subjects.
Echoing Fullan's belief that "real change depends on what teachers do and think," Kasman emphasizes that administration did not direct the decision: "Teachers chose the goal and have made program changes to reflect what the data tells them our students need."
The next step was to set measurable goals that addressed their GAN. Junior teachers set a target of five per cent improvement in reading scores across Grades 4 to 6 by the end of June 2005. The goal was simple and linked to student assessments - not mother-hood statements about improving school tone.
"This initiative has given me a clear idea of where we are going," says Grade 6 teacher Jennifer Pym-Murphy. Now in her seventh year of teaching and the school's lead Junior literacy teacher, Pym-Murphy feels that the school-wide goal has made it easier to focus curriculum and that students are benefiting. "I can work toward these goals every day in my own classroom."
Primary teachers grouped kindergarten students according to needs for differentiated instruction. "We had five groups, each working with a different teacher daily for 20 minutes," says Erica Luck, the school's early literacy teacher. "Two even went ahead with a Grade 1 class because that best met their needs. It was fantastic."
Now, teachers envision school-wide programming where students are grouped according to needs and skill levels to receive targeted instruction in specific subject areas - rather than working in strict grade-level classrooms.
Kasman acknowledges, "It is a challenge to create time for teachers to discuss, learn and reflect during the school day." Finding time is one of the most difficult aspects of sustaining a school-wide PLC. But there are creative ways to do it when the administration sees it as a priority.
At Courtice North this year, Kasman allocated money for supply teachers. She and Reid also covered classes when necessary to release teachers during the day. As well, Luck spent some of her time at the school covering classes, so that colleagues could work together or sit in on other classes.
"When it's made a priority, a lot can be done," says Kasman. "But there's no question that we need to be creative in carving out time during the school day."
Teachers were freed for PD sessions with Luck on building capacity by sharing, and demonstrating and modeling new instructional practices. Junior teachers learned about running records and guided reading (usually the domain of Primary teachers) and Primary teachers examined student-achievement data to make decisions around student intervention. Supply teachers were also used to free staff time to develop the school's mission, vision and values statements. Next year's timetable provides same-grade teachers with common planning times.
It is important to distinguish between professional development and a professional learning community. Assessment and evaluation guru Rick Stiggins argues that workshops alone will not produce sustained and meaningful improvement because they do not permit experimentation with new ideas in real classrooms and the vital sharing of experiences with colleagues. Kasman agrees, saying that teachers often view PD workshops as "add-ons" or "something that is done to them." If they don't buy into the workshop content and make a concerted effort to take the new idea back to the classroom, then the odds of PD affecting teachers' practice are pretty slim.
In a PLC, teachers choose their professional development and choices are not made in isolation. They learn about a new idea, try it in their classrooms, reflect on it, talk about the results with their colleagues, and then fine-tune it and try it again. If it works, they stay with it and find ways to improve it; if it doesn't work, they try something else. In a PLC, Stiggins explains, teachers conduct action research in their classrooms, looking for ways to improve student achievement. They do this with the support of their colleagues. Indeed, a successful PLC requires commitment and can help to produce it.
In the fall of 2004, members of Courtice North's school council were planning to raise money for a new playground. When they learned about the school's reading focus they decided to support that initiative instead, and bought sets of books for each of the guided reading levels. "It's fantastic that our school council is on board and can support our work in such a helpful and tangible way," Kasman enthuses.
Pym-Murphy describes the difference in school culture in just one year: "I feel less isolated because I'm part of something bigger. It's not just me in my classroom; I know that my colleagues down the hall are working towards the same goal. We are working together more and there's more sharing among grades and levels."
"Our PLC is about opening classroom doors and talking, sharing and planning together," explains Kasman. "It's about hearing a new idea and feeling comfortable enough, safe enough and supported enough to try it. It's exciting!"
Variations on a team
PLCs have commonalities but are different from learning teams (see Mapping the Journey to Student Success, Professionally Speaking, September 2004). The reflective experimentation and collaborative approaches are similar, but learning teams are not necessarily school-based or school-wide. Members of a learning team focus on particular areas of responsibility - a common grade, division or subject area - and may address specific needs - how students can best learn and apply a new math concept, for example.
A PLC, on the other hand, may integrate various learning teams to address school-wide challenges. A PLC requires collaboration and communication throughout a whole school and a collective responsibility for every child.
Some schools may never become PLCs, while their learning teams continue to address specific needs and projects. In the Kawartha Pine Ridge DSB many teachers participate in such teams. For example, teachers from various schools might work together to improve teaching and learning for students with autism.
"Many ideals of PLCs are followed," says Joan James, vice-principal at Dr. LB Powers PS. "But this group is less formal. These teachers are enjoying the process and benefits of their learning team, both personally and professionally, and of course their students are benefiting as well."
In 2003, 36 early literacy teachers conducted a self-guided book study using a literacy teaching strategy called a literature circle. This year, the team moved online to study another text and continue professional conversations. Although teachers miss the face-to-face contact, they find it more convenient. They go online when it suits them and have time to be more thoughtful about their opinions and others' comments.
Mitchell and Sackney contend that one of the most important factors for successful PLCs is investment in professional development that is directly and explicitly linked to classroom practice and school goals. Effective PD requires time, professional collaboration and collaborative discourse structured around teaching and learning.
The SMART Schools work of DuFour and Eaker contend that if a change initiative is to be sustained, the elements of that change must be embedded in the culture.
This September, Ron Tansley will become principal of Clarington Central - the first new secondary school built in the Kawartha Pine Ridge DSB in 33 years. He relishes the opportunity to define a PLC culture at the new school from the beginning.
Last year, Tansley worked with parents and the school's future department heads to develop guiding principles for the school. "I am looking forward to working with staff who will be empowered to make data-informed decisions that reflect our guiding principles and focus on improving learning for all students."
Strong leadership is an essential component of a PLC. The principal must give clear signals that professional learning is important and allocate sufficient time and resources. But saying that a school will become a professional learning community does not make it so. A truly successful PLC thrives when collegial reflection, study, discussion, experimentation, preparation and evaluation of teaching materials become the norm. An exercise imposed by an administrator in search of a solution is not enough.
Schools can begin the process - establishing guiding principles and putting posters up on their walls - but until curriculum, rules and initiatives reflect the process and until teachers completely buy into and value them, there can be no meaningful and lasting change.
Mitchell and Sackney observe that creating a PLC is a daunting and complicated task that requires fundamentally different ways of being a teacher and thinking about teaching and learning. It requires that teachers put themselves on the line and expose knowledge gaps to their colleagues and then work together to address them.
Based on what's happening in schools in Kawartha Pine Ridge, the efforts are worth the work and the results are paying dividends, both for students and teachers.
For a bibliography of related readings, visit this issue of Professionally Speaking online at www.oct.ca.
Six steps to a Plc culture
A National Education Service workshop summarizes the steps to achieving a school culture that supports a professional learning community:
Define mission, vision, values and goals
Ensure collective inquiry and constantly question what is being done
Professionals seek innovative methods of teaching and learning and support each other as they test them. They co-ordinate their actions to ensure that the work of individuals contributes to the common goals identified by staff.
Develop a common purpose
Collaborative teams of teachers learn from each other and create momentum that drives improvement. They build a school structure that supports improvement, while administration supports their work with creative scheduling that allows them to find team time during the school day. Strategies may include timetabling for common planning time, using paraprofessionals and parent volunteers, combined classes, school-wide activities, theme and team teaching and purchasing supply teachers.
Focus on action and experimentation
All learning is pragmatic and quickly turned into action. Teaching strategies and learning theories are thoroughly tested in classrooms, results are monitored and assessed, and findings are shared with colleagues.
Value continuous improvement
Teachers are never content with the status quo and constantly seek better ways. Innovation and experimentation are the norm.
No matter how well-intentioned the efforts, only results count. They must be observable and measurable. Assessment and re-evaluation are constant and rigorous.
For more information on the SMART Schools conferences and the National Educational Service, visit www.lnesc.org.
by Gabrielle Barkany
In the minority setting of Ontario's French-language schools, professional learning communities may offer some of the additional support needed by teachers working to strengthen students' language skills.
Over the past five years, several French-language district school boards have established frameworks to encourage teaching methods that respect students' individual learning styles and improve achievement. Sources of inspiration have been research on reflective practice conducted by Americans Robert Eaker and Richard DuFour and Quebec educator Jacques Tardif's observations on constructivism.
Teachers and administrators work together - sharing responsibility for creating educational projects at their school. "We try to set up educational projects that reflect the realities of the francophone minority and address needs that differ from region to region," explains Gyslaine Hunter-Perreault, superintendent of Conseil scolaire public Centre-Sud-Ouest.
School staff members compile class profiles that look at students' academic results and performance in provincial tests as well as their social and emotional needs, before developing school- and grade-specific strategies.
"A school in the heart of Toronto may focus on improving the written French - spelling, grammar, syntax - of its multi-ethnic students," notes Hunter-Perreault. "Whereas a school in Sarnia might focus on improving its students' oral communication because their environment is much more anglicized."
At École élémentaire l'Héritage in St. Catharines, the professional learning community has set goals around literacy. "Part of the success of professional learning communities is that staff members share responsibility for the students and they own the results," explains Kamel Fodil, who is principal at l'Héritage. "A student's academic success is not the concern of only one teacher but of all our teachers."
For more than a year now, the Conseil scolaire de district catholique de l'Est ontarien (CSDCEO) has encouraged professional learning communities and teams, which are addressing literacy and numeracy issues in individual schools. One goal is to increase performance in provincial testing and improve reading and vocabulary - especially among boys.
New projects are now bringing together elementary and secondary teachers to discuss ways of providing more continuity and decreasing redundancy between levels.
There are many considered teaching and learning strategies that can improve student achievement and help teachers to hone their practice. But, to be fully effective, learning communities require commitment and continuity.
"If we want to engage teachers, first we have to convince them that we are not there to judge their work, but to support them in improving learning," says Jean-Pierre Dufour, director of educational services for CSDCEO.
"Successful practices also need flexible calendars, financial resources and time," says Dufour, adding that research indicates that such projects need five to seven years to do well.
Factors such as high staff turnover - at many schools one in five of the teachers is new every year - can make sustained implementation difficult. But since success usually makes both students and teachers happier, boards have reason to hope that team-building will also help to increase job satisfaction - encouraging teachers to stay in the same school.
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