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Study Urges 'Learning Communities' To Address the Isolation of Teachers

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WASHINGTON--The federal policy debate should be reframed to consider ways to foster "learning communities'' among teachers, not simply to create national standards and assessment systems, the author of a five-year study of secondary schools and teachers said findings from her study suggest.

Milbrey W. McLaughlin, the director of the federally funded Center for Research on the Context of Secondary School Teaching at Stanford University, presented findings from the center's five-year, $3.7 million study at a forum here last week for Congressional staff members.

Congress is expected this month to consider legislation to authorize the development of national standards in school subjects and a related system of assessments. And many of the study's findings are directly relevant to discussions that have already begun on how to change the Elementary and Secondary Education Act when it is reauthorized next year.

The study found that, while improved academic content is a critical variable, the most effective teachers had hooked up with a network of professionals who addressed problems and found solutions together.

Such networks included subject-matter departments within schools, entire school faculties, and outside groups, such as the Urban Mathematics Collaborative.

"Not one [of the teachers studied] who was able to develop sustained and challenging learning opportunities for students was in isolation,'' Ms. McLaughlin said. "Each belonged to a professional learning community.''

By contrast, she said, "without support, many teachers fell back on their old practices or left the profession.''

The findings suggest, Ms. McLaughlin said, that creating standards and an assessment system is not enough to improve schools. In addition to those steps, she said, Congress should also reorient federal programs to enable teachers to continue their professional development as part of like-minded groups of educators.

For example, she said, the Chapter 1 remedial-education program should be redesigned so that teachers in that program are not isolated from other teachers, as they now are.

And, Ms. McLaughlin said, the federal government should also support students' needs by integrating services for children and youths at the school site and with other initiatives.

John F. Jennings, an aide to the House Education and Labor Committee, said the center's research should remind members of Congress that the legislation to authorize standards and assessment should only be considered a first step in reform.

"Just to concentrate on national standards without considering teachers may not go very far, and may go backward,'' he said, noting that virtually all federal elementary and secondary education programs will be considered during the course of the E.S.E.A. reauthorization.

But Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said creating standards and assessments should be Congress's primary goal.

"Our problem today is not that we aren't sensitive to the complexities'' of school change, Mr. Shanker said at the forum. "The problem is we don't have standards, good assessments, and stakes for whether we meet the standards or not.''

"What we ought to do is be as simple-minded as some of our [international] competitors are'' who have national education standards, he said.

'Today's Students'

In their presentation, Ms. McLaughlin and Joan E. Talbert, the center's associate director, drew on the work of the research center, one of two dozen centers funded by the Education Department's office of educational research and improvement.

The study was based on in-depth research at 16 schools in seven districts--including two independent schools--in California and Michigan. In addition, the researchers conducted surveys at the schools and analyzed data from national surveys, including the 1984 High School and Beyond study of teachers and the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988.

The study found that teachers "agree that students are the context that matters most to what they do in the classroom, and that today's students differ in many ways from students of the past and not-so-distant past,'' a report by the center states.

"The problem of reform,'' Ms. McLaughlin said, "can be summed up as the problem of today's students and yesterday's teachers.''

Many teachers respond to such challenges by attempting to enforce traditional standards, or by "dumbing down'' or turning their backs on curricular content, the report says. In those cases, it found, teachers and students ended up becoming burned out and cynical.

But the most effective teachers, the study found, rejected the view that students were "the problem,'' and instead altered their practices to provide opportunities for students to learn challenging content. These new practices, it says, are consistent with reformers' visions of encouraging active learning by students, rather than the traditional method of teachers' imparting knowledge into passive students' heads.

Teacher Collegiality

In analyzing why some teachers made effective adaptations to today's students and others did not, the researchers found a striking pattern: Each of the teachers who thrived was part of a "professional community'' that enabled its members to discuss problems and mutually develop strategies for dealing with them.

A close examination of the 16 schools in the study, Ms. Talbert said, offered "cause for optimism'' by finding professional communities in a variety of contexts.

As might be expected, she said, the two independent schools in the study exhibited the highest degree of collegiality. But the researchers found evidence of collegiality in public schools as well.

"It's not simply a matter of removing bureaucratic constraints to get these differences,'' Ms. Talbert said.

As an example, she cited the case of two high schools in the same California district. Both served roughly the same student population, and both lived under the same rules and regulations.

The study found, however, that one school had high student-failure and dropout rates, while the other had among the highest test scores in the state and sent 80 percent of its students to college.

The difference was reflected in the professional characteristics of the schools, Ms. Talbert said. In the school with high failure rates, teachers complained frequently, came to work late and left early, and held meetings "at mailboxes,'' if at all.

By contrast, she said, the successful school held frequent schoolwide meetings to solve problems and developed unusual solutions, like an "adopt a student'' program to provide more personal attention to students at risk of failure.

The study also showed that such differences exist within schools as well. In one large urban school, for example, teachers in the English department worked together to develop new teaching methods, while those in the social-studies department were "floundering'' in their efforts to respond to state and district curriculum frameworks.

Role of State Policies

Examining differences between schools in Michigan and California, the study also showed the role of state policies in fostering teachers' abilities to adapt their methods.

While teachers in both states who were part of professional communities were more likely than their more isolated colleagues to change their practices, those in California--which had aggressively pursued a policy of redesigning the curriculum statewide--were the most likely to change, the study found.

As a result, the report suggests that a federal policy should include new curricula, assessments, and standards that emphasize high levels of content for all students.

But the researchers said that, in addition, federal policymakers should boost support for students by helping to integrate services at the school site; providing adequate counseling resources; and aiding such community agencies as boys' and girls' clubs and local dance troupes.

And they urged Congress to underwrite teacher networks and to redesign existing programs to foster the view of teachers as members of learning communities.

"We should be moving from talking about professional development to the development of a profession,'' Ms. McLaughlin said.

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