Making Professional Learning Teams Work

By Elizabeth Rich — August 05, 2009 2 min read

The current economic crisis has also prompted some teachers (up to 36 percent of those approaching retirement) to stay in the profession longer, but Carroll cautioned that this will only delay the inevitable teacher exodus by a year or two. With studies suggesting that student enrollment is higher than ever and on the rise, the report notes that it’s crucial for schools to begin looking at new staffing structures. Federal stimulus money could help get these reforms underway, Carroll pointed out. “We have a unique opportunity here, we can use stimulus money to re-invent our schools,” he said. “This doesn’t have to be a crisis—this can be a time for opportunity.”

The researchers found that top-down PLTs tend to focus more on teacher learning, which can lead teachers to blame external factors (socio-economic conditions, inexperience with English language, academic inability, or lack of parental involvement) on student performance.

This study looked at schools whose district required them to adopt a school-improvement plan. In the initial phase of the study, the researchers found that principal-led PLTs were ineffective. After two-years, there was little follow through on the programs, grade-level settings were never established, and teams met infrequently or lacked focus. And the students made no academic gains.

The study then expanded to a second phase. In this phase, principals and the teacher facilitators for each team attended summer (2.5 days) and winter (1 day) institutes run by the study researchers, and the inquiry process emerged from the teacher teams, not from the administrators. A manual provided process guidelines for the learning teams, including steps for the identification of academic problems, instruction strategies, and analyzing student work.

In the last year of the study, the group of nine schools then subdivided. The “comparison schools” held more loosely structured team meetings which were more frequently canceled or rescheduled. The teams from the “scale-up schools” shared goals, used trained peer facilitators, followed inquiry-focused protocols, and worked in a stable environment that allowed for a commitment to the team’s purpose. The scale-up schools concentrated on student academics, the use of assessment data, and jointly developed instruction. Students from scale-up schools—where PLTs had more structure, some external support, and teachers discovered causal connections between instruction and learning—“significantly” outperformed comparison schools on the Stanford 9—one of the study’s guideposts.

“We learned the lesson long ago that merely assigning teachers to teams does not mean that educator and student performance improves,” Stephanie Hirsh, executive director of the National Staff Development Council, said in a blog comment responding to the report. “Educators committed to learning teams will benefit most from protocols that prioritize identifying and addressing learning goals for educators based on an assessment of student needs as part of the team cycle of improvement.”