The Importance of 'Critical Friends': Reform Effort Gets Teachers Talking

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Rio Rancho, N.M.

Though the children have gone home for the day, the teachers gathered in a portable classroom at Puesta Del Sol Elementary School here have lots of hard work ahead of them.

Kim Bass is presenting a problem to a dozen of her colleagues. She had assigned her 4th and 5th graders independent projects in which they were to present their findings in fractions, percentages, and graphs and write a few paragraphs about their conclusions.

Ms. Bass has brought one of those projects with her. Her question for the group: "Why didn't this student do better?"

Such intensive discussions among small groups of educators are at the core of the National School Reform Faculty, a professional-development initiative launched in 1995 by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. The program is based on research showing that in schools with a collaborative professional community, innovation flourishes and achievement rises. The question is whether such communities can be deliberately created from scratch.

"Essentially, we are trying to build and support a collaborative culture among adults in schools that will have a positive impact on student learning," said Paula Evans, the director of professional development for the Providence, R.I.-based institute.

By fall, about 5,000 teachers and administrators in more than 200 schools around the country will be participating in the project, which tries to root professional development deeply in the daily lives of teachers and the work of their students.

So, one Wednesday afternoon a month at Puesta Del Sol Elementary, the 90 educators at the Albuquerque-area school break up into small groups, known as "Critical Friends Groups."

In Ms. Bass' group, the teachers, educational assistants, and student-teachers gently question her about her student's disappointing performance. Had she met with the student to review his plan? Had she checked on his progress? How many days did he have to complete the assignment? After the discussion, the group gives suggestions for what Ms. Bass might do next time. Then she has a final chance to reflect on what she has heard.

The highly structured process is one of several "protocols" designed to help educators analyze their work and that of their students in a safe environment.

'Help Ourselves Grow'

Many teachers describe the initiative as a respite from the traditional one-shot workshops that research suggests produce few changes in the classroom.

"We had gotten to the point here on this staff where we had been to so many workshops and talked about model programs and best practices," Ms. Bass said. "We needed to use ourselves to help ourselves grow."

Schools that apply to join the National School Reform Faculty must send coaches to be trained by the Annenberg Institute in such techniques as team building, peer observation, and methods of examining student work.

Each coach heads one of the Critical Friends Groups. The topics for the groups at their monthly meetings might include setting learning goals, sharing lesson plans or exams, examining student projects, watching videotapes of one another's classrooms, or discussing outside readings. The group members keep portfolios of their work. And they observe one another in their classrooms at least monthly and offer feedback.

Principals must agree to provide time for the groups to meet and for teachers to observe one another. They also must arrange a stipend of $1,500 a year for each coach and cover such expenses as travel to conferences, books, and other materials.

The institute estimates a school's costs for the first group at about $2,000, and $1,000 for each additional group. It costs about $7,900 to train a coach. To date, the institute has paid for much of the training, providing $1.5 million for the program in 1997-98, as part of its $50 million grant from philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg. But it is increasingly asking schools to provide matching funds.

'Total Privacy'

Getting teachers to share their work publicly is no easy task.

Ms. Bass admits that it's tougher for teachers to talk about the work of students with whom they are struggling. But, she noted, "it's not the kid who's doing really well that you need to talk about."

The day after her group met, she revised her final student project for the year to incorporate a regular check on students' progress.

That's the kind of change the project's directors are hoping to bring about. "We're asking people to really violate the norms they've lived with their whole lives," said Faith Dunne, a principal associate at the institute who helped design the program.

"Teachers lead such incredibly isolated lives," she added. "And one of the norms of schools is that, in exchange for being in isolation, you get total privacy and nobody ever knows what you're doing."

Encouraging teachers to do peer observations, as Puesta will begin doing in the fall, is particularly hard.

"We're going to do it very carefully, in baby steps, so that it becomes a safe process," said Principal Connie Chene, who first persuaded her teachers to experiment with the peer groups.

At Pasadena High School in Pasadena, Calif., teachers have been observing each other since 1995, when they first joined the National School Reform Faculty. About 22 of the school's 66 teachers now visit one another's classrooms on a regular basis.

"The more we did it, the less threatening it became," said Christelle Estrada, an assistant principal at the 2,000-student school. "We instantly experienced the benefits."

Not for Everyone

But creating such a collaborative model of staff development from scratch is not for everyone. Schools may need a base of collegial work to build on.

At Puesta Del Sol Elementary, for example, educators and parents already serve on design teams that help decide how the school functions. The school has received national attention for its work on multiage classrooms that include special-needs students.

"We were very collaborative," Ms. Chene, the principal, said. "But we didn't have a structure in place to talk about our own work with children."

The active support of principals like Ms. Chene has also been pivotal in the reform project's early efforts, Ms. Dunne said. "Where the administration was hostile," she said, "that would destabilize and ultimately undermine the work."

The process has also worked best at schools that have a strong reform focus to begin with. "We've seen in schools that are very weakly linked and are doing many, many different initiatives that this really just doesn't work," Ms. Evans said. "It's another Christmas-tree ornament."

In the future, all schools will have to specify how they plan to use Critical Friends Groups schoolwide by 2000. The institute has found that a single group in a large school has little potential to change a school's culture or organization. The Annenberg Institute also is seeking districts that want to use the approach in more than one school. The 8,900-student Rio Rancho district, of which Puesta is a part, plans to start Critical Friends Groups in four more elementary schools this coming year.

Building Trust

This spring, Puesta's teachers presented their portfolios to their small-group colleagues for the first time.

The portfolios--which ranged from thick, three-ring binders to slimmer, more artistic creations--included sample lesson plans, examples of student work, scoring rubrics, photos of classroom activities, lists of workshops teachers had attended, and communications home to parents. They were designed to show how teachers were working toward schoolwide goals for themselves and their students.

Most teachers at the school describe the process as a useful, if taxing, exercise. But the teachers still appear reluctant to examine each other's portfolios too critically. The expectation is that, eventually, NSRF participants will share their portfolios with educators from outside their schools, as well as with one another. So far, Annenberg officials have given schools few guidelines on how to prepare the portfolios.

The project's leaders also admit that it will be hard to trace any changes in student achievement to the Critical Friends Groups, particularly since many schools have numerous innovations under way. So far, the Annenberg officials have monitored changes in 13 of the original schools, based on classroom observations and interviews and surveys of the faculty. A three-year evaluation of a more recent cohort of schools began this year.

For now, teachers say, they can point to small, but important, changes in their teaching that stem directly from their conversations with their colleagues. Moreover, the groups have provided a feeling of community that can often be lacking in large schools.

"I was really scared at first," said Holly Thompson, an educational assistant at Puesta Del Sol Elementary. "But I found this was a group of people that I could trust, that took my suggestions seriously."

Vol. 17, Issue 37, Pages 1, 12

Published in Print: May 27, 1998, as The Importance of 'Critical Friends': Reform Effort Gets Teachers Talking
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