A Key to High Achievement

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When a group of researchers drew up case studies of urban schools that were making progress in revamping education, the scholars noticed something different about the most successful schools in the bunch: They all had teachers with a strong sense of community and a shared mission.

In those schools, teachers had time to plan and talk together, to observe one another at work, and to reflect on their practice. And the educators tended to focus as a group on the learning of all the students in the school.

"We figured if teachers feel more responsible for student achievement, maybe student achievement actually goes up," says Karen Seashore Louis, a professor of educational policy and administration at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, who led the team of researchers. But no studies at the time could back up that hunch.

To test the proposition for themselves, Ms. Seashore Louis and co-researcher Helen M. Marks selected 24 urban schools out of a national sample of 500 schools that had been nominated for having made significant changes in the way they did business. The schools selected included eight elementary schools, eight middle schools, and eight high schools.

The researchers surveyed teachers at each school to get a reading on the quality of their professional lives and asked students there to rate their learning environments.

They observed teachers at work to find out whether they were using good teaching strategies. Were they, for example, drawing connections between their classrooms and the outside world? Were students being asked to do more than memorize and spit back information?

In addition, the researchers gave students standardized tests and asked teams of outside teachers to grade projects and written work.

And they adjusted the data to account for differences in students' socioeconomic backgrounds and in the subject matter being taught.

The conclusion: Schools with strong professional communities had higher student achievement than those that didn't.

Reporting on their findings in the American Journal of Education last August, the researchers cautioned that the link they found between strong professional communities and better student learning was not a direct cause-and-effect relationship.

But schools with strong professional communities also had teachers who used better teaching strategies. Better teaching practices, in turn, lead to higher achievement.

"What we're arguing is that professional community creates the conditions for improved teaching, so it's not just a feel-good environment," Ms. Seashore Louis says. "It actually stimulates changes in practice."

Vol. 18, Issue 22, Page 27

Published in Print: February 10, 1999, as A Key to High Achievement
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