Making Professional Learning Teams Work

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A recent six-year study, published in The Elementary School Journal, tracked 15 Title 1 schools serving 14,000 mostly low-achieving, limited-English proficient students. The study found that inquiry-based learning teams, in which members focused on student achievement, produced the best academic results, with one caveat: Participants in peer-managed-learning teams, as opposed to those with a top-down structure, are more likely to take ownership of a causal link between instruction and learning, according to the study.

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.”

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