Schools leaders seek to test shift in approach to learning

Schools leaders seek to test shift in approach to learning

Michele Ellson

Schools administrators want Alameda’s teachers to sign off on a school reform pilot that would see teachers collaborating on lessons and poring over test data in order to boost student achievement instead of working individually with a focus on implementing required curriculum, a directional shift that the head of the teachers union said would increase teachers’ workload without a corresponding rise in pay.

On Thursday, the school district’s bargaining team offered a proposal to raise Alameda teachers’ pay by 2 percent and also to bring new teachers’ pay up to the Alameda County average, with a $1,000 annual incentive for teachers who participate in the district’s proposed two-year professional learning communities pilot. The teacher’s union – which had proposed a 4.5 percent pay increase for every teacher – rejected the offer, asking the state to declare an impasse in negotiations over pay on Friday.

District administrators had also sought to establish collaboration time for professional learning communities in a bargaining proposal submitted to the union last April.

In an interview, Superintendent Kirsten Vital said the professional learning communities approach could benefit all of Alameda Unified’s students, though district leaders are particularly hoping it can boost achievement for Alameda’s African American students and English learners.

“I believe that the power of teachers working together ultimately will help our student achievement outcomes,” Vital said. “When I have had the honor and privilege of observing our teachers working together, it’s been pretty extraordinary.”

Vital said that under the proposed pilot, teachers and administrators at Alameda’s schools would be asked to draft and submit plans for creating professional learning communities at their schools to the district for approval. Vital stressed that participation in the pilot would be voluntary, though she said she anticipated that every school would join.

She said administrators would present more information about the proposed pilot to the Board of Education at the end of February. Its anticipated $500,000 a year cost – roughly the amount of money it would cost to pay all of the district’s teachers a $1,000 annual stipend – would be covered by Measure A parcel tax funds, Vital said.

The professional learning communities model seeks to ensure students are learning, rather than focusing on whether they are taught required lessons, according to a 2004 journal article by Richard DuFour, a nationally recognized expert on the school reform model. Under the model, teachers work collectively to decide what students need to learn and how they will assess that their students have learned what they need to, with supports for students who are struggling and an ultimate focus on results.

Vital said she sees the professional learning community approach as something that brings teachers and administrators together as a group to explore best practices. She said the approach could include planning lessons together, looking at student testing data or teachers observing other teachers in the classroom and offering feedback on what they see.

“It’s this notion of professional learning to improve each of our practice around instruction,” Vital said.

She said teachers at most of the district’s elementary schools are already meeting to examine benchmark testing data and that teachers are collaborating and implementing other professional learning communities concepts at some schools. Through another district initiative, some teachers have participated in “learning labs” where teachers from across the district observe one of their peers giving a lesson and then offer feedback on the experience.

The reform model also calls for targeted supports for students who are struggling, like required tutoring for high school students in place of study halls. Vital didn’t say she would seek to add supports for struggling students as part of the pilot, though she said some supports, like special classes for high school students who need literacy support, are already in place.

In its April 2012 bargaining proposal, district administrators said successful professional learning communities can reduce a school’s dropout rate and absenteeism, increase learning and close achievement gaps between different ethnic and socioeconomic student groups.

Alameda Education Association president Gray Harris said the union’s rejection of the district’s pay offer last week wasn’t a value judgment on professional learning communities. Harris said teachers haven’t had a raise since 2008, and she expressed frustration that district leaders are tying some pay to “an additional piece of work.”

“It’s not about whether or not we value PLCs. For us it’s about, we’ve been through this long process with the district since 2009, agreeing every step of the way that we deserve a salary increase,” Harris said.

The district’s April 2012 proposal sought to establish time at each school for collaborative efforts, though it did not establish how much time teachers would spend on those efforts or when they would meet. At one school cited in DuFour’s article in Educational Leadership magazine, teacher teams met and worked together for 90 minutes a day.

“The rise or fall of the professional learning community concept depends not on the merits of the concept itself, but on the most important element in the improvement of any school – the commitment and persistence of the educators within it,” he wrote.