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"Professional community of teachers" makes a difference

STANFORD -- Arden and Beech high schools lie in the same large urban school district, have high minority enrollment and struggle with a diversity of student cultures, languages and academic attitudes.

At Arden High School, the drop-out rate is high, few students go on to college and many students get Ds and Fs.

At Beech High, 80 percent of graduates go to college, and test scores are at the top of the district in math, reading and writing.

The difference between the two schools is "the professional community of teachers," according to Stanford University education Prof. Milbrey McLaughlin.

"Like the weather, community is always there," she said. "Its character - collegial or isolating, risk-taking or rigidly invested in 'best practices', problem-solving or problem-hiding - plays a major role in how teachers see their work and their students, and why some teachers opt out, figuratively or literally, while many teachers persist and thrive even in exceedingly challenging teacher contexts."

McLaughlin is director of the federally funded Center for Research on the Context of Secondary Teaching. For the past four years, the center has collected information on how today's high school teachers see their jobs, their students, their schools and the conditions outside their classrooms that help or hinder their teaching success.

Teachers at the school center researchers called "Arden High" (all school names were changed to protect confidentiality) are "upset and embittered," McLaughlin said.

"We called it 'The Whiney School,' " said McLaughlin. "We found there a reversal of the Lake Woebegone Effect - many teachers feel all its students are below average."

Arden High teachers have seen their student body change dramatically over the past few years, and the demoralized faculty reminisces sadly about the "good" students of the past. There is no effective organizational support to help them jump the hurdle into the present.

Arden teachers see their classroom failures as the fault of the new" students, and they "defend their traditional practices in terms of professional principles and standards," McLaughlin said.

For example, she described one veteran mathematics teacher who "maintained 'standards' with a vengeance, regularly ejecting students from his classes." His talk "resounds with military metaphor - combat pay, front-line, 'kick butt,' line-of-fire - and reflects his general view of the classroom as a battlefield."

The teacher told center researchers: "Oh, man, you sit here and you think, how can anyone be this damn stupid. What [policymakers] have got to do is work on the kids. . . . The kid here is where the problem is today. There's nothing wrong with the curriculum. If I could just get people that wanted to learn, I would teach and everything would be wonderful."

At Arden, there is no school-level way to share information about students, teaching, curriculum or the school. Unless teachers assume individual initiative, they have no way of knowing what problems other teachers are encountering.

"Teachers' personal beliefs about the needs and abilities of their students, about 'best practice' or even 'feasible practice' largely go unchallenged and unexamined," McLaughlin said.

Beech High, on the other hand, is committed to the success of all its students, and the school finds ways that allow teachers to support each others' efforts as they learn and grow. The faculty is excited by its challenges and satisfied with the achievements of its students.

"Strong professional community enables teachers to examine, modify or change practices that have become dysfunctional - to respond to changing conditions and new challenges. Staff development, or 'in-service' conventionally conceived, does not provide that support," McLaughlin said.

"For example, an ambitious and well-run mentor teacher program designed to assist new teachers [in one school] fell short of planners' hopes precisely, I believe, because these new teachers had no consistent, up-close professional community to support their learning. Once a week at 2.30 p.m. didn't do it."

Startling differences frequently occurred even within particular schools, McLaughlin said. She cited one school where teachers "literally working across the hall from one another but in different departments" had a very different feel for their workplaces.

"Teachers working in the highly collegial Department One experience a workplace buzzing with daily conversations of joint projects, new materials to share and plans for next week, next year or tomorrow," she said.

"Teachers in Department Two interact only in mandated department meetings, where they generally sit in sullen silence through the chair's announcements and pronouncements. So noncollegial is this department, faculty members have been unable to craft within a year a . . . response to the new state frameworks."

In communities where collegiality was low, McLaughlin noted that teachers felt the "frustrations of isolation."

"Teachers expressed feelings of having to 'do it all themselves' with no help or support from colleagues," she said.

One discouraged social studies teacher, grappling with swift changes in classroom demographics, told a center researcher: "Here you have to do it over and over again, by yourself, and you do it every day, forever. Why did I go into teaching? I don't know; not smart, I guess."

Three approaches to changing students

McLaughlin and the researchers at the Stanford center found that teachers have three general responses to today's students - responses that had very different consequences on the students:

  • Maintain traditional standards. McLaughlin said that "non- traditional students failed in large numbers in this sort of classroom. And their teachers became cynical, frustrated and burned out."
  • Lower expectations for coverage and achievement. "Contemporary students and their teachers were bored in this kind of classroom - both were disengaged from the classroom conspiracy to 'dumb down,'" McLaughlin said. "Teachers adopting these responses located the 'problem' in the student."
  • Adapt practices. "Teachers who saw the problem for today's students to lie in the institution - its methods, assumptions and the approaches of the school setting - adapted their responses to today's students," McLaughlin said. These teachers tended to embrace changed practices, such as cooperative learning, "broadened views of subject matter goals" and peer learning.

"Students prospered in these classrooms, most especially students used to failing in traditional settings. But in many settings, teachers found they could not sustain this intense involvement with a class, and elected 'triage' - that is, selecting specific students to work with - or left teaching altogether."

Even the best teacher attitudes and responses have trouble enduring without a professional community to support, endorse and validate them, McLaughlin warned. "Every teacher we encountered who was engaged in the active, demanding form of pedagogy called 'teaching for understanding,' where students and teachers construct knowledge together, belonged to such a community," she said.

"Participation in a strong community can foster a moral sense of purpose - for example, views of serving all students" such as Beech High School espouses.

"A lot of our research has powerful implications for change," McLaughlin said. "We encountered many good teachers who couldn't imagine a school community that was not angry, apathetic and unmotivated.

"I feel confident that if they had exposure to other communities, where these attitudes didn't hold, these demoralized teachers, too, would have an opportunity for change."



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