A Book about Achievement Driven PLC’s

Making Teamwork Meaningful: Leading Progress-Driven Collaboration in a PLC at Work
by William M. Ferriter, Parry Graham, and Matt Wight
(Solution Tree, 2012 – Learn more)

elisa-waingortReviewed by Elisa Waingort

When I was browsing the list of books available for review on the MiddleWeb site, I naturally gravitated towards Making Teamwork Meaningful by William M. Ferriter, Parry Graham, and Matt Wight. The concept and implementation of teacher professional groups is a topic near and dear to my heart. I am particularly interested in the relationship among collaboration, collegiality and teacher autonomy. In fact, this was the focus of my doctoral research proposal.

So I read this book with lots of prior knowledge and some biases, all rolled into one, and predictably I had mixed reactions to what I read. (It is also important to note that I am not currently teaching in the United States but at an American International School in South America. I do not have to contend with the kinds of high-stakes accountability pressures that the authors and other educators are experiencing at their school sites. As an outsider, so to speak, I nevertheless offer this review with insider knowledge.)

The audience for this book is primarily school-based administrators and teacher leaders trying to improve the work of the PLC’s in their schools. While I found some parts of this book compelling, particularly the reproducibles section at the end of each of the five chapters in the book, I also found some chapters, such as the one on assessment, objectionable on the basis of the tools that were suggested as helpful for getting a “quick” read on students’ abilities and levels at the beginning of the year. Quick isn’t always appropriate.

The pursuit of “achievement”

makingteamworkmeaningful-225As the subtitle states, Making Teamwork Meaningful is about “leading progress-driven collaboration in a PLC at work.” In other words, it is about leadership that is focused on improvements. No argument here. We all want to improve. Yet the unwavering attention to “student achievement” does not leave room for other ways to arrive at improving schools and classrooms, in my opinion.

PLC’s, as conceived by DuFour et al., are characterized by an emphasis on “learning” to the exclusion of “teaching.” It is very difficult to separate the two since both students and teachers learn and teach at the same time. By separating out the two concepts, we are creating a dichotomy that raises more problems than it solves. Furthermore, the focus on achievement necessarily means that we need to focus on standardized testing since this is the current wave that is sweeping schools in the US and elsewhere.

No matter what language we use to talk about this, we end up in the same place: teachers need to teach to the tests because that is how student achievement (learning?) is now being measured and how teachers are being evaluated. To do otherwise amounts to professional suicide. Classroom-based assessments and teacher professional expertise and knowledge don’t count anymore. See Ferriter’s own post about this issue in this May 2013 reflection at his blog The Tempered Radical.

Valuable elements of the book

Despite my general disagreement with some of the premises of this book, I found valuable parts that teacher leaders and administrators could use in the never-ending quest to improve schools. Chapter 1, “Getting the Right People in the Right Places,” reminded me of an emergent conversation at my previous school. How do we get the right people in the right roles? Although this is critical, in practice it may sometimes result in teachers who are not respected by the majority of the faculty being appointed to leadership positions . It seems that what often becomes important are teachers’ “qualifications” only, rather than their ability to work with people and to develop trusting relationships. This is something that the authors warn against.

The constant focus on the group to the detriment of individual teacher learning and improvement leaves a sour taste in my mouth. There needs to be a balance between creating professional groups that work well together to accomplish their goals, and individual teacher learning that is sensitive to the needs of teachers themselves. As the authors themselves note, “progress in complex organizations is dependent to a large degree on the professional happiness of employees” (p.16). The blurring of the individual in favor of improved test scores (the success of PLC’s is always couched in terms of that which can be measured) isn’t a good thing. As someone famous once said, “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot be necessarily be counted”, or measured.

Chapter 2, “Incorporating Singletons and Noninstructional Staff,” has some good suggestions for how to deal with teachers who are the only ones teaching their subject or grade, or teachers who do not teach a core subject. There are good examples for how to think outside the box in terms of grouping faculty in a school, including creating online collaborations.

Chapter 3, “Aligning a Master Schedule with PLC Priorities,” outlines a variety of ways that administrators and teacher leaders can work with the school schedule so that teachers can meet in their PLC groups. The authors acknowledge that schedules are a red herring in schools (although they may not use this exact term). Everyone wants a piece of the schedule. Therefore, it’s important to go through a series of reflective exercises (see the reproducibles at the end of this chapter) to help the school staff set priorities and stick with them when designing the school schedule.

Homogenized assessment

I found that Chapter 4, Building an Intervention System, tried to address too many areas and to provide too many quick fixes. One example: promoting DIBELS as a good test to measure early literacy skills. Why this is not so would require several pages to explain. Suffice it to say that testing children on nonsense words to determine a literacy level or whether additional services are required is anti-pedagogical. Furthermore, the focus on quick online assessments despite the authors’ warning that there should be multiple and varied assessments used throughout the year was contradictory.

Finally, common assessments are supposed to level the playing field and help teachers identify which students in which classes are learning or not learning. In fact, common assessments have the effect of homogenizing teaching in an attempt to create a level playing field. While this is laudable it disrespects the uniqueness of each classroom and teacher; no two classes are the same and neither are their teachers. To rely on common assessments to reveal critical data that can move a PLC forward to improve student achievement isn’t sensible. A much more useful approach may be to adopt a model such as Japanese Lesson Study. In this model, a group of teachers designs a lesson and someone teaches it while the rest of the group observes. Later the group gathers to critique the lesson with the goal of improving for the future.

Helpful ideas to build collaboration

Chapter 5, Improving Collaborative Capacity, is probably the most useful for teachers trying to maximize their PLC work. Sometimes we forget that just putting teachers together in a group doesn’t mean that they will be able to collaborate and extend their learning. There were some helpful sections regarding the skills needed to run an efficient and effective PLC meeting, such as ‘Helping Teams Master Personal Dynamics’ and ‘Helping Teams Master Sophisticated Collaborative Tasks.’ I also appreciated the authors’ advice to administrators about the importance of taking small steps towards improving PLC’s by evaluating where each PLC is currently in their work.

Great tools for learning communities

It bears repeating that the reproducibles at the end of each chapter offer great opportunities for teachers and administrators to determine what’s important to their particular school. We often leave out this step when working together, and this causes problems later on. If nothing else, these exercises have the potential for revealing inconsistencies and conflicts in staff viewpoints on matters critical to the functioning of PLC’s. Thank you to the authors of Making Teamwork Meaningful for providing such carefully thought out tools that school staffs could use right away to improve the work of their PLC’s.

Elisa Waingort has been teaching in bilingual settings for more than 25 years in public and international schools in North and South America. She is currently teaching ESL to fourth through eighth grade students at Academia Cotopaxi, an American International School in Quito, Ecuador. Elisa blogs at A Teacher’s Ruminations and at the Cooperative Catalyst. She is also a member of the Elementary Section Steering Committee of the National Council of Teachers of English and serves on NCTE’s Executive Committee. She’s also uncovering Twitter’s power @elisaw5.

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3 Responses

  1. Parry Graham says:

    Elisa,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read and review MTM. Bill, Matt, and I worked hard to try to provide a resource that would be valuable for practicing educators, and I am particularly happy that you found materials in the book that appeared to be of practical value.

    One of the things you mention prominently in your review is your concern about the focus on standardized testing in public education, and the ways in which that focus can draw time, attention, energy, and (dare I say it) joy from the teaching/learning experience. I couldn’t agree more, and I know that Bill and Matt share that sentiment. In a number of places in MTM, we try to very prominently point out some of our concerns with standardized testing and the disproportionate way in which it can drive educational decision-making.

    At the same time, our book is intended to be a practical support for practicing administrators and teachers. For better or for worse, we work in an environment in which standardized testing is a fact of life. To produce a book that ignored that reality would, in my opinion, make our book less readable, relevant, and practical. We tried to thread a needle in which we acknowledged the realities of the current educational environment, while still talking about the attitudes, practices, and structures that we believe can truly lead to improved teaching and learning. It sounds as though you think we missed the mark in that attempt, and I respect your opinion.

    One area in which it sounds as though we may disagree is around the collection and use of quantitative evidence of student learning in general. As a previous elementary school assistant principal, previous middle school principal, and current high school principal, I relied and rely heavily on all types of evidence of student learning to help me in making strategic decisions. You make the point that much of what we want students to learn—much of what we are trying to accomplish as educators—is not simply measurable, and that the act of trying to reduce the complexly immeasurable to the simply countable undermines the whole process: we end up with multiple-choice, basic-skills teaching in an open-response world. I absolutely agree, and have made this point myself throughout my career. I want the teachers in my buildings to teach complex skills in complex ways. But we still need tangible evidence of student learning to drive our curricular and instructional decision-making, and school leaders need evidence that is interpretable and actionable. Matt, Bill, and I do not see the use of quantitative assessment tools as antithetical to rich, complex learning experiences, but rather as examples of necessary pieces in leading complex organizations.

    I also found myself disagreeing with your statement that common assessments disrespect the uniqueness of each classroom and teacher. I have had the opportunity to conduct observations in probably thousands of classrooms, and I can attest to the truth of your statement that no two classes are the same and no two teachers are the same. But effective classrooms and effective teachers share common traits and characteristics: an environment of caring, a focus on individualized feedback, learning tasks that are gauged to meet students at appropriate instructional levels, high degrees of organization, a set of high expectations, etc. Effective common assessments represent teachers’ collective definitions of what skills and knowledge are truly valuable, and how those skills and knowledge can be accurately demonstrated. We would never advocate the exclusive use of common assessments—all three of us strongly believe that teachers should express their unique personalities and philosophies through their classroom practices—but we do believe that the use of common assessments can improve overall educational practice, especially when we consider the organizational reality that students from different classrooms must nevertheless focus on similar curricula. No two teachers are the same, but we believe that effective teachers coming together to make collaborative decisions around assessment can learn from each other, and ultimately make decisions that reflect their collective, rather than simply individual, intelligence.

    I don’t mean to get too contrary in this comment – I truly do appreciate and respect the time you took to read and review our book. I guess having a book is a little bit like having a child: anytime someone says something negative about your child, the first reaction is to defend. While I think we do philosophically disagree on some points, it is clear you bring the same level of passion about education that Bill, Matt, and I possess, and that passion may be the most critical ingredient of all in our work with children.

    Thanks again!

    Parry

  2. Dear Parry,
    Thank you for your very thoughtful comments. I too appreciate the time you took to respond to my review of your book. This was a challenging review for me to write as I know the work of Bill Ferriter and follow his blog religiously. I find that he writes with candor about being a classroom teacher and I often appreciate his point of view. To disagree publicly with someone much better known than I am was something I thought about very carefully. Through reading this book, I have also gotten to know you and Matt as well, so to speak, and I can tell that your commitment to teacher and school improvement goes just as deep.

    Although standardized tests are not new to schools, the “high stakes” nature of today’s tests makes them especially pernicious. They are now used to determine teacher rankings, contract renewals or terminations, and student future grade placement. External testing has gotten out of hand and, as educators, we have the responsibility to speak out against it. In my opinion, this is what accountability to our students and the communities we teach is all about.

    I understand that your book wouldn’t have been as accessible to administrators and teachers if you hadn’t acknowledged the entrenched role standardized testing plays in today’s classrooms. However, my responsibility as a reviewer is to point this out lest we gloss over one of the evils plaguing contemporary public school education.

    Assessment is a huge topic that has become a never ending debate in educational and non-educational circles. While I respect your point of view regarding quantitative assessments – as a teacher I have to administer these tests as well – I don’t think we need them in order to assess how our students are doing. As a teacher, I find that more often than not these tests tell me what I already know. The wide scale use of quantitative data in schools is usually not helpful, in my opinion. More selective use of such tests and data might be something I could rally around, if push came to shove.

    I know I am not an administrator and these quick assessments are easier for administrators to look at given time constraints, but they don’t do justice to the vast learning and teaching that goes on in classrooms every day.

    Perhaps our disagreement on the issue of common assessments is the result of having experienced a one-size-fits-all approach to just about every promising educational innovation that has come along. Common assessments, in my experience, have become another pencil and paper test. Teachers sometimes don’t know what purpose they serve and the lack of teacher ownership often creates a distance that brands these assessments no longer useful to teachers. Perhaps the three of you work in institutions where this is not so, but my experience in three countries and 8 schools tells me otherwise.

    I appreciate the opportunity to dialogue. If you wish, I’d be happy to continue this conversation further.

  3. Parry Graham says:

    Elisa,

    Great points. I too struggle with the impact that standardized testing has on public education, especially the ways in which a somewhat-arbitrary score on a two-hour, multiple-choice assessment becomes the basis for teacher evaluations, school evaluations, resource allocations, curriculum decisions, etc., all predicated on the dubious assumption that this test score provides accurate, valid, and reliable insight into the true academic progress of a student. In other words, that a single number can somehow accurately represent the sum knowledge and skills learned in hundreds of instructional contact hours, and that repeated use of this number represents a responsible path toward making effective educational decisions.

    Parry

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