A Book about Achievement Driven PLC’s
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”
As 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.
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.