Decreasing Despondency by Increasing Decision-Making
Collective Inquiry and Action Research in the Priority School
Most of the schools I have the privilege to work with are identified as "Priority" or low-performing schools. Sadly, one of the things I often encounter with the teachers and administrators I meet is an increasing sense of despondency. It’s not that they don’t care deeply about their students and want to do what’s best for them; they do! It’s just that there still seems to be an underlying current of doubt that things will ever actually change, or that they have the ability to impact that change. I understand where they are coming from. In 2009 I was the principal at the ninth lowest performing school in my state and asked to take my staff through the turnaround model of school reform. It’s a challenging and often frustrating place to be.
So, why this sense of despondency? Let’s start by looking at what we know about self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is defined as a person’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives (Bandura, 1994). To most educators, this is not a new concept. We have been focused on nurturing and supporting self-efficacy and a growth mindset in our students for many years. However, the question begs to be asked: within our current system of public education, are we offering this same support to educators?
Let’s look at some of the trends educators in low-performing schools are faced with as they try to improve student achievement. For one, onerous labels are placed on these schools year after year. Labels like “In Need of Improvement,” “Restructuring,” “Low-Performing,” or worse yet “Failing.” Then adding insult to injury, these labels are then published in the local newspaper! Another trend is mandating an onslaught of programs and curriculums that claim to be the silver bullet to improve achievement. Yet when these initiatives fail to produce the expected results, we don’t inquire as to why they failed. Instead, it is often the teachers or administrator we blame. This has led to lengthy teacher evaluations that take hours of the administrator’s time yet produces very little impact on student achievement (John Hattie, 2009). I think you see where I’m going.
However, in the end, one of the most disturbing trends I’ve witnessed is educators in these schools increasingly being removed from the collective inquiry and decision-making processes that go into deciding the best actions needed to help their students achieve. Instead of putting the educators in charge of researching and deciding what initiatives and structural changes need to be implemented, there is an array of curriculums, programs, and initiatives mandated (sometimes four or five at a time) that come from decision-makers and policy makers completely removed from the educators, their schools, and the populations they serve.
Research reminds us that when any group of individuals (including educators) lose the ability to define and solve the problems they face, they also lose the drive, motivation, and sense of self-efficacy that keeps them moving forward toward their goals (Margolis and McCabe, 2006; Daniel Pink, 2009). In fact, study after study finds that when members of an organization or group are actively involved in the decision-making process and action plans to meet their stated goals, the overall outcomes increase significantly (Lines, 2004; Rosskam, 2009; Neilsen & Randall, 2012). This research also helps illustrate that when we do not include educators in the decision-making process, we are more likely to fail.
This is why now more than ever, we need the Professional Learning Communities at WorkTM (PLC) process of school reform. The very foundation of this work is based on the principle that only through collective inquiry and action research originating in the collaborative teams in the school house, can we ever increase learning for ALL students (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, Many and Mattos, 2016). The PLC process is not a program, or curriculum, and definitely not a meeting. It is a vibrant culture. A collection of teaching professionals that have a deep, shared belief that all students in their school have the potential to achieve at high levels. They understand that they need each other to define the path toward this goal and meet it collectively with shared responsibility. And they understand the importance of looking at results to clearly understand if they are on the path to meeting their collective goals. They are actively involved and empowered to do what’s best for their students.
The success of the PLC process to increase student achievement is documented and researched. There is little doubt in educational circles that implementing the tenets of professional learning communities produces results in student achievement. Having made significant gains in student and adult learning in my own school through implementing the PLC process, I can attest to the transformative power. Yet, the only way you can truly know the liberation and empowerment of functioning as a professional learning community is to step into it and take action.
If you are one of those educators who is feeling despondent about changing the circumstances of your school or classroom, consider taking the first step. Start today by looking at some of the articles, Inspirational Stories, and evidence of effectiveness from schools and districts on this site. I promise, it will be a powerful journey you will cherish and prize...and so will the students, parents, and communities you serve.
Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71-81). New York: Academic Press. (Reprinted in H. Friedman [Ed.], Encyclopedia of mental health. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998).
DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., Many, T., & Mattos, M. (2016). Learning By Doing, Third Edition: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work™. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning. London: Routledge.
Lines, R. (2004). Influence of participation in strategy change: Resistance, organizational commitment and change goal achievement. Journal of Change Management
Margolis, H., & McCabe, P. P. (2006). Improving self-efficacy and motivation: What to do, what to say. Intervention in School and Clinic, 41(4).
Nielsen, K. & Randall, R. (2012). The importance of employee participation and perceptions of changes in procedures in a teamworking intervention, Work & Stress, 26: 91–111.
Pink, Daniel (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY : Riverhead Books.
Rosskam, E. (2009). Using participatory action research methodology to improve worker health. In P. L. Schnall, M. Dobson, & E. Rosskam (Eds.), Critical approaches in the health social sciences series. Unhealthy work: Causes, consequences, cures (pp. 211-228). Amityville, NY: Baywood.