What Trumps Learning

Virtually no one disagrees with the proposition that having all students learn at high levels is a worthy mission. It is rare to hear someone say, "Well, I’m just not sure about that  'learning’ mission." One of the easiest aspects of reculturing a school to function as professional learning community is achieving a general consensus regarding a "high level of learning for all" mission. It’s only afterward that problems arise. {C}All too often schools adopt a mission of ensuring high levels of learning for all students, yet engage in practices that are counterproductive to improving learning.

This disconnect between what we say we believe and what we are often willing to do is analogous to card games in which a particular card or suit of cards will "trump" other cards. This is an interesting idea to put into the form of an activity for small groups of faculty. Ask this question: "We have adopted the mission of ensuring high levels of learning for all students as our fundamental purpose. So, here is an important question: what would ’trump’ learning in our school or school district?"

What Trumps Learning: A Few Examples

Obviously, every school and school district is different, each with its own distinct culture. However, there are common themes regarding those things that "trump" the "learning card" in schools. For example, if schools are going to embed common planning time for collaborative teams to meet during the school day and if a school is going to develop a plan to ensure that students receive additional time and support within the school day regardless of the teacher they are assigned, the school schedule will more than likely need to be changed. Changing a school schedule is difficult because it brings directly to the forefront the issue, "What is the purpose of the schedule in the first place?" Is it to assist the staff in attaining our learning goals or is to ensure the happiness of the adults? It seems that in some schools the fundamental mission is, in fact, to ensure the happiness of the adults who work there. Often, ensuring the  happiness of a few "trumps" learning.

Another example is the issue of individual autonomy versus collaborative decision-making and collective responsibility. This conflict frequently rears its head with issues such as whether or not teachers serve as contributing members of a collaborative team- assisting with clarifying standards, developing common formative assessments and participating in collaborative analysis of student work- all of which have been shown to be highly effective strategies for improving student learning, or will they be left alone to work in isolation?  All too often individual autonomy "trumps" learning, in spite of the fact there is not a shred of evidence that students learn more when teachers work in isolation.

Frequently, policies or practices will "trump" learning. Perhaps, there is a policy that doesn’t allow students to do make-up work if they miss school with an unexcused absence or a policy that limits those who can take Advanced Placement classes to a certain percent of their class. In a professional learning community, all decisions and practices should be reviewed through the lens of the learning mission and address the question, "What is the probable impact of this decision or practice on our goal to improve the learning levels of all students?"

Two Questions

In the White River School District in Buckley, Washington, the issue of making sure the learning mission is, in fact, embedded into the district culture is addressed by frequently asking two critical questions: "Regarding our mission to ensure high levels of learning for all students, what would  this particular policy, activity, initiative, or decision look like if we really meant it?" What if we really meant that ensuring high levels of learning was our fundamental mission-the core of what this school or district is about?  The second question is equally powerful: "Is what we are doing good enough for my own child?" When we filter questions through the context of our own children, very few things "trump" learning. So, think about, or better yet, engage in collaborative discussions, about this question: "What trumps learning in your classroom, school or school district?"


Janet Malone

In recent years, I have had several opportunities to work with districts who were moving towards implementation of PLC concepts throughout their systems, including all staff, all schools, and all departments. In working with those who were not in certificated positions, we focused on the same 3 BIG Ideas: Learning for All, Collaborative Teams, and Focus on Results. The expectations for non-certificated staff and departments were very similar to those for teachers and principals:

1. Learning for All: Each department discussed and identified the specific ways that their services focus on and support student learning. In turn, they also identified "interventions" that their services could increase and/or implement to better serve student learning. Lastly, they identified adult learning needs in their departments and ways to meet those needs that would increase their departmental capacity to better support student learning.

2. Collaborative Teams: All departments learned about the differences between collaboration and cooperation. They also learned about strategies and tools for productive team meetings. Teams of staff members . . . janitors, secretaries, food service workers, etc. ... were formed and began to meet regularly. Each team was expected to set SMART goals, establish regular meeting times within the work day/year, identify and create products of their work, and report progress regularly.

3. Focus on Results: Departments identified measurable outcomes linked to the services they provide to students, schools, and the community. Data sources were identified and expanded to provide data for dialogue, monitoring of progress, and continuous improvement. These data linked to and supported the SMART goals set by teams within each department.

Lastly, the districts that I worked with found it helpful to compare their PLC work to the concepts that Jim Collins writes about in Good to Great. It seemed to help everyone better understand the similarities between the school setting and the non-school settings within the the larger organization.

Janet Malone, Professional Learning Communities at Work(TM) Associate

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It seems to me that most of the time, support staff (admin assistants, custodians, food service) are left out of school improvement goals. I am very excited about being a PLC here at ConVal. Has someone adapted the strategies for support staff? I am beginning to move forward with these groups, but would love some feedback from someone who has been there!

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At Woodlawn Middle School in Long Grove, Illinois teachers struggled with the make up issue, too. After much discussion we recognized that if we wanted kids to learn, and if we believed the work we give them is worthwhile, we needed to create a system that encouraged students to complete their work but that created a systematic process for students who wouldn't or couldn't. Some students don't do their work because they can't. It's too hard, they don't have the time they need, or their family responsibilities after school prevent them from doing homework. Other students won't do the work. Giving kids zeroes for assignments they didn't complete wasn't an effective way to get them to do their work. Now, teachers have a series of support systems in place: a ZAP (Zeroes Aren't Permitted) program at lunch has students go to a lunchtime resource center where they are required to complete homework THAT DAY, an "academic extensions" program two times a week where students can get extra help and teachers can REQUIRE students to make up their work, team study hall each day after school where one team member stays with students for help, and an intensive student hall for the most needy students where the guidance counselor works with students on specific assignments. Instead of "enabling" students, teachers do whatever it takes to make sure students recognize that they (teachers) value learning, that they will support students who are experiencing difficulty, and that they won't give up on anybody.

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Not allowing students to make-up work due to an unexcused absence is a fine policy. Truancy rates are directly related to crime and vandalism. Being an enabler should never be the policy of a teacher or school.

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