Stay focused and on task until share-out at 3:00.
"Any questions about the norms? Is there anything we need to add?" Cyndi notices most shaking their heads "no" to her questions so she joins her study group for an hour of collaborative work. Kaiser teachers are organized into study groups to learn a new model of teaching and to collect and analyze data on the effects their new model has on student achievement in writing.
This time together for the Kaiser staff is very much a part of the school culture. There is a long history of collaboration at the school. In the mid-eighties they met regularly for peer coaching. Over the years the coaching evolved into a newer model of staff development where the teachers gather together weekly to analyze student work, interpret results, and modify instructional practice based on their findings. Judith Warren Little, University of California, Berkeley, once said, "If all we had ever done in staff development was bring teachers together for the collective, shared and consistent examination of student work, we would have done a great service to the field." Kaiser teachers agree.
Two or three teachers embarking on an action research project together where they study a teaching practice, gather data to analyze, and modify their instruction based on that data is a popular and effective form of staff development. A whole school working together in this fashion is even MORE effective---but decidedly more rare! And, it is not a job for the faint-hearted! Why should educators spend professional time together in study groups? There are three major reasons. Study groups help us implement curricular and instructional objectives, collaboratively plan school improvement, and study research on teaching and learning (Murphy, 1992).
All of us have had the experience of going to a workshop to learn a new instructional strategy or to learn about a new curricular area. Our intentions to apply our new learnings to the classroom are good. Very good! But something happens between the workshop and implementation. In a couple of months the workshop notebook is on the shelf and we are teaching the same way we always did. There is no implementation! Well, we are not alone. Research tells us that only about 10% of the teachers trained to use a new procedure actually use it in their classrooms (Joyce & Showers, 1981). Why? Implementation of a new teaching strategy is very difficult. We need to support one another. The going can get rough and we need help to get through it. And, to be honest, we need a little pressure as well. We need someone to say, "How did implementation go today?" or, "Are your writing pieces ready to be analyzed tomorrow?" Study groups provide a regular collaborative structure that enables teachers to assist one another in using the new strategy appropriately. They also provide the accountability it takes to get going. At Kaiser, student achievement in writing was not as good as it should be. The data analysis confirmed what the teachers had already noticed. A collective decision was made to focus their efforts on improving student performance. Several teachers researched the teaching of writing. What was out there that worked? They discovered that teaching writing through the concept formation and concept attainment models of teaching had the highest probability of paying off in terms of increased student achievement. They brought in Dr. Bruce Joyce, a well-known researcher in models of teaching and staff development, to teach them the models they needed. They formed study groups to support each other through implementation and to study the effect their learning had on the achievement of students.
Studying how to make the school better---the second reason to have study groups---involves changing the workplace so that students learn more effectively. Schools get better as the adults in the building begin to have a shared understanding of what constitutes teaching and learning. As collaboration develops, teachers are not only empowered to put new initiatives in place but to focus and integrate them. This is an important step. Competing demands must be screened out. Kaiser selects writing and sticks with writing until their objective for student achievement is met. And when talk of new district/state initiatives reach their ears, Kaiser teachers put in ear plugs. "Keep the focus on the focus" is the Kaiser mantra. All teachers make a commitment to study writing this year, even though that content area may not have been the first choice for some. They know their preferences will be brought up again next year for consideration. All staff development resources and study group time are put into the study of writing. The schoolwide goal is sharply focused. At one time, Kaiser had the larger goal of literacy. That was simply too broad for serious, in-depth study. They narrowed it. One powerful learning goal is enough if the staff is working diligently on it and looking carefully at student performance.
As Kaiser began to work together on first one initiative and then another, it became obvious that the third goal of study groups was kicking in. The study of teaching and learning is ongoing and continuous. The school is becoming a "center of inquiry." It is what Peter Senge describes as a learning organization. Emily Calhoun, another of Kaiser's consultants, says over and over again, "Teachers are scholars." Yes, Kaiser teachers see themselves that way. Connecting with the knowledge base of the profession, teaching each other the practice of teaching, gathering data and analyzing it, and using that data to inform what they do with kids is a "way of doing business" at this school.
Kaiser teachers learn a lot along the way. They know that changing what they do with kids can have a powerful effect on student achievement. They know that change is difficult and messy. They know Michael Fullen is right when he says, "Ready, fire, aim" in that order instead of in the usual one. They know they never miss a week of getting together to see where they are and where they are going. They know that time together must be devoted to the study of teaching and learning. The usual stuff of teachers' meetings---announcements and details---are put in a daily bulletin for them to read and initial and vow they will never forget! They know they are responsible for their own learning, for the learning of each other, and for the learning of their students. They know when they need technical assistance and they get it. They know that learning doesn't end. When achievement is up in writing they will select another area for study. They know they are in the driver's seat. They can be proactive in determining what their students need and what the teachers must learn to meet that need. They can say' no' to new initiatives that cannot successfully be integrated with the current one. They know that the most powerful learning for a school is organizational, not individual. Every staff member participates. Learning is not a choice for teachers or for kids. They know a staff must learn how to work together and that it isn't comfortable at first to plan and share lessons publicly. They know that school improvement is a responsibility they share equally. They know what hard work they do, and they wouldn't have it any other way!
Can the lessons learned by Kaiser teachers be transferred to other schools? Absolutely! Schools like Kaiser provide us with great hope for increased student achievement and for creating schools that are able to meet the demands of the new century; schools that can build their own capacity to deal with change. We know what works. What is next? We can expand the power of the collegial work through technology. Kaiser teachers showed us quite clearly that what the research says is true: teachers can teach each other complex new models of teaching if there is a collaborative school culture---one that has a level of collegiality that Judith Warren Little describes as "shared work." But, Kaiser also has the advantage of necessary technical assistance from a variety of consultants. This is not always possible for some schools. Technology can provide that piece. Information can be transmitted quickly and effectively by fax, by e-mail, and, most especially, through venues such as Teachers.net. It will allow small groups of teachers in remote areas to get the help they need for implementation of a new strategy they are learning. They can work together to learn and to implement, then bring problems and concerns on line to solve them interactively with colleagues and consultants. We cannot overlook the fact that increased student achievement is directly correlated with increased teacher competency. Increased teacher competency comes from the right kind of staff development. Through collaboration and technology good staff development is available for every teacher. Taking advantage of it is not an option!
Good staff development requires that schools strive to become self-renewing. It focuses on building a professional culture concurrently with changing curriculum and instruction. When that happens, people can move a great distance very quickly (Joyce, l998). The great part about it is the school controls this change. The teachers, principal and parents at any school are in the best position to know what needs to be done. And,they are the only ones who understand how to do it!
The Kaiser Elementary School teachers and principal, Daryle Palmer, continue on their journey to school improvement. They know that journey is without end; it will go on forever. The Kaiser staff, on occasion, allows Jan Fisher to travel with it. She is forever grateful for the lessons she has learned along the way. Kaiser's efforts were recognized in May,2000, when it was named a California Distinguished School.