Point of View

Plan on better teaching

March 30, 2009 

— It's counter-intuitive but true: When teachers spend less time in the classroom, students seem to do better.

So says a new study by Stanford University researcher Linda Darling-Hammond (reported in Education Week, Feb. 4). Even though U.S. teachers spend more working hours in front of students than many of their counterparts in Europe and Asia, our kids' scores on recent international exams were mediocre. Students in some European and Asian countries scored higher on these tests even though their teachers are in the classrooms only 60 percent of their workday. American teachers average 80 percent of their day in class. While Asian and European teachers are spending 40 percent of their day learning, planning and studying, our teachers spend half as long on those professional functions.

Should a school schedule tie the hands of our teachers as they try to compete with the rest of the world? Not when we're graduating only 79 percent of 18 year-olds in the Wake County Public School System!

Teacher collaboration is so closely linked to better student performance in the research literature that High Five has asked our five Triangle school districts to make Professional Learning Communities the focus of their improvement plans. New State Board of Education evaluation instruments for both teachers and principals also call for work in teams rather than in isolation.

The key element of this strategy is the common planning period, where teachers in the same grade, subject or interdisciplinary team meet often to share “best practices” and knowledge, develop common teacher-made tests, share their students' results and design extra support to keep students from falling behind. Guided by a rigorous set of professional standards for such collaborative work, teachers and administrators can assure the public that the time is used effectively for student achievement.

Because teachers need to have this time during the school day, the Wake school system has proposed to release students one hour early one day a week. The school board plans to vote on this proposal March 31.

Wake is doing the right thing by requesting this change. To better enable Professional Learning Communities, we have encouraged all five school districts to look carefully at changing bell schedules to give teachers as much collaborative time as possible. (Wake has spent almost two years researching the possibilities.) We're so confident that such systemic change can dramatically improve student performance that we've challenged the districts to graduate 100 percent of their students by 2013.

As the school board considers this change, we all must recognize that, while change is hard, our competitive edge rests on our capacity and willingness to adapt. If one early dismissal a week helps improve the effectiveness of every teacher in your child's school, what a small price to pay, and what a great return. When all our teachers are enabled to teach better, all our children achieve more.

Teachers will be able to monitor students more carefully so that students who aren't doing well can be identified and given in-school remedial help before they fall too far behind. Conversely, students who are performing at a very high level can be challenged with more appropriate work. Keeping tabs on these two groups is crucial, because research shows that quickly preventing students from failing or getting bored increases the odds they'll graduate.

Students and schools also benefit from the improved teacher morale and lower teacher attrition rates that Professional Learning Communities naturally encourage. Like the military and much of the corporate world, schools are recognizing that a system that enables collaboration is more mission-effective than one that creates barriers and isolation.

Are Professional Learning Communities working? Of the 7,800 Wake County teachers who responded to our annual survey last fall, 92 percent said that PLCs can create a more supportive teaching environment. And 79 percent said they are better teachers because of their participation in a PLC.

To make these benefits sustainable, teachers need common planning. But Wake's school schedule doesn't have room for it. Of our five school districts participating in PLCs, Wake is the last one to tackle this issue. Isn't it time for the Wake schools to join Johnston, Durham, Orange and Chapel Hill-Carrboro in making this commitment to teachers and students?

The time we give our teachers will pay dividends for our children — and our country.

Vann Langston is executive director of the Triangle High Five Partnership for High School Excellence. Orage Quarles III, The N&O's publisher, is a board member of the group.

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