RALEIGH — Parents hit the roof in 2009 when the Wake County schools announced a weekly early release for students. The plan was called "Wake Wednesdays," but critics quickly dubbed it "Wacky Wednesdays."
Months later, newly elected school board members dumped the Wednesday early dismissal. Amid the outrage, the reason behind the early release - teacher teamwork - went largely unnoticed.
But it appears that regular teacher collaboration works, according to a recent study that found the district's emphasis on Professional Learning Teams coincided with better student achievement. The teams, commonly called PLTs, are meant to bring teachers out of their isolated classrooms to work together and share expertise aimed at lifting students' performance.
Wake Wednesdays ended, but not the weekly team meetings at elementary, middle and high schools across the county. Most Wake teachers still fit in at least an hour a week during planning periods, lunchtime and other breaks in the day.
"It's creating very profound change," said Andrew Jackl, a Wake County schools evaluation specialist who studied the learning teams for six months. "This is a fundamental change in the way teachers teach and the way students learn."
In a six-month study, Jackl analyzed teacher surveys, district data and in-depth case studies of 10 high-performing teams in Wake. Among 155 county schools, Jackl found that schools with effective teams showed improved student performance on state tests. Schools with effective teams also had better student attendance and a smaller percentage of students below grade level.
The teams are now seen as a way to help solve the persistent achievement gap between white and minority students, says Donna Hargens, chief academic officer for the system. At a summit last year that focused on reducing the gap, 12 schools with positive results cited the learning teams as a key ingredient.
"I really consider this to be a change in the culture of the system," said Hargens, who recently served as interim superintendent in Wake.
Idea formed in 1960s
Alternately called Professional Learning Communities and Professional Learning Teams, the idea was first suggested by education experts in the 1960s. Research on the positive effects of collaborative teaching environments grew in the 1990s. Schools across the nation began to adopt the approach, and Triangle school districts have joined forces to train teachers in the method.
It may seem like common sense: when teachers work together, they can get better results.
But it represents a shift from the traditional model of one teacher alone in a classroom with 25 children, sometimes excelling, sometimes struggling to find what works.
Five kindergarten teachers at Yates Mill Elementary School in Raleigh can't imagine going it alone. They have formed a tight bond in two years as the school's kindergarten learning team.
The five women go well beyond the one hour a week specified for all staff in Wake's 2009 policy.
They gather for morning planning sessions. They meet sometimes after school. They visit each other's classrooms, and they chat in the hallway. They aren't teaching the same students, but they do share ideas about how to teach them.
"We're very interwoven," said Paige King, as the team gathered recently in the school's media center. "We know each other's kids and their names."
The team's day-to-day work revolves around three questions:
What content should students learn?
Do we have the assessments to find out what students know?
What do we need to do differently to make sure they learn it? Or if they've learned it, what can we do to enrich their knowledge?
The teachers keep big binder notebooks filled with detailed information about their students. They chart students to see who's getting the concepts and who's not. If one teacher's students excel at a certain skill, then it's a good bet that teacher excels in instructing it. Everyone in the team can then try it.
"We beg, borrow and steal from each other," said teacher Amy Pilz. "That's why we work so well together."
Someone will call a 10-minute meeting while the students are in art or music class. "We text each other - who's picking up Starbucks?" said Tina Bardossas.
The recent college graduate among them is a whiz at technology. Another has a creative bent. Others think analytically about solutions.
One member of the team - no one really remembers who - had the idea to hang the students' work and take the children from room to room for "ooh and aah walks." It has become a routine activity in the group. The teachers can look at the work of other students; the students learn to praise each other.
Yates Mill Principal Lynn Williams said the learning teams are part of a growing trend of data-driven decisions in the classroom - tailoring instruction based on constant assessment and review.
"We've built the climate so this is an expectation," Williams said.
Teaching can be lonely, and new teachers often get discouraged and leave the profession. But there's no reason teachers should work in isolation, Hargens said.
"Virtually every classroom has this different array of needs, and it's foolhardy to think - even if you're an experienced teacher - that you, by yourself, have the time or the energy or the expertise to figure everything out for all the different kids," she said.
Done right, the learning team also builds a shared commitment to help all students in a school.
"The old way was, 'I want my kids to be successful. I'm not really concerned about your kids,'" Hargens said. "Now all of a sudden, 'They're our kids. It is in my best interest to help you and for you to help me.'"
In high schools, teams are usually organized by content area, such as math, English or history. The teachers may not have the same cluster of students, but they can usually spot problems.
Sometimes teachers trade students to try new techniques. Because the teams meet weekly, they can shift course quickly if they see students falter.
At Panther Creek High in Cary, the teams work during lunch hour. All students and faculty have the same lunch period, and on rotating days teachers convene team meetings or offer tutorials for students who need extra help. All administrative staff are expected to help supervise students at lunch to free up teachers.
Tammy Pressley, president of Panther Creek's Parent Teacher Student Association, likes the idea of the kids gaining from the collective knowledge of a group of teachers.
"I think it's good for teachers to get other educators' ideas," said Pressley, whose daughter is a sophomore.
The most effective teams depend on an atmosphere of trust, Jackl said, because teachers' performance is on the table for everyone to see. The data from the learning team is not used for evaluation of teachers, which helps alleviate fear.
Teacher surveys indicate that new teachers and veterans tend to like the method more than midcareer teachers. Young teachers gain support and old-timers get a kick out of passing along years of accumulated wisdom.
"Veterans had vast file cabinets filled with things they could share with the rookies," Jackl said.
Jackl studied three years of data. He said student performance should improve as the team concept becomes embedded in everyday practice.
"The better teachers get at collaborating, the more students will learn," he said.
Pilz, the kindergarten teacher, recently issued a challenge to a student in one of her colleagues' classrooms. It didn't matter that the girl was not technically her student.
Pilz and her four colleagues are only interested in what works - for all the kindergartners at Yates Mill.
"It's five brains working together rather than one."
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