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Professional learning communities at work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement

DuFour and Eaker outline a plan for raise student achievement through professional learning communities with the potential to redefine school improvement.

Richard DuFour and Robert Eaker
1998 (338 pp./paperback)
National Educational Service
ISBN: 1-879639-60-2

Reviewed by Bill Ferriter
Dillard Drive Middle School
Raleigh, North Carolina

In Professional Learning Communities at Work, Richard DuFour and Robert Eaker, who between them have worked in the school systems of over 40 states, examine and attempt to define the characteristics of school environments that hold the most potential for enhancing student achievement. Laced with research and based on practical experience, Professional Learning Communities at Work holds the potential to redefine the school improvement movement.

DuFour and Eaker begin their text by examining the failed reform movements of the past two decades and the impact that repeated failures have had on our public school system. Teachers are weary and discouraged, frustrated by the lack of tangible evidence that concentrated efforts are bringing results. This frustration has caused "besieged educators to respond to the constant criticism of their schools with growing defensiveness and resignation."

While this reaction from educators is "understandable," the authors contend that until leaders at the school level accept responsibility for developing the types of communities that ensure student achievement, change will never come. They write, "If teachers and principals believe that the impetus for student learning remains outside of their influence and that there is nothing they can do to overcome these external variables, the idea of school improvement will undoubtedly seem futile, if not downright ridiculous!"

DuFour and Eaker then move on to introduce the concept of professional learning communities, defined as a group of connected, highly qualified and engaged educators passionately driven by change and "ongoing action." Professional learning communities actively seek to involve parents and students in significant ways. Cultivating professional learning communities holds the greatest potential for improving schools from within.

Professional Learning Communities examines the key components of successful schools. First, the foundation of such communities must be built at the school level by developing "mission, vision, values and goals." Unlike traditional mission, vision values and goal statements (typically given short shrift by faculties), DuFour and Eaker advocate for specific answers to the collective question, "What is our purpose?" Schools are then encouraged to develop a shared vision by answering the question, "What do we hope to become?"

After determining a mission and vision, schools must establish value statements. "Value statements articulate the attitudes, behaviors, and commitments that each group [administrators, teachers, parents and students] is prepared to demonstrate to advance toward the shared vision." The final building block of professional learning communities are goals that "clarify the nature and timetable of the specific steps that will be takenŠto move the school toward its vision." Concise goal statements are critical, moving improvement efforts "from rhetoric to action."

Once developed, the mission, vision, values and goals serve to drive every action within a school. Each set of statements provides a framework for decision-making and reflection. DuFour and Eaker maintain, "This clarity simplifies the decision-making process and empowers all members of the staff to act with greater confidence. Rather than constantly checking with their bosses for approval, employees can simply ask, 'Is this decision or action in line with the vision?' and then act on their own."

The remainder of Professional Learning Communities at Work outlines the role of principals and teachers in successful school communities. Principals must practice a "loose-tight" leadership style where they are prepared to give teachers autonomy over key decision-making while insisting that all are unwavering in their efforts to work towards the school's vision and goals. Teachers must become "practicing" professionals, prepared to adopt an attitude of collective exploration and experimentation. School faculties must commit to "perpetual curiosity" about teaching and learning, constantly seeking ways to reach every student.

If the public school system is to succeed in meeting the challenge of leaving no child behind, our improvement efforts must be refocused. Fundamental changes must be made at the school level, empowering those who are closest to the client. Along with empowerment, however, comes responsibility. No longer can educators be satisfied with being, as Richard Elmore puts it, "People to whom things happen." Teachers and principals must accept accountability for the success of their students, confident and committed to the idea that all children are capable of learning.

Professional Learning Communities at Work is a title that will help educators to become people who make things happen! Providing targeted advice, easy-to-use tools, and descriptions of reflective, evolving schools, DuFour and Eaker have outlined an approachable plan to school improvement and student achievement that proactive leaders should embrace!