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March 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 6

Transforming Practice in Urban Schools

Structured dialogue spurred educators at two underachieving schools to fuel their own professional growth.

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The need for better teaching in many urban schools is evident in the persistently lower-than-average academic performance found among urban, low-income, and minority students (Education Trust, 2003a, 2003b; National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2003). Changing instructional practice is at the heart of improving learning outcomes for underserved and underachieving students. To truly improve teaching, urban schools need to transform their culture of practice from one that assumes that barriers to learning reside in the students to one that expects teachers to collectively assume responsibility for making sure all students learn. An emerging body of literature supports the use of learning communities and teacher collaboration as the kind of professional development that leads to such transformation (Grossman, Wineburg, & Woolworth, 2001).
The Urban Literacy Institute is one example of how teacher collaboration can help urban teachers transform their practice. Begun in 2001, the Institute is a collaborative project between Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and the Dayton Public Schools. The project aimed to provide a process for teachers to address their own professional development and to improve literacy instruction for low-income, urban students. From 2001 to 2004, teachers from selected schools in the Dayton School District met in school-based teams to engage in structured dialogue about their teaching. Participants committed to meeting together at their schools for at least one hour a week, maintaining a weekly journal, and working to improve their ability to teach literacy. During these three years, the participants' teaching practices evolved to include greater collaboration, increased trust in their peers, and a greater sense of responsibility for their struggling students. As one teacher said at the conclusion of the project,It helped me develop not only a personal relationship, but also a professional relationship with [my fellow teachers]. I knew I could always go to them and say “Help!” But sometimes the opportunity didn't present itself during the course of the day. The study group was like a guaranteed time slot where if I needed help, or somebody else needed help, we were able to contribute.
Teachers at each school selected one of their peers as a teacher leader to conduct meetings, manage record-keeping, and guide agenda planning for each meeting. These teacher leaders were paid a small stipend for their additional work and met monthly with the project director. Teachers received graduate credit for some of the work associated with the Institute. As the primary investigator for the project, I trained the teacher leaders and the Institute's project director, a master teacher with proven ability to foster literacy in urban students who was chosen by a search team from the Dayton Public Schools and Wright State. The project director attended study group meetings and was available to individual teachers for consultation.
All schools in the district that incorporated kindergarten through 4th grade were invited to apply to participate in the project. For a school to be selected, all kindergarten through 4th grade teachers at that school had to agree to participate. The schools selected were among the lowest-performing in the district, with 90 percent of their students living below the poverty line.
I focus here on two elementary schools—Pennsylvania Avenue School and Park Avenue School—that participated in the structured dialogue process for all three years, and on one school, Shady Avenue, that participated for two years before dropping out. The first cohort of participants included 10 teachers in the Pennsylvania Avenue team, 14 teachers in the Park Avenue team, and 16 teachers in the Shady Avenue team. In addition to setting up the study groups, the Urban Literacy Institute provided funds to support additional learning experiences that the teachers designed for themselves. Teachers held a weekend retreat, visited a school in another district, and invited a consultant to speak at one of their study group meetings and at a workshop.

Structured Dialogue in Action

Teacher leaders generally opened study group meetings with routine reminders and announcements. Group discussion began either by following an agenda that had been developed at the previous meeting or by sharing ideas among colleagues. Each meeting concluded with planning an agenda or noting the focus for the next meeting. At most meetings, the teachers shared their successes and challenges, discussed ideas from the professional literature, listened to and visited with a guest speaker, or discussed ways to address mandates from the district. The focus of all discussions was on improving student literacy.
At first, teachers tended to discuss students as problems. As the groups continued meeting, however, with teachers regularly sharing stories of each week's successes and challenges, discussion came to focus more on how teachers could take responsibility for learning at the school and how they could respond positively to administrative mandates and policies that disrupted their work.
During study group meetings, I observed teachers using a systematic problem-solving approach. As they discussed each teaching challenge, teachers (1) clarified the nature and source of the problem; (2) identified an approach to address the problem and investigated whether this approach would be appropriate in the particular situation; and (3) chose a strategy for learning how to implement the approach.
For example, teachers from Shady Avenue School used this problem-solving approach to confront systemic problems that they had identified in their school's approach to literacy: lack of focus and inconsistent instruction on the part of teachers and too much off-task behavior on the part of students. The teachers identified the Four-Blocks instructional management system (Cunningham, Hall, & Cunningham, 2000) as an approach that might address these problems. They investigated this potential solution by talking with a colleague who had attended a Four-Blocks workshop, watching a video, and visiting a classroom that used the approach. Teachers assessed whether Four-Blocks would be appropriate for students at their school by inviting a teacher experienced with the approach to conduct a demonstration in one of their classrooms.
After much deliberation, the Shady Avenue teacher team decided they were comfortable enough with the content and methods of the Four-Blocks system to learn how to implement it. The group decided to work in pairs. Each teacher studied the materials and methods of the Four-Blocks system individually, observed the system in a neighboring school district, prepared his or her classroom, set a date to try out the process, and invited a partner to observe and comment on these initial attempts. The partner conducting the observation did not assume the role of critical friend, but rather acted as a cheerleader, giving encouragement and pointing out only what was positive. During study group meetings, the teachers discussed their successes and challenges with the new approach and shared suggestions. After hearing about these teachers' experiences, the other schools participating in the project also adopted the Four-Blocks approach, and soon afterward the entire school district did so.

Making the Cultural Transition

During the time that the study groups met, the teachers' approach to fostering literacy among low-income urban students followed a developmental trajectory. The full evolution of the school culture was seen only in the two schools that participated for all three years—Pennsylvania Avenue and Park Avenue. The culture of practice that most teachers started out with included beliefs and practices that operated againstimproving teaching for urban students. During the transition period, most teachers began to perceive a relationship between instruction and learning outcomes, to assume more responsibility for student learning, and to show more willingness to contribute to their colleagues' professional growth. By the final year of the project, the teachers had formed a professional culture in which they routinely discussed the relationship among quality of instruction, a learner's background, and learning outcomes—and also took responsibility for continuing their own learning and contributing to colleagues' learning.

Initial Assumptions: Teaching Is Generic

At the outset of the project, each of the participating schools had a culture of teaching characterized by the shared belief that teaching practices are generic and universal, and that generically good teaching should elicit similar learning outcomes from most students. These ideas were supported by the belief that variations in learning outcomes result from differences in an individual student's effort, social class, extent of parental support, or level of intelligence. Teachers rarely discussed the relationship among instructional strategies, student characteristics, and learning outcomes. Teaching practices were private. Professional authority and respect were based on years of teaching experience without consideration of a teacher's effectiveness. The comments one teacher made during the first year of the project reflected these beliefs:Let's face it, [low-income students] are poor because they don't have experiences, they don't appreciate their own value, how they fit into the system, where they are supposed to be in life. [Life] has no value to them. They don't have goals. I remember when we were in elementary school. It was, “I can't wait until I grow up—I'm going to be a nurse,” or “I'm going to be a veterinarian,” or “I'm going to be a princess.” I never hear our kids talk about the future. They don't have any dreams about when they grow up. They just think about today, making it through. That's why they don't achieve well in some of these tests, because the people that write these achievement tests write from the perspective of experiences, and these kids don't have experiences.

Transitions in Year Two

Toward the end of the first year and throughout the second year of the study, teaching became more public. Teachers would occasionally visit other teachers' classrooms. Conversations about students became more positive. Teachers expressed more compassion and took more responsibility for learning outcomes than they had at the outset of the project. They began to talk openly about shortcomings in their instructional practices. For example, at a group meeting toward the end of the first year, one teacher commented,I have to go back to the drawing board and see what direction I need to take. I have to go over the integrated reading skills test and the multiple-choice reading skills test before I give my students the test, and go over the lessons, too. I really didn't go over how to support a generalization with them.
At this point, teachers also began to take responsibility for supporting their colleagues' professional growth. For example, without external prompting, one senior teacher suggested that a first-year teacher spend time in another, more experienced teacher's classroom:I want you to go see Gayle work in her room. You need to see it from the very beginning, Barb, because there is a method to it, and you need to know what it is. So if you have to spread your kids out among us, let's do that. We'll help you. We want you to be successful.
This sharing of experiences brought Gayle and Barb together in an authentic mentoring relationship.

Collective Responsibility and Caring

By the middle of the second year, the way the teachers as a community talked about the students reflected dramatic changes in the teachers' beliefs and practices. They began to regularly discuss the relationship among instruction, students' background experiences, and learning outcomes. They took responsibility for their students' learning outcomes and made appropriate adjustments in their classroom practices. Teachers talked about their students with caring, concern, and pride. The eagerness with which teachers provided advice to colleagues participating in the project as well as to nonparticipants is captured in one teacher's comment at a study group meeting:Last week, one of our teachers came in to talk to me. She asked some stuff about Four-Blocks. The next thing I knew, a new teacher came in who had no training in this. Both teachers wanted to learn so much. I got all emotional afterward because we've been going to these meetings for two years to learn something. And to have somebody come in and ask for our knowledge, that's truly what we're about. It made me feel really, really good!
By the end of the third year in the study groups, teaching practices were more transparent. Teachers talked openly about their strengths and weaknesses, invited colleagues into their classrooms, and visited other classrooms to learn from their peers.

Effects on Student Achievement

To see whether the reading achievement of students whose teachers engaged in the project improved, Urban Literacy Institute researchers analyzed reading scores from the district-mandated TerraNova standardized test, which Dayton schools administer in the spring and fall of each school year. Researchers compared the mean TerraNova reading scores at the beginning and end of the school year for each participating teacher's class as a whole, and did so for all the years that a teacher was in the dialogue group. They also analyzed mean gains across the three years for the team of teachers from each school and for individual teachers on each team who remained in the study for all three years.
Teachers at Pennsylvania Avenue School who remained in the study groups for three years showed dramatic improvements in their ability to facilitate reading achievement, especially in the third year. At Pennsylvania Avenue, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade students whose teachers remained for the whole program showed average gains in TerraNova reading scores of more than 1.5 grade equivalents. (None of the 4th grade teachers at Pennsylvania Avenue remained with the project for all three years.) These boosts in reading scores were not evident until the second year of teachers' participation. The involved students' average reading scores on the spring TerraNova at the end of the first year of the project showed that their performance ranged from .5 grade equivalent below grade level at 1st grade to 1 grade equivalent below grade level at 3rd grade. By the end of the third year, however, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade students were performing well above grade level.
The team of teachers at Park Avenue School did not show as much progress in improving students' reading scores as did the Pennsylvania Avenue teachers. Throughout the project, the mean TerraNova reading scores of each 2nd grade class at Park Avenue that had teachers participating in the project showed slight improvement from fall to spring. Reading score gains were inconsistent for 1st, 3rd, and 4th graders, however, and, on average, students' performance remained below grade level in reading.
The culture of practice among the team of teachers at Park Avenue School seems to have undergone similar changes to that of the team at Pennsylvania Avenue School. However, Park Avenue teachers spent a significant amount of group time working with two struggling teachers during the second and third years of the study. This focus on two individuals may have interfered with the teachers' ability to apply their new knowledge to practice and to get advice from their colleagues, an important part of the learning cycle in the structured dialogue approach. The situation may have hindered improvements in these teachers' practice. At a debriefing session at the end of the study, Park Avenue teachers spontaneously expressed awareness of this situation and admitted to disappointment with the outcome. The teachers' awareness of the problem indicates their professional growth and ability to monitor their own progress.
A focus on the problems of one or two struggling teachers, at the expense of the development of the whole learning community, is a potential pitfall of the structured dialogue process. One way to avoid this danger is to train the project director and teacher leaders in how to monitor group discussion and how to expand the dialogue to include the needs and experiences of other members of the learning community when one struggler seems to consistently draw the focus.

Creating Learning Communities

To get a sense of how participating in structured dialogue affected these teachers' professional growth, researchers analyzed teachers' reflective journals, notes from teacher leader meetings, and field notes and reflections kept by the project director. Teachers' comments and writings revealed that taking part in structured dialogue was a powerful instrument for empowering teachers in these urban schools to plan, implement, and monitor their own professional development. Teachers kept the overall process of professional growth going even in the face of a high teacher turnover rate, which is a fact of life in urban schools. For example, when one school had high teacher turnover during the first year of the Urban Literacy Institute project, the remaining teachers who had participated in study groups during the first year spontaneously included the new teachers in the project and provided an orientation and mentoring for them.
Structured dialogue is clearly a promising practice for nurturing growth in the professional practice of urban educators. As happened with the teachers who remained in the study groups for the long term, structured dialogue can bring about a learning community in which teachers transform their schools' beliefs, values, and instructional practices.
References

Cunningham, P., Hall, D. P., & Cunningham, J. W. (2000). Guided reading the four blocks way. Greensboro, NC: Carson-Dellosa.

Education Trust. (2003a). African American achievement in America. Washington, DC: Author.

Education Trust. (2003b). Latino achievement in America. Washington, DC: Author.

Grossman, P., Wineburg, S., & Woolworth, S. (2001). Toward a theory of teacher community. Teachers College Record, 103(6), 942–1002.

National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2003). Reading assessment. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

End Notes

1 All school names are pseudonyms.

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