Professional learning communities and student achievement
vi TABLE OF CONTENTS ABSTRACT iii DEDICATION iv ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS v LIST OF TABLES vii LIST OF FIGURES viii CHAPTER 1 - INTRODUCTION 1 Orientation to the Problem 1 Purpose of Study 3 Research Question 6 Hypothesis 7 Null Hypothesis 7 Objectives 7 Theoretical Perspective 7 Definition of Terms 9 Limitations and Delimitations 10 Significance of the Study 11 Summary 12 CHAPTER 2 - REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE 14 Historical Background 14 School Reform 14 Teacher Professional Development 15 History of Professional Learning Communities 18 Six Essential Characteristics of Professional Learning Communities 19 Shared Mission, Vision, and Values 19 Collective Inquiry 21 Collaborative Teams 22 Action Orientation and Experimentation 24 Continuous Improvement 25 Results Orientation 26 Theoretical Framework 27 Situated Learning 27 Adult Learning Theory 28 Evidence of Positive Impact 31 Student Achievement 31 School Culture 33 Challenges for the Development of Professional Learning Communities 35 Imprecise Definition of Professional Learning Communities 35 Nonlinear Pathways for Implementation 35 Summary 37 CHAPTER 3 - METHODOLOGY 38 Research Design 38
vii Population and Setting 39 Definitions of Operational Variables 42 Instrumentation and Procedures 43 Approach to Study 46 Threats to Validity 47 Internal Threats 47 External Threats 49 Summary 49 CHAPTER4-RESULTS AND FINDINGS 50 Data Analysis 50 Focus on Learning 54 Collaborative Culture 55 Instructional Strategies 56 Common Formative Assessments 57 Overall Impact 58 Support and Resource Allocation 59 Exploratory Analysis 60 Study Limitations 61 Summary of Major Findings 62 Focus on Learning 62 Collaborative Culture 62 Instructional Strategies 63 Common Formative Assessments 63 Overall Impact 63 Support and Resource Allocation 64 Conclusions 64 CHAPTER 5 - DISCUSSION 65 Summary 65 Background 65 Research Question 65 Data Analysis 66 Results of the Study 66 Discussion 69 A Framework for Professional Development 69 Mathematics Achievement 69 Teacher Knowledge and Quality 70 Implications for Professional Practice 70 Recommendations for Further Study 72 Summary 73 REFERENCES 75 APPENDIX A - PLC HIGH FIVE SURVEY 81 APPENDIX B - LETTER OF APPROVAL TO CONDUCT RESEARCH WCPSS 85
Vl l l LIST OF TABLES Table 1: School Performance on North Carolina's ABC Accountability Model 7 Table 2: Achievement Percentages for Student Performance on Mathematics End-of- Grade Tests 41 Table 3: Mathematics Proficiency for Middle Grade Students 42 Table 4: End-of-Grade Testing Achievement Levels for Middle Grades 47 Table 5: Descriptive Statistics for Participating Teachers 52 Table 6: High Five PLC Characteristics by Levels of Math Performance 53 Table 7: Multiple Comparisons for Focus on Learning by Levels of Math Performance 55 Table 8: Multiple Comparisons for Collaborative Cultures by Levels of Math Performance 56 Table 9: Multiple Comparisons for Instructional Strategies by Levels of Math Performance 57 Table 10: Multiple Comparisons for Common Formative Assessments by Levels of Math Performance 58 Table 11: Multiple Comparisons for Overall Impact by Levels of Math Performance.... 59 Table 12: Multiple Comparisons for Support and Resource Allocation by Levels of Math Performance 60
IX LIST OF FIGURES Figure 1: Closing the achievement gap through promoting teacher learning 8 Figure 2: Andragogy in practice model 30
1 CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION Orientation to the Problem The 21st century has revealed one innovative idea after another from voice- operated technology to touch screen computers, and human ingenuity seems to be continually evolving with the passage of time. Even though our country appears to be making strides in previously unimaginable ways, there has been a slow rate of progression in the realm of public education (Finn, 1991). In 2009, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported, American students continue to rank low based on international assessments when compared to students in other developed countries. Steadily growing is the great concern among educators working vigorously to improve student achievement in a society of fast-paced learning. There is also the immense responsibility of closing the nationally recognized achievement deficiency between minority and White students. The NCES (2008) reported: At the 8th-grade level, however, the White-Black achievement gap in 2007 was not measurably different in reading from the gap in 1992 or in mathematics from the gap in 1990. For these same years, there also was no measurable difference in the achievement gap in mathematics between Whites and Hispanics at either grade level, (p. vi) Minority subgroups, poverty-stricken youth, and students with disabilities appear to be making little or no significant progress, which offers a small amount of hope for their imminent future in today's skill-advanced workforce. According to a National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper (2007, as cited in Heckman & LaFontaine, 2007), each year shows on average approximately 65% of Blacks and Hispanics receive a high school diploma, and these numbers include General Education Development diploma
recipients. These data produce cause for alarm and increasing apprehensiveness among professional educators seeking cooperative solutions and effective processes for closing the achievement gap and helping all of America's students compete in a technologically, advanced global workforce. Fovargue (2008) evoked, "Educational reports such as A Nation at Risk and No Child Left Behind sparked a national awareness of the mathematics crises in America, and opened the floor for extensive debate and recent policy making" (p. 7). Of major concern to professional educators and public school parents is how our students measure up to students around the world. "International assessments show that U.S. students are in the top third of 4 -graders in reading, but below the international averages in science and mathematics at age 15" (NCES, 2008, p. xii). In the fall of 2009, NCES released mathematics achievement data documenting the slow progress of America's students. According to The Nation's Report Card: Mathematics 2009, mathematics achievement appears to have stalled for fourth-grade students and only slightly improved for eighth- grade students; NCES (2009) reported: Gains in students' average mathematics scores seen in earlier years did not continue from 2007 to 2009 at grade 4 but did continue at grade 8. While still higher than the scores in the six assessment years from 1990 to 2005, the overall average scores for fourth-graders in 2009 was unchanged from the score in 2007. The upward trend seen in earlier assessments for eighth-graders continued with a 2-point increase from 2007 to 2009. (p. 1) These statistics present a grim picture for educators who must devise effective strategies to improve the mathematical performance of America's students. These findings also support the rationale for the focus of this study. Levine and Marcus (2007) wrote, "One reasonable approach to closing the achievement gap includes identifying practices or interventions that have a research base
3 showing positive effects on student learning and then prescribing exact or reasonable reproduction of these interventions" (p. 119). The ideology of professional learning communities (PLCs) exemplifies these measures; the practices support a concept of collaboration and continuous, systemic activity to provide meaningful learning experiences for teachers and dramatically increase achievement for all students in America's public school classrooms. In the quest for school improvement, educational leaders continue to acknowledge the overwhelming need for professional development activities that will increase effective teaching practices and promote student achievement in schools across the country. The implementation of PLCs, school-based collaborative networks of teachers who work together to achieve common goals, has sparked a revolution in theory and practice for the field of education. As educators and researchers begin to identify and investigate the essential elements common in the practices of PLCs, there is an intense need to know if there is a link among specific practices and an increase in student achievement. "Very little research is available that examines the relationship between PLCs [professional learning communities] and student achievement" (Olson, 2008, p. 3). And the existing research is not altogether conclusive. Considering the overwhelming need to increase student performance in mathematics and evaluate the development of specific PLC practices in a variety of settings, there is evidence to support the relevance of this study. Purpose of the Study The purpose of this study is to determine what characteristics and related elements of PLCS are more prevalent in high-achieving middle schools in a large diverse school
4 district located in the southeastern region of the United States. Croasum (2007) previously conducted a 5-year study of one elementary school in North Carolina and concluded, "A combination of factors contributed to the increase in student achievement, with some components of the professional learning community making more of an impact than others" (p. iv). This study aims to focus on the practices of PLCs that were able to positively affect student achievement in the subject of mathematics. Although PLCs evolve over a period of several years, this study focuses on the results of a 1-year analysis of student achievement test scores and survey responses of teachers' perceptions of their implementation levels of PLC characteristics and related elements. This research project intends to investigate high-, middle-, and low-achieving middle schools to reveal if there are significant differences or similarities of PLC characteristics and related elements among each group of schools. Then, the study determines if there is a combination of characteristics prevalent in PLCs that achieve noteworthy academic success in mathematics over the course of one school year. Throughout the review of literature concerning PLCs, there is a popular description and reoccurring message of collaborative cultures coined by numerous researchers and educators (Coburn, 2001; Hargreaves, 1997; Spillane, 1999; Strahan, 2003). There are six essential characteristics (e.g., a shared mission, vision, and values; collective inquiry; collaborative teams; continuous improvement; action orientation and experimentation; and results orientation) of PLCs that form these collaborative cultures and learning networks (DuFour & Eaker, 1998). This study measures the levels of utilization for each characteristic as perceived by the school community of teachers active
5 in the PLC; the focus of the study pinpoints schools that have made significant academic performance in the subject of mathematics. During the last 5 years, North Carolina's total mathematics scale score on standardized achievement tests has been above the national public average; fourth-grade and eighth-grade students have also shown steady growth for the past 3 years (NCES, 2009). Examining a school district within the State of North Carolina supports the framework of analyzing the practices of successful PLCs. In compliance with federal recommendations and guidelines, school systems across North Carolina test elementary and middle school students in the required basic subject areas to determine their individual levels of performance near the end of one academic calendar school year. "The ABCs of Public Education is North Carolina's accountability program is designed to improve student achievement, reward excellence, and provide assistance to schools that need extra help. The program measures student achievement by a formula that measures student progress from one year to the next" (Wake County Public School System, 2008, Reports section, para. 1). As mandated by state and federal regulations, students in Wake County are assessed using the North Carolina End-of-Grade Test each year. The results of these tests determine the overall level of school performance for each school in the district. Individual schools are given a performance composite score and receive growth recognition according to expected growth standards. Table 1 explains the requirements and standards for schools in the district. During the 2006-2007 school year, 76% of students in Grades 3-8 tested at or above grade level on End-of-Grade standardized mathematics achievement tests (Wake County Public School System, 2008). This
measure of proficiency in the area of mathematics supports the rationale of this study and the identified purpose to further examine the practices of effective PLCs. Table 1 School Performance on North Carolina's ABC Accountability Model Designation Performance description Honor School of Excellence School of Distinction School of Progress No Recognition Priority School Low Performing At least 90% of students at grade level and the school made adequate yearly progress (AYP) Eighty to 89% of students at grade level and students make expected growth or more At least 60 to 79% of students at grade level and students make expected growth or more Sixty to 100% of students at grade level, but students did not make expected growth Fifty to 59% of students at grade level or less than 50% of students at grade level but students make expected growth Less than 50% of students at grade level and students did not make expected growth Note. From The ABCs of Public Education: 2008-2009 Growth and Performance of North Carolina Public Schools by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (2009). Research Question This study is designed to address the following research question regarding the characteristics of PLCs in high-achieving middle schools in the focus area of mathematics for a diverse school district in the southeastern United States:
7 1. What characteristics and related elements of professional learning communities are perceived to be more prevalent in middle schools that have made significant achievement in mathematics? Hypothesis HI: There is a common pattern of professional learning community characteristics and related elements among middle schools that have made significant achievement in mathematics. Null Hypothesis H2: There is not a common pattern of professional learning community characteristics and related elements in middle schools that have made significant achievement in mathematics. Objectives The goal of this exploratory study is to reveal what, if any, common characteristics and related elements of PLCs are present in greater levels in schools that reach their expected growth outcomes in a large diverse middle school district. Through this inquiry process, the goal is to further narrow the focus of the study to reveal what combination of PLC characteristics and related elements are present in schools that meet educational standards while achieving significant growth in mathematics. Theoretical Perspective Levine and Marcus (2007) proposed a conceptual framework for understanding the collaborative pathway for directly improving the learning of teachers to influence student achievement across school communities. Figure 1 takes historical reform efforts into consideration while employing what researchers and educators know to be essential
8 in present educational theoretical designs. The means of effective practices noted in Figure 1 offer pathways to reaching the expected outcomes needed to affect student achievement. Having knowledge of these pathways is not enough to significantly change the progress of America's schools. Insight through investigation and inquiry will determine what characteristics are present in high-achieving school communities. The implementation and practice of the six essential attributes of PLCs have led to an increase in student achievement for numerous individual schools and school districts across the country (Croasmun, 2007; DuFour & Eaker, 1998; McAdamis, 2007; Onoye, 2004). Input(s) Mc Out o Current intervention/reform Past sources of learning and professional development over years Program focus: Teachers implement approach with increasing fidelity Teacher learning focus: Individuals and communities of teachers develop in what they know and can do, adapting approaches to match students' needs, their own curricular objectives, and shifting school or district goals Narrowing gap between standardized test scores of students (by race, class, first language, etc.) Locally valued goals (improvements in students' critical thinking, enjoyment of learning, etc.) Figure 1. Closing the achievement gap through promoting teacher learning (Levine & Marcus, 2007).
9 Definition of Terms For conceptual reasoning and general application, the definitions for the following terms promote greater understanding for the design of this study. ABC Standards. North Carolina's achievement model for measuring performance, growth, and AYP status in student achievement across school systems in the state (North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, 2009). Achievement gap. Represents significant differences between what students should know and be able to do and what achievement levels students of specific racial/ethnic groups are performing on at this present time (NCES, 2008). Achievement levels. These levels are set by a National Assessment Governing Board process; the levels represent what students should know and be able to do at different levels of performance (NCES, 2008). Action orientation and experimentation. Learning through practical means of active research and job-embedded implementation (Eaker, DuFour, & DuFour, 2002). Collaborative teams. Prearranged teams of teachers who work in collaboration to address specific topics of concern (DuFour & Eaker, 1998). Collective inquiry. A way of constructing shared knowledge, answering critical questions, and gaining information through the process of collaborative learning measures and practices (Eaker et al., 2002). Common assessments. Teams of teachers collectively choose essential outcomes for a specific unit of study and then design a common assessment to measure learning for groups of students in the learning community (Eaker et al., 2002).
10 Continuous improvement. An ideology that supports belief of continuous learning throughout the school community; this applies to both teachers and students (DuFour & Eaker, 1998). No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. A federal legislation of public schools mandating accountability measures for local school systems (NCES, 2008). North Carolina End-of-Grade Tests (EOG). Standardized test that students in Grades 3 through 8 must take in the subjects of reading, writing , and mathematics near the end of an academic school year (North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, 2009). Middle school. An organized school within the Wake County Public School System that includes students in Grades, 6, 7, and 8 (Wake County Public School System, 2008). Professional development. Processes and activities designed to enhance the professional knowledge, skills, and attitudes of educators so that they might, in turn, improve the learning of students (Guskey, 2000). Professional learning communities. Professional staff learning together to direct efforts toward improved student learning (Hord, 1997). Results orientation. Establishment and focus on desired results for expected student learning and achievement in a professional learning community (Eaker et al., 2002). Limitations and Delimitations This study determines what PLC characteristics and related elements are more prevalent in high-achieving middle schools in a large diverse school district. These
11 characteristics and elements are not the only factors that may influence student achievement in this school district or individual school communities. External factors related to students' home environments, their parents' level of education, and their own personal social skills also play a role in positively or negatively affecting overall student achievement outcomes. Internal factors can significantly influence student learning; some consideration should be given to teaching style, classroom management, school discipline policy, available school resources, and the overall school climate. The scope of the study will be delimited to examining the scores of middle school students in Grades 6, 7, and 8 during one academic school year. The findings of the study may not be generalized for elementary and high school populations in all diverse school districts. The focus of this study is narrowed in scope by inspecting the implementation levels of teachers' perceptions of PLC characteristics in high-, middle-, and low- performing schools in the subject of mathematics according to North Carolina educational standards. Further delimitation of this study involves the identification of any combination of characteristics of PLCs among high-achieving middle schools. Due to the exploratory nature of this project, this study only involves the identification of similarities and differences in characteristics and related elements of PLCs among high-, middle-, and low-performing middle schools in the subject of mathematics. Significance of the Study The relationship between effective professional development activities and increasing student achievement in mathematics highly supports the significance of this study. As a glimmer of hope and an indication of successful learning for teachers and students, the establishment of PLCs seeks to employ andragogical theories to create
12 productive learning environments in each institution of learning. To thrive in the arena of education in the 21st century, our teachers should have a collegial environment that supports an abundance of opportunities for discussion, practice, analysis, and reflection (Little, 1993). Recognition of the value found in implementing PLCs leads researchers and educational leaders to inquire and investigate proficient characteristics that promote an increase in student achievement for learners in the school population. Examining patterns and qualities that led to successful learning pathways allows educational leaders to become "proactive rather than reactive" (p. 3) sponsors in creating an exceptional learning environment for all students (Thompson, Gregg, & Niska, 2004). Educators need to know what attributes provide further evidence and growth for successful learning communities. DuFour and Eaker (1998) asserted, "Until educators can describe the ideal school they are trying to create, it is impossible to develop policies, procedures, or programs that will help make that ideal a reality" (p. 64). It is imperative for teachers and educational researchers to identify descriptive characteristics in middle schools that make notable academic achievement. This study inspects school communities that implement the practices of PLCs and demonstrate high levels of achievement in math. Summary As civilization and world structures continue to advance, there is a need to quicken the rate of learning for children in America. The first step is acknowledging the crisis; the next steps involve collaborative solutions for educational leaders and the students served in the public school system. Fostering new pathways to improve the quality of professional development for all teachers can make an impact on student
13 achievement for years to come in the future of education. The importance of increasing mathematics performance among middle school students is essential. Researchers and educators can gain further knowledge by exploring the pathways utilized by a diverse school district in North Carolina. Examining the practices of PLCs who display a measure of success broadens the knowledge of research-based solutions presenting greater understanding and academic hope for schools across the country.
14 CHAPTER 2: REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE Historical Background As a result of a congressional directive, NCES (2008) presented an annual report entitled The Condition of Education. The report documents the long- and short-term performance of America's educational system (NCES). The Condition of Education 2008 presents these findings: the reading and mathematics scores of 17-year-olds in 2007 are comparable to the scores of 17-year-olds in the early 1970s, the discrepancy in achievement among particular minority groups continues to be a dilemma, and the nation's 15-year-olds are below the world average in science and mathematics (NCES). The continued documentation of despairing educational progress sparked the passage of the 2001 Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, well-known as the No Child Left Behind legislation. This legislation relies on standards-based evaluation methods requiring higher levels of accountability for educational leaders, school administrators, and teachers. School Reform The need for school reform efforts date back to the late 1960s and 1970s when researchers realized there was an achievement gap "between lower class and middle class and Black and White students" (Berends, 2004, p. 132). Thorough research was needed to fully understand this problem, and few changes were made during the next 10 years. "In April 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education captured national headlines with its grim assessment of education in the United States" (DuFour & Eaker, 1998, p. 2). The eye-opening report awakened the minds of educational leaders to the condition of the American education system. During the next 25 years, educational
15 leaders moved forward with efforts of change and reform. DuFour and Eaker (1998) wrote, "The history of American education in the second half of the twentieth century is marked by numerous attempts at reform and by increasing public concern" (p. 1). There was not a lack of effort or tenacity on the part of educational leaders or researchers concerning a hard-line focus on effective instructive practices and reform measures. These professionals and researchers embarked upon a quest to resolve the epidemic of low achievement and promote academic growth among the youth in America's schools. In the 1980s, the Excellence Movement sought to strengthen the existing structure of the educational system, and in the 1990s, the Restructuring Movement brought a new design and approach to public education (DuFour & Eaker, 1998). Unfortunately, both of these reform measures were unsuccessful in producing significant gains in levels of learning and student achievement in classrooms across America. Although nationwide school reform efforts did not lead to remarkable results, there were schools making substantial gains in student achievement in both diverse and rural communities. "One of the issues that continued to challenge policy makers and educators was that although researchers could point to effective schools, it was difficult to understand the school improvement pathways these schools took to become effective" (Berends, 2004, p. 134). Teacher Professional Development With continued demands for school reform efforts and increasing pressure from federal regulations, educators and researchers persistently reiterated factors directly related to student achievement and effective learning outcomes. Guskey (2000) wrote, "Every proposal for educational reform and every plan for school improvement
16 emphasizes a need for high-quality professional development" (p. 3). This issue is a key component of the latest No Child Left Behind legislation, and school districts are responsible for identifying and providing adequate professional development opportunities. Effective professional development programs lead teachers to carry out instructional strategies that increase student achievement (Borko, 2004). This vital influence has great implications not only for improving America's teachers, but also for increasing levels of student achievement as America's students strive to attain academic success in classrooms across the country. Teacher improvement may come through the implementation of PLC activities that support student learning. Understanding an applicable definition of professional development is essential. Guskey (2000) explained, "Professional development is defined as those processes and activities designed to enhance the professional knowledge, skills, and attitudes of educators so that they might, in turn, improve the learning of students" (p. 16). The description itself reveals the reference to positively influencing or changing the learning of students in an effectual PLC. There are three distinguishing principles that support the identification of a professional development program; the program's methodology should be intentional, ongoing, and systemic in nature (Guskey). Utilizing these criteria, school reform researchers have detailed specific expectations that support successful appraisals of professional development programs. Little (1993) directed our attention to six characteristics that should be present in all programs: 1. Professional development offers meaningful intellectual, social, and emotional engagement with ideas, with materials, and with colleagues both in and out of teaching. 2. Professional development takes explicit account of the contexts of teaching and the experience of teachers. 3. Professional development offers support for informed dissent.
17 4. Professional development places classroom practice in the larger contexts of school practice and the educational careers of children. 5. Professional development prepares teachers (as well as students and their parents) to employ the techniques and perspectives of inquiry. 6. The governance of professional development ensures bureaucratic restraint and a balance between the interests of individuals and the interests of institutions, (pp. 138-139) Accepting these functional qualities requires educators and researchers to take a closer look at all professional development opportunities that have been available for teachers during the last 20 years and examine the descriptions, designs, and characteristics of these professional development programs. The history of school reform efforts has supported the acceptance of training- based models of professional development. For the past 20 years, most public school districts have placed their focus on individual development and strengthening of teacher skills and practice through in-service training programs (Little, 1993). Teachers have viewed these methods as impractical and lacking true relevance to classroom applications (Lieberman & Pointer Mace, 2008). A lack of consistent, demonstrated success in improving student achievement has continued to trouble researchers and educational leaders who support better training programs as the answer to the public school system's academic dilemma. Little wrote, "Conventional forms of professional development and support grounded in training are poorly conceived to help people expand the possibilities for learning, teaching, and schooling" (p. 140). With knowledge of these shortcomings regarding the training model of professional development, educators are moving toward a collaborative model of professional development that supports an emphasis in theory and practice supporting the establishment of PLCs in each public school entity to influence student learning. Vescio, Ross, and Adams (2008) admit, "Fueled by the complexities of