Lucent Learning Communities in Albuquerque

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1 Lucent Learning Communities in Albuquerque Betty Lou Whitford and Heidi Fisher National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching, Teachers College and the University of Southern Maine Case Study Summary November 2003 I. Background The Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) is a large, urban district with over 84,000 students enrolled in 126 schools. Seven of these schools volunteered to participate in the Peer Collaboration Initiative funded by Lucent Technologies Foundation from two elementary schools, three middle schools, and two high schools. Additional participants included teacher educators from the University of New Mexico and the Albuquerque Federation of Teachers. Albuquerque was one of nine districts invited to apply to join the Initiative and one of the four districts fully funded for three years. Managed for Lucent by The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI), the grants supported systematic use of Lucent Learning Communities (LLC s) using National School Reform Faculty (NSRF) strategies to improve teaching and learning. The grant supported training of district and school-based coaches who facilitated the LLC s, national and local trainings, monthly visits from an external NSRF coach, and other forms of support for small groups of educators, generally in the same school, to meet at least once a month for two and a half hours to share and critique their practices using NSRF protocols. The original project design called for 25% of a school s faculty to participate the first year, 50% the second, and the full staff by the third year of funding. Albuquerque s proposal was developed jointly by the staff of the Professional Development Collaborative (PDC), a long-standing school district-university-teachers union partnership based at the University of New Mexico, and the district s director of professional development with the direct involvement of the superintendent and the president of the teachers union. Following funding, the grant was managed by the PDC. Albuquerque proposed to strengthen professional development and positively affect the culture of schools through use of the LLC s. The proposal stated: As a district partnership, we are involved in many reform initiatives but feel at this time we have not yet been able to seriously impact professional

2 development for teachers. We believe that our involvement in this Lucent Initiative will allow us to strengthen that relationship, to re-examine our practices and to develop a common framework for action in order to develop and implement new approaches to teacher professional development. (Albuquerque proposal, p. 1) During the course of the project, a top district administrator expanded on this purpose by explaining that the district administrators supported the grant proposal because of the potential of the initiative to affect the culture in the schools in APS through opportunities for discussion among teachers which would enhance professional practice. Long-term substitutes were built into the design in order to provide time for teachers to meet during the school day. The grant guidelines asked districts to focus the initiative on a set of schools connected either in a student attendance feeder pattern or on the basis of curriculum commonalities. Albuquerque proposed connecting the Lucent-funded work to the role of literacy leaders who were then working as instructional support staff in the schools. The proposal writers also envisioned using the LLC s as links across the continuum of teachers learning from preservice education at UNM, to the district mentoring program for new teachers as part of induction, and continuing through ongoing professional development. II. District approach The initiative in Albuquerque was marked by enthusiastic embracing of the LLC model with particularly strong support among teachers. During early implementation, school administrators generally took a hands-off stance, and for the most part let the project participants run their own LLC s. The feeling among the participants that the LLC s were really their own may have increased teacher buy-in and trust. The initiative began in seven schools with about 30 internal coaches. By the end of , it had expanded far beyond the original goals: groups were created in an additional 15 schools with nearly 100 internal coaches trained in the use of the NSRF protocols. Training for the expansion was supported by the district s Teaching and Learning Systems office in June 2002 using district funds. To signal the local support, the new groups were called CLC s Collaborative Learning Communities. By the end of Lucent funding, district leadership reported that they envisioned an ambitious goal of

3 using the collaborative inquiry process inspired by LLC s and the NSRF training as the basis for all professional development in the district so that it would become just the way business is done in Albuquerque. This vision included using the CLC s as a primary link between preservice education, and mentoring of beginning teachers, and extending to all of professional development. Unique among the four Lucent-funded districts, from the beginning of the initiative in Albuquerque, both university and union connections to the LLC work were evident in several ways. For example, several teacher educators were among the first group trained as coaches, and student teachers participated in LLC s at two of the seven schools in Also, a teacher educator LLC, composed of individuals who supervised UNM student teachers and the vice president of the teachers union, met regularly throughout the project. III. Key findings and issues By late 2002, the use of small groups of educators facilitated by coaches to examine their practice was well underway in the original seven schools. Moreover, other groups had formed. In fall 2001, the Albuquerque Teachers Federation received approval from the Institute for Professional Development (formerly the PDC) to offer a graduatelevel course focused on peer collaboration using the NSRF approach. Also in 2001, an LLC of district coordinators and directors began meeting monthly. And, there was some evidence of NSRF protocols being used in district meetings, in classrooms with students, and in classes with pre-service teacher education interns at the UNM College of Education. The project greatly increased opportunities for teacher collaboration. Respondents to a survey administered to project participants in the fall of 2002 indicated that, on all measured factors, including time for teacher collaboration, administrative support, and opportunities to review teaching practice and student work, LLC s had had an overwhelmingly positive effect. Respondents also predicted that the impact would be even greater over the next 2-3 years. By the end of the data collection, the more ambitious goals of using collaborative inquiry as the umbrella for all APS professional development had not yet emerged. Fullscale implementation of the district leadership s aims may have by the resignation of the superintendent, a visible supporter of the initiative and other top leadership changes

4 drawing attention away from the initiative. Another constraint arose as a result of the project leadership s decision to pay all project participants stipends as an acknowledgement of their professionalism. While this decision was well received by the participants, it created sustainability issues and tensions among participants. The project rapidly expanded just as budget shortages were becoming more widespread. By the end of data collection, school administrators had to fund stipends and meetings out of budgets allocated to schools to support all of professional development. Because the LLC/CLC approach had not become the envisioned umbrella for all of professional development, principals were weighing their support for LLC s/clc s with other initiatives more directly focused on content covered by standardized tests. 1 Expanding the project rapidly also raised concerns about the focus of discussions within the LLC s and how much student work was actually being brought to the table. Some LLC s with skilled coaches examined student work samples in depth while others had not widened their work much beyond trust-building activities. IV. Emerging understanding and questions 1. Large districts are often characterized by leadership turnover and multiple reform initiatives, typically enacted through professional development discretely linked to each initiative. The resulting project mentality impedes any one approach from becoming the overarching vehicle for a district s professional development. While the umbrella concept was often mentioned in Albuquerque, there was little evidence of attention to specific strategies to make it happen. Under what conditions could LLC s become the overarching vehicle for a district s professional development? 2. Positive reactions to a new practice can lead to a press for rapid expansion of an innovation which can, in turn, lower quality as resources are stretched beyond original intents. Rapid expansion can also dilute rather than deepen the expectation that improving practice requires sustained inquiry, critique, and support over time rather than supporting more standardized, superficial practices. 3. Powerful in conception, using LLC s to link pre-service teacher preparation to support for beginning teachers, and then to ongoing professional development turned out to be hard to demonstrate in practice. What supports are needed to enact such a vision? 4. Some LLC s in Albuquerque engaged in structured discussions around teaching and learning; others mainly focused on strategies to build trust among group members during the time span of the data collection. What accounts for these differences in focus? How much is a reflection of the knowledge and skills of the coach? What other factors

5 come into play, such as stability of group membership, size and composition of the group, time available for meetings, availability of outside expertise, readiness of the district and school leaders to support sustained teacher-driven inquiry? 5. How can the impact of structured, in-depth conversations among teachers on students learning be effectively documented? 1 According to one key local respondent, by summer, 2003, payment of the stipends had become less of an issue. In her words, no one quit their role because of money. Also, the original seven principals have become so committed to supporting their internal coaches that they are "finding money elsewhere" to pay them. ( , 8/1/03)

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