The Power of Teacher Professional Communities in Urban Schools

Editor’s Note: Professor Hollins inspired attendees of AACTE’s recent Annual Meeting in Atlanta during the Speaker Spotlight Session. (View a video recording of her speech here, and read another version in this Hechinger Report piece, which includes the video she played during her address.) To follow up on her presentation, we invited Hollins to explore her topic in a series of blogs for Ed Prep Matters. This is the final post in the series.

Most teachers in urban schools, as elsewhere, are dedicated professionals who put much effort into their practice and care deeply about the students they teach. Teachers understandably feel frustrated when their students fail to meet expectations for learning outcomes. How they address this frustration, however, makes all the difference for student outcomes—and it is influenced heavily by the ideology developed in their school’s professional community.

Teachers working together in a particular setting over time have shared experiences. Through their everyday discourse, they develop a shared understanding of these experiences, which then evolves into an ideology that informs teaching practices and influences the general culture within the school. The ideology found in high-performing urban schools in particular is different from that found in low-performing urban schools, even if they serve students with similar cultural and experiential backgrounds. These differences can be observed in teachers’ conversations, behavior, and interaction with students and peers.

The Education Trust has tracked and provided examples of high-performing, high-poverty, high-minority schools (including many urban schools) for more than 15 years. An important factor in the ideology framing practice in these schools is that teachers and administrators take responsibility for student learning outcomes. This means that when students are not learning, teachers and administrators locate the problem within the curriculum and teaching practices rather than within the learner or in external forces beyond their control. Through collaboration among colleagues in such settings, adjustments are made in framing the curriculum and pedagogical practices to increase students’ access to meaningful and productive experiences that improve learning outcomes.

In contrast, low-performing schools appear to feature a very different ideology. The Alliance for Excellent Education reported that in 2011 there were 1,424 high schools with a dropout rate of 60% or greater. These schools are concentrated in the urban core and serve a majority of low-income and minority students. Many of the teachers and administrators in these schools describe their efforts to educate students as thwarted by many factors including students who lack motivation, students who are unprepared for high school work, limited resources, and mandates from the school district, the state, and the federal government. Teachers subscribing to this perspective tend to focus their attention on complying with mandates, maintaining order in the classroom, and enforcing school rules; less attention is devoted to reframing the curriculum and adjusting pedagogy to increase students’ access to meaningful and productive experiences that improve learning outcomes.

As novice teachers are inducted into these professional communities, the everyday discourse teaches them the practices, routines, and ways of thinking shared among their new colleagues—for better or for worse. Indeed, these experiences often conflict with what they learned in preservice preparation. This is especially true when novice teachers are employed in low-performing urban schools, where they frequently report feeling underprepared for the realities they face.

How can preservice programs best prepare teachers for urban settings? Novice teachers report feeling better prepared for teaching in urban schools when in their preservice programs they have engaged in making careful observations and analysis of the ideology, policies, and practices in both high- and low-performing urban schools. Through directed observations, candidates can learn that good intentions, hard work, and caring about students are essential, but insufficient, for ensuring excellence in learning outcomes. Candidates also have to learn the importance of and strategies for reframing the curriculum and adjusting pedagogy to better support student learning.


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Etta R. Hollins

University of Missouri at Kansas City

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