Successful schools don’t just change test scores. They create organizational conditions that support learning among students and educators. They actively draw upon expertise in their community and reach shared agreements about how to best challenge students over time. They make time to understand, as a team, why and how students are learning and ensure that faculty has the flexibility to make decisions in the best interest of each learner. In addition, they establish an expectation that the approaches they employ will be shared transparently and used as a basis for ongoing improvement. In short, successful schools operate much like successful online communities, as described in Connect and Inspire. A key challenge for improving education in America is to link together such schools and enable others to join their ranks. Online communities of practice can play an important role in documenting and enhancing the collaborative practice essential for successful schools.
This month, the National Council of Teachers of English, in partnership with the Ball Foundation and 20 leading organizations committed to the advancement of literacy and learning, announced the creation of the National Center for Literacy Education (NCLE). The goal of NCLE is to improve literacy learning by sharing and strengthening the plans, practices, support systems, and assessments used by successful, innovative communities of practice across the United States. This goal will be accomplished through the Literacy in Learning Exchange (the Exchange), a free online community of practice that will provide cases that show clearly how teams of educators develop powerful teaching and planning processes. More than just sample lesson plans and assessments, the Exchange will describe how to build the conditions and capacity to support sustained literacy learning over time in all school and community settings. Because it links resources and techniques to rich representations of the contexts in which they have been successfully applied, and because its content is enriched through the interactions it mediates, the case may prove to be a crucial genre for online communities of practice that seek to help schools and districts bring collaborative educational practices to scale.
For example, a draft case on the pilot version of the Exchange documents a community of practice at Rowland High School in Rowland Heights, California, that has been working since 2010 to explore the question, “What is the significance of academic vocabulary and how does it impact instructional practices and learning outcomes?” The description of the community’s activities and context is sufficiently detailed to help other schools and districts understand how they might replicate, modify, or build on the work in Rowland Heights. Moving beyond just collecting and implementing best practices to allow time for reflection that connects instructional strategies to teachers’ professional identities has proved critical for the group. This analysis is supported by a series of multimedia companion pieces that can help other educators capitalize on the community’s learning, such as a video that details five principles of vocabulary learning, complemented by excerpts from related research.
The case is not simply a static collection of resources. The Exchange’s community tools allow other educators to discuss and augment the case, sharing their own experiences, uploading related resources, and reporting back about their efforts to use the case materials to guide the development of communities of practice in their own schools. In the course of discussion, members of communities of practice at schools across the United States can support each other, and the persistent record of that support has the potential to benefit yet others. In this way, the value of the case itself will increase as other members of the Exchange use it.
Creating such compelling cases that document cross-subject literacy education communities of practice requires sustained effort. To provide incentives for schools to find the time to share their practices through the Exchange and at demonstration sessions held at national conferences across the county, NCLE will celebrate and support Literacy in Every Classroom Sites. These sites (schools or school systems) will earn badges by committing to share data about how they collaborate across disciplines to support literacy, how practices are changing, and what they are observing about changes in student learning. In return, not only will they be recognized for their work by NCLE and stakeholder organizations, but they also will gain access to a select network of educators and literacy experts who can provide constructive feedback and advice as they work to improve school practices. They also will be eligible to apply for small demonstration grants to fund efforts to widely disseminate their work.
To sustain and broaden the gains observed in participating schools as captured through the cases and online interactions around them, NCLE will fund collaborative research projects and share their findings with policy leaders at local, state, and national levels. Findings will be infused back into participating schools, and implications will be made available to policymakers through peer-reviewed publications, seminars, and colloquies.
As we’ve learned from decades of trying, no single initiative can transform teaching and learning. However, by building an initiative that draws upon a network of resources and expertise from successful schools and professional organizations and supports school teams in making their own choices about how to enrich literacy learning, we can see if “ground-up” improvement efforts can gain a measure of success that has eluded top-down models. We are eager to learn the role case-based online communities of practice can play in the emergence of such educational transformation.