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Question of the Week: Schools Candidates on Professional Learning Teams

The school committee candidates tackle the effectiveness of Professional Learning Teams.

This week's question:

The establishment of the district's Professional Learning Team program has been viewed as a success by the school committee, educators and the administration as teachers work collaboratively to change the way they teach in order to address students learning needs while providing onsite professional
development that builds collegiality, improves teaching quality and job satisfaction. Yet some national observers have been critical of PLTs for their cost, reduction in classroom time and often vaguely determined goals.
If you are elected to the school committee, how would you determine the effectiveness of Belmont's PLT program and if any changes are required?

Anne Lougee

Massachusetts law grants three specific powers to school committees: to appoint and remove the superintendent, to set school policies, and to review and approve budgets. It is also the job of the school committee to set goals and objectives that align with these responsibilities, and to evaluate them accordingly.

Professional development is a key component to one of the Belmont School Committee’s goals: “To ensure that students receive instruction from consistently highly qualified educators who pursue continuous improvement of their art ... and sustain […] continuous professional development by means of clear and coherent plans ... “

Belmont’s use of the PLT model has been very successful in improving
both teaching quality and student outcomes. The effectiveness of the PLT professional development program is determined through a process of setting specific objectives, measuring student outcomes, and making necessary changes in teaching styles and/or content based on the PLT experience.

In essence, the Belmont Public Schools is a service industry. What we provide is the service of education to the students. Whether we do that well can be measured through discrete educational outcomes. The work of the PLTs has been shown to improve the educational outcomes in the schools.
For example, one PLT designed a process to determine how to broaden 4th grade vocabulary use. The team members created a process; they then assessed the resulting student outcomes; and they found measurable improvements in word recognition and usage. Sometimes, however, learning what does not work can be as valuable as learning what does work.

The use of the PLT program for professional development is still relatively new to Belmont. The findings of all PLTs are shared system-wide and, over time, there will no doubt be room for improvement.

As a school committee member, I would look to the BPS administrative staff, which is charged with pursuing continuous improvement of the system, for guidance on whether changes are required.

Matt Sullivan

The current PLT (Professional Learning Team) is definately worth the change to the school hours. It enables the teachers to to choose a specific area of focus  directly related to the curriculum and student learning. Teachers collaborate (which is what teaching is about) each month formally and are able to meet informally if they choose. Many teachers have stayed on on their PLT focus for a second year. The PLT decides on a curriculum based area the teachers on the team are interested in strengthening and the students truly benefit from the teachers' research and collaboration. Working in collaboration is not only advantageous to the students but the teachers as well. It gives the teachers an opportunity to share their ideas, results and what can be done to improve the result of their focus.
 
This was a great idea recommended by the school administration to the School Committee in February, 2011 and not voted on until June.

Pascha Griffiths

As an educator, parent, and taxpayer, I am impressed with the Professional Learning Team (PLT) model, the method of professional development implemented in the Belmont Schools.  This program incurs no additional costs to us as taxpayers. Any support costs, such as the purchase of a book for the teachers, comes from a grant from the Foundation for Belmont Education. As an educator with grant-writing experience, this makes perfect sense: grants go to programs with strong evidence of success, and the PLTs are a win for all constituents of Belmont, and a win for our children.
 
At the February 14th School Committee meeting, I observed a Winn Brook PLT present their project: “How do we implement structured vocabulary instruction in order to improve student word choice in writing?”  The team shared their effective, results-driven curricular program that both the students and teachers enjoyed. The clear, concrete result: the students’ writing improved measurably.
 
Teachers are in the trenches of educational leadership.  The PLT model bolsters shared knowledge, coordination of resources, and efficiency gained through collaboration.  The PLT model is a goal-based system designed to inspire change from the ground up.  The PLT model can be measured on the teacher’s side of the ledger by surveying teacher satisfaction. Improved teacher satisfaction directly correlates to improved student performance and the gratification of higher-order needs – the ability to influence not educational policy but rather the day-to-day experience of teaching – is the most powerful indicator of job satisfaction.  To put it simply, showing we trust teachers to work together and then facilitating this partnership improves morale which translates to better student outcome and reduces turn-over, lowering overall costs.
 
Measuring the effectiveness of the PLTs on student learning is an inherent structure built into the PLT model: if the students demonstrate measurable learning towards the goals laid out by the specific PLT project, then indeed that project has been a success. If not, then a reworking and reevaluation of the action plan within the project ensues, leading to ultimate student learning.
 
Setting aside the time necessary for our teachers to engage fully in their professional development through the PLTs translates directly to the high quality our students’ experience. I believe it is worth shorter Wednesdays.
 
As a tax-paying homeowner, I’m further pleased that the PLT model intelligently leverages our current resources and provides equitable professional development for teaching staff, without putting any further financial strain on the town.  It is an innovative solution at a time when more are needed.  In short, the PLT model costs our town nothing, yet yields positive results in student improvement, teacher development, and job satisfaction.
 
As a School Committee member, I would be eager to join the soon-to-be-formed Curriculum Subcommittee and bring my education background to help examine and leverage the results of the PLTs, to continue along this path of evolving our schools into even greater communities of shared strength.

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