Superintendents in Classrooms: From Collegial Conversation to Collaborative Action: The Popularity of Using Lesson Study Groups and Other Types of Communities of Practice for the Professional Development of Teachers Is on the Rise. Ms. Rallis Describes a Unique Effort to Adapt This Tool to the Work of Public School Superintendents

Article excerpt

What happens when a group of public school superintendents comes together to form a community of practice for the improvement of teaching and learning? Can the members identify questions of practice and then collect, analyze, and interpret data from practice in order to improve it? Those who have taken part in the Connecticut Superintendents' Network have shown the collective will and persistence to do exactly that. (1)

Established and facilitated by the Connecticut Center for School Change, a school reform organization, the Network is grounded in a theory of action concerning professional development for administrators. All participating superintendents agree with Andrew Lachman, executive director of the Center, and Jane Tedder, its education program officer, that learning is both situated and social. That is, professional adults learn not through workshops but through multiple opportunities to examine real problems with peers. (2) And capitalizing on this social nature of learning is the concept of a community of practice--a professional group "engaged in the sustained pursuit of a shared enterprise" (3) for the purpose of learning and building capacity. Members work together to "test out ideas, critique one another's work, offer alternative conceptualizations, and provide both emotional and intellectual support." (4)

The Network's goals are:

* to develop superintendents' knowledge and skills to lead large-scale instructional improvement;

* to assist superintendents in developing distributed leadership (5) throughout their districts--that is, building a cadre of knowledgeable and skilled leaders who assume responsibility for developing their own practice around the pursuit of improvement; and

* to enable superintendents to build an infrastructure that supports the work of improvement--evaluation, professional growth, networks, and opportunities for collaboration.

As of its fourth year, the Network consisted of 12 superintendents who had been wrestling with establishing high quality teaching and improving student learning in classrooms throughout their districts. Six of the members had participated for three years; three, for two years; and three, for one year. Six of the superintendents were women; two were African American. Their districts were geographically and demographically diverse, serving more than 57,000 students and operating in locales ranging from postindustrial cities to affluent suburbs and less wealthy towns.

In addition to the practicing superintendents, Lachman and Tedder are members of the Network, as are Richard Elmore of Harvard; David Nee, executive director of the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund; and Sharon Rallis of the University of Massachusetts.

This blended network of practitioners, professors, and change agents is committed to a process in which members go into schools to observe teaching and learning directly and then support one another in solving problems that they have identified through what they have seen in practice. The group meets monthly and focuses on a problem related to student learning in a particular school identified by a member superintendent. We visit that school, conducting 20-minute observations in several classrooms and collecting data to address the problem. After the observations, we meet with the school leaders to talk about what we saw.

During the following month, we meet to analyze the instructional issues raised by our observations, to consider the implications and potential solutions, and to make sense of what we have learned. Elmore helps focus the sessions and connects theory and research to practice; Rallis documents the discourse.

Here we tell the story of how the Network developed and how it operates. We also discuss what we have learned, both about the process of creating the community and about the role of leadership in improving teaching and learning in schools. …