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STEM Teachers in Professional Learning Communities: From Good Teachers to Great Teaching

This report summarizes an analysis of research that documents what happens when STEM teachers work together in professional learning communities to improve teaching and increase student achievement. It provides examples of projects using this model.
Author(s): 
Kathleen Fulton
Ted Britton
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation: 
National Commission on Teaching and America's Future
Published: 
2011
Resource Type: 
Research
Number of Pages: 
19
Abstract: 

STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) teaching is more effective and student achievement increases when teachers join forces to develop strong professional learning communities in their schools. This finding is supported by a two-year National Science Foundation funded study, STEM Teachers in Professional Learning Communities: A Knowledge Synthesis, conducted by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF) and WestEd, based on an analysis of nearly two hundred STEM education research articles and reports. The finding further supports an earlier NCTAF report, released in 2010 with Pearson Foundation funding, that synthesizes research papers and projects documenting teacher learning team initiatives across all school subjects.

To meet the needs of today's learners, the tradition of artisan teaching in solo-practice classrooms will have to give way to a school culture in which teachers continuously develop their content knowledge and pedagogical skills through collaborative practice that is embedded in the daily fabric of their work. Teacher collaboration supports student learning, and the good news is that teachers who work in strong learning communities are more satisfied with their careers and are more likely to remain in teaching long enough to become accomplished educators. This report takes readers one step further, summarizing the impacts of learning teams, particularly in STEM content areas, on teacher practice. 

What the Experts Say: 

This summary of two large meta-studies makes a compelling and important case that we need to take a longer view in our efforts to improve math teaching and learning in adult education programs. Instead of the short-term, high-stakes accountability structures that are common in our field at present and that policy makers hope will improve teaching, this article points to more successful work (that is more common in European and Asian countries) where the focus is on longer-term teacher development (through what it calls Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)). The meta-studies that examined these PLCs in the U.S. conclude that they lead to better teaching, better teacher retention, and better student outcomes.

Adult education policy makers are the ones who should pay closest attention to this article. The only way that these PLCs can be nurtured is if teachers are supported (paid) to participate, and if professional developers with expertise are guiding them over long periods of time. This paper is also important for government agencies and politicians that make the decisions about how and how much to fund adult education, so that they understand the funds that are needed to build a more robust system of math and science education. 

The resource reports on studies that support practitioner wisdom about the value of learning teams; individuals tend to learn more and more deeply when working in well organized learning teams or communities.  While not specifically designed to address adult learning contexts, the resource does draw on research about learning and teaching and professional development, regardless of disciplines. In this instance, the study focuses on STEM.

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