American education, as an institution, has undergone over 50 years of educational reform efforts at the national, state and local level yet as a nation trails behind other comparable countries (U.S. Department of Education, NCES 2015). One latest reform effort, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) Initiative, is state-driven and led in part by the National Governors Association. The education change effort meets the Obama Administration’s challenge to promote innovation, reform and excellence in America’s Public Schools (White House, November 04, 2009) and is generally supported by legislators, school boards, administrators, teachers, parents and businesses. Literature (e.g., organizational & leadership theory, teacher retention, psychology, etc.) has revealed that a multi-level, multi-faceted individualized approach with consistent stakeholder support at all bureaucratic and consumer levels results in effective implementation (e.g., high levels of change efficacy and change commitment inter and intra agency).
One current strategy utilized and promoted as best practice to support this goal is the use of Professional Learning Communities, a small group structure that focuses on student achievement via teacher collaboration, often referred to loosely as teacher teaming, grade level groups and/or varying curriculum-focused committees.
This case study of two districts explored the following three questions: 1. How does small group work support large-scale innovation (reform policy) implementation (in public schools)? 2. How does actual practices vary from what previous research suggests? 3. What do local public school administrators, staff, and faculty identify as issues facilitating and non-facilitating for the use of small groups in public schools?
The methods utilized included a series of semi-structured interviews with the Supervising CCSS Implementation Manager, the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum at District A, and the collection and review of related artifacts, including the comprehensive implementation plan and anecdotes about implementation at the district level and across school sites. Alternatively, a comprehensive online teacher survey was employed, adapted from research on the use of small groups, best practices for professional learning communities and organizational readiness for change literature (Hackman 1983, Wenger et al. 2002, DeFour 2004, Wells & Feun 2009, Weiner 2009, etc.) for District B. This survey was followed by semi-structured interviews with four faculty members, a Teacher on Special Assignment and two site Principals.
Both qualitative and quantitative analysis revealed the contextual complexities of organizational readiness for change (e.g. vertical: bureaucratic administrative hierarchy and horizontally: across school sites and classrooms; inter and intra agency), the influence of teacher quality and retention, and the implications of utilizing a variety of small group structures as work teams, a means for professional development, and a problem solving cadre all under the loose definition of a Professional Learning Community strategy