by Allison Dagen and Aimee Moorewood
In February 2012, a message quickly circulated among our faculty in the reading program at West Virginia University. Congratulations, we did it! Without reading any further into the body of the email–all five of us understood the message. The program report we submitted a semester earlier to the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) had been approved. Nationally recognized. No conditions.
Currently, over 150 graduate reading programs across the county have successfully attained accreditation through partnership between the Specialized Professional Association (SPA), the International Reading Association (IRA), and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). To achieve national accreditation, a program must submit a program recognition report before their institution's NCATE site visit. In this report, data of a program’s six to eight key assessments are presented as well as a clearly defined explanation of how these assessments align with the IRA standards. See International Reading Association’s website for a detailed description of the IRA/NCATE accreditation process.
Our goal in this short article is to share our experience of how we (unknowingly) transformed our accreditation process work and surprisingly developed something greater than a successful program report–that is, a Professional Learning Community (PLC). It is our hope that others who are working through this process or are about to can learn from our collective seven year journey.
At West Virginia University, we offer a 36-credit Masters of Reading program. WVU is one of five institutions in the state that offer Reading Specialist certification. During any given semester we have 100-150 active graduate students. Our program reaches students across the state through regional cohort groups and online course offerings. Our program faculty consists of five full time professors and half dozen adjunct instructors.
Our work on this accreditation period began shortly after the International Reading Association’s Standards for Reading Professionals, Revised (2003) was released, one year after our last successful program recognition decision. Although we were seven years away from our next report submission, we knew that our program and our candidates would benefit greatly if we immediately integrated the new Standards, particularly the literacy coaching elements into our program. Over the next several years, we began developing a literacy coaching philosophy/strand, developing our program’s key assessments and scoring rubrics, and collecting /analyzing candidate data. During this time, we also began to schedule regular program meetings, usually at least once a month (coinciding with our regular faculty meetings) and sometimes met more regularly, especially as some of our self-imposed deadlines approached. We all attended these meetings, contributed equally and took the program development work seriously. Further, at least one faculty member regularly attended IRA/NCATE training sessions at the annual conference and would return to share the most recent updates from IRA.
It was not until near the end of the process, only a few months before submitting our final program recognition report that we came to understand how certain dimensions of this process mirror traits of a PLC. As we (the authors) worked through some final report edits, we were discussing how PLCs were being implemented in the schools within which we worked. In these local schools, teachers discussed how they used their PLC time to plan and meet together to, explore current research, analyze student work, discuss best practice and pedagogy and make changes in curriculum and instruction to best meet their students’ needs. Much of what the teachers were discussing regarding their PLC efforts were the activities we were engaged in for the past seven years.
Professional Learning Communities
Professional learning communities (PLCs) are not new phenomena in education. DeFour, DeFour and Eaker (2008) discuss three key characteristics defining a PLCs: (1) ensuring that students learn (2) developing a culture of collaboration and (3) focusing on results. Dana and Yendol-Hoppey (2008) present key elements of healthy inquiry-oriented PLCs. Below we highlight a number of these elements and share how we applied these principles in our accreditation work.
- Establish a vision that creates momentum for the work. This was simple – our vision was to successfully prepare our program candidates to serve as Reading Specialists and Literacy Coaches. The 2003 IRA Standards document guided this vision; we knew we had to develop and emphasize leadership capacity as part of our candidates’ experience. We used many high quality resources (e.g. Bean, 2010; Walpole & McKenna, 2004, International Reading Association website) to guide our work while reshaping program design and content. Additionally, since we began this work so soon after our last accreditation recognition, we had ample time to reflect on major changes which allowed us to maintain momentum and enthusiasm.
- Understand and embrace collaboration. Over the seven years the demographics of our Reading faculty changed (several faculty left, others were hired), but regardless of who was in the group, Reading faculty participation was always at 100%. Although scheduling and maintaining this large block of time (usually 2-4 hours) was a challenge for five overcommitted faculty members, we were successful and began to look forward to the meetings. We all contributed in this group effort to reshape our candidates’ experience. We were co-learners, co-decision makers, and co-coaches in this process. For example, we spent multiple meetings analyzing the Coaching Activities: Levels of Intensity figure included in the IRA position statement on coaching. We were able to collaborate to determine in which of our twelve courses we would introduce this figure and in which courses we would evaluate candidates’ fieldwork experience using the figure as a framework. This process was informative and meaningful; we were able to analyze the Standards, discuss course content, and make connections between the two as a collaborative group.
- Build trust among group members and establish critical friendships. We approached this work seriously and wanted to understand how and where to improve our program. To accomplish this goal, we needed to deepen our personal and professional relationships. While the relationship and trust building was certainly centered on our program work, it also came in the form of learning more about each other personally as well as professionally. For example, during our meetings, one of our colleagues liked to demonstrate evidence of how our candidates were using technology in the clinic (e.g. WAV files for fluency, Flip videos for coaching feedback). This would usually lead the rest of us to share our own research, new project ideas, and teaching stories (i.e. building trust). Further, we also spent time socializing and engaging in personal conversations (e.g. one colleague makes the best homemade salad dressing.) All of these interactions fostered trust, which allowed us to become critical friends. As our critical friendships developed, we began to use this time to seek out opinions and provide and accept feedback to and from each other.
- Hold the group accountable and document learning. During these meetings, we gave ourselves time to discuss current research on literacy coaching, reflect, collaborate and engage in rich, uninterrupted conversations with each other. We also came to these sessions with our task completed – in other words much work was accomplished by individuals between these meetings. For example, at one meeting, we were all required to bring multiple copies of our most recent assessment rubrics and we spent the time reviewing drafts and conferencing with each other about the content. This meeting was quite productive and would not have been so if the group members had not come prepared. In addition to walking away from the meetings with individual to-do lists and due dates, one faculty member would summarize all key points of the meeting, the individual work products due, and the next meeting dates/time for this work, and then distribute this information via email soon after the work session. Looking back at these artifacts reminds us of how much work we did accomplish during this process.
- Encourage, recognize and appreciate diversity within the group, understand change and acknowledge the discomfort it may bring to some PLC members. The hours we spent meeting in our reading clinic collaborating about accreditation was professional development for us but we are not sure we thought of it that way at the time, especially early on. In hindsight, we transitioned from “to meet this one objective” to the growth of a professional collaborative culture. We learned a lot about each other’s background experiences, differing views on pedagogy and general work styles. Sometimes this collaboration was challenging, and differences did emerge For example, we designated one of our key assessments as an action research project and some in the group felt the assignment did not contain all elements of teacher research; therefore it should be renamed or revised. Coming to a collective agreement about what this key assessment should look like, its title, and how it needed to be implemented within our program was important because changing this assignment to reflect substantive teacher research impacted the program. There was much discussion about these changes, some of which caused member discomfort; however, these conversations were very productive. Questioning each other’s assumptions and prompting thinking and discussion was a healthy component of our work.
- Comprehensive view of data. Once our assessments and rubrics were in place, we immediately started collecting data. We put protocols in place to inform and prepare adjuncts for a number of these key assessments; we had three to four years of data, collected while we continued to fine tune and tweak these assessments. The rubrics that we created would allow us to collect ample data on each of the IRA standard elements. At the beginning, we collected these data in “old school” fashion with paper/pencil checklists and huge boxes of raw data/candidate work. Over the course of the process, we went from coding in basic excel spreadsheets to implementing LiveText when our college purchased a license (a life saver!). We were able to use the data collected and look at candidate performance across multiple years and across sections taught (e.g. online vs. face to face) and even over time as the assessments and rubrics were refined. For example, over time, we were able to see positive trends across the candidates in our state’s licensure exam, particularly in the Reading Leadership section of the assessment.
- Work with building administrators. We were well supported by our department chair, dean and college’s NCATE coordinator who saw the value in the way in which we approached this task. Efforts were made for course reassignments, supplemental funds/summer pay and funds to attend conference sessions offered by IRA and NCATE. We’ve felt completely supported by the International Reading Association. For example, at the beginning of our work, we used the key assessment and rubric examples posted on the IRA website to guide the development of our first few key assessments. From the resources (web-based, conference trainings) to IRA personnel (thank you Gail Keating) to the dozen or so of our colleagues who have taken on the enormous service task of becoming the experts in the field of IRA accreditation (thank you Diane Kern, Debra Miller, Michael Shaw, and Bill Smith!), we always felt supported. In fact, at times we felt others, within our college must have had SPA – envy.
The outcomes of our accreditation work were (1) We have strengthened our high quality program for preparing our reading specialist candidates and (2) we also created a Professional Learning Community (PLC) among our faculty. While what we described here was the positive highlights of our group growing as a PLC in higher education, we recognize that we did stumble and hit some obstacles both individually and collectively during this process. However even with obstacles, the PLC provided support for our professional learning at the higher education level.
Bean, R.M. (2010). The Reading Specialist: Leadership in the classroom, school, and community. (2nd edition). New York: Guilford Publication.
Dana, N. & Yendol-Hoppey, D. (2008). The reflective educator’s guide to professional development. Coaching inquiry-oriented learning communities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
DuFour, R., DuFour, R. & Eaker, R. (2008). Revisiting professional learning communities at work: New insights for improving schools. Bloomington, IL: Solution Tree.
International Reading Association. (2010). Standards for reading professionals – Revised 2010. Newark, DE: Author
International Reading Association. (2004). The role and qualifications of the Reading Coach in the United States. Newark, DE: Author
International Reading Association. (2003). Standards for reading professionals – Revised 2003. Newark, DE: Author
Walpole, S., & McKenna, M. (2004). The Literacy Coach’s handbook. New York: Guilford Publications.
Allison Swan Dagen is an associate professor at West Virginia University, Allison.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aimee Morewood is an assistant professor at West Virginia University, email@example.com.