Knox County School Superintendent Wants 'Commmunity of Learners'

Superintendent Jim McIntyre says a Professional Learning Community—teachers teaching each other—is a key to improving the quality of instruction at any school.

One of School Superintendent Jim McIntyre's many appealing attributes is his avoidance of invocations that, "This is how we did it in Boston."

During his year on the job here, the former chief operating officer of the Boston public school system has steeped himself in the workings of Knox County Schools and embraced many of the initiatives that were already underway.

These were incorporated into a vision statement last fall whose very title, "Building on Strength, Excellence for All Children," bespeaks that embrace. That statement, which expansively enunciated a wide-ranging and far-reaching set of goals, has in turn become the basis for a strategic planning process intended to make good on them.

One way in which McIntyre clearly put his own imprint on the goals was the emphasis he placed on teacher collaboration. "Our teachers are competent and caring, but largely do not work collaboratively," he stated. He went on to say that, "Perhaps the most promising dynamic in supporting high-quality instruction and continuous improvement is meaningful teacher collaboration. In today's demanding and challenging educational environment, teachers must work together and learn from each other in order to maximize their effectiveness. Creating a community of learners, what we often call a Professional Learning Community (PLC), is one of the key reforms in improving the quality of instruction in any school." He vowed that, "I will make it a priority to ensure that a viable, intensive, and active Professional Learning Community is developed and sustained at each of our schools."

In an interview, McIntyre talks about the steps he's taken to make good on this vow. One is the expectations and accountability structure that have been set for principals. Another is a restructuring of the school day to create time for teachers at a given grade level or subject matter to meet and share experiences.

Under what's called parallel block scheduling that's being introduced at all elementary schools, all students in each grade will have their phys ed and arts classes at the same time. "That allows time for all your third-grade teachers, and so forth, to meet together and for collaboration to occur," McIntyre explains.

But he stresses that, "Just saying you're going to meet at a certain hour is not a PLC. There's got to be a realization that among your colleagues there is some tremendous expertise that you can learn from—and that as a group of teachers work through this together, one or two or all of them are going to step up and help lead this work. When you get this kind of buy-in, that's when it really flourishes. And I envision it more as a continuous collaboration rather than a particular point in time. Teachers start visiting each other's classrooms, chatting in the parking lot on the way home, or over a cup of coffee in the morning."

There is already a much more structured form of professional collaboration in place at two Knox County elementary schools (Lonsdale and Pond Gap) and two middle schools (Holston and Northwest). It's known as the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP) and was launched on a pilot basis three years ago with the intent to extend to more schools if it proved successful. Each of the schools has what are known as master and mentor teachers (28 in all) who get supplemental pay ranging from $2,500 to $6,000 for working with other teachers. And all teachers at these schools can qualify for bonuses of up to $2,000 based on test-score gains of their own students and the schools as a whole as well as their evaluations.

McIntyre considers TAP to be "very successful" and points to the fact that Holston, Lonsdale, and Pond Gap, which had been low-performing schools, are now getting A's on a state report card that measures student achievement gains in relation to a norm. (Northwest gets a B.) But TAP costs about $1.4 million at just the four schools, and budgeting exigencies stand in the way of its expansion in the short run. "I'd love it if we could secure the resources to expand it to a few more schools, but even in the long run I'm not sure it's scaleable to the entire district," the superintendent says.

What McIntyre has been able to secure, however, is some federal funding that will cover salary supplements of $5,000 to $10,000 to perhaps around a dozen top teachers who agree to move to or stay at what he terms "high-needs" schools. Knox County is one of only seven school districts in the country to get such funding.

Beyond that, McIntyre is hopeful that some of the earmarked money that Knox County is due to receive from the federal stimulus legislation can be similarly used to attract top teachers to what are known as Title I schools. But he says it's premature to estimate how many.

Between the two, however, he foresees a nucleus for substantial extension of the role of mentor teachers beyond TAP schools. "We've got lots of terrific teachers out there who have a lot to share and give. They don't necessarily aspire to be administrators, but are at a point in which they're asking, ‘What's my next challenge?' And that's where we can provide some explicit opportunities for teacher leadership, both in their interest and ours, and ultimately in the interest of students."