I had the pleasure of spending two days with Superintendent Jack Dale and his team from Fairfax County. Jack leads the 12th largest school district in the US with over 12,000 teachers and 175,000 students.
Fairfax is also one of the highest performing districts in the US. In the last academic year, they employed 1,200 new teachers from a field of 30,000 applicants!
After several hours of discussion on the nature of education in the US and globally, Jack kept coming back to one feature he believes is at the heart of their success. For the last two years they have been focussing on building professional learning communities within their schools, within their system and within the office that supports schools.
These teams come together around topics of interests and expertise that are aimed at improving student learning. They’ve been using the work of Richard Dufour as a guide for the work they are doing in schools.
Jack and his team believe the most effective way to improve student learning is to improve teachers’ teaching. This requires teachers to learn about and share their practice.
Jack concedes it’s difficult but challenges are shared by education systems everywhere because the current model of schooling actively works against teachers learning and reflecting on their practice in classrooms.
He describes this challenge as ‘re-professionalising teaching’ – changing the paradigm so students are at the centre of schooling.
They are also rolling out a program where good teachers are identified and targeted to work outside the standard hours of teaching. This requires them to be available to work extended school days and during holidays for additional remuneration. These teachers are available to work with other teachers in schools to analyse and understand student data.
Part of the solution lies in the better use of technologies. Fairfax has changed the policy on banning external devices on their network and now find on any given day there are 40,000 devices accessing it.
Teachers and students bring their own devices to school and for every teacher and student in their system, the ratio of devices to people is 3:1. There is a greater focus especially in the US on using technology to support student learning and teacher collaboration.