The Promise of Communities of Practice

In this era of increasing global competition, the need to improve under-performing schools and education systems, especially those that serve high-need students and communities, is a widely accepted moral and economic imperative. The most effective ways to support and sustain change within our education organizations is the subject of more debate.

A great part of the answer lies not only in the types of tools, programs, and strategies used to close the achievement gap, but also in how education researchers and practitioners share information with each other. Recognizing the value of building systems for peer-to-peer professional learning among teachers and other education leaders, the US Department of Education is investing in and supporting “communities of practice” as part of several key initiatives, including Investing in Innovation (i3), the Office of Special Education Programs’ (OSEP) technical assistance centers, Promise Neighborhoods, and Race to the Top.

The recently published National Education Technology Plan, “Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology” outlines a vision of the highly connected teacher, with ready access to not only the digital content, tools and resources, but also to the experts and peers who can offer immediate assistance regardless of geographic proximity. As a result, the Office of Educational Technology has launched a design research project focused on connected online communities of practice.

Social learning theorist Etienne Wenger coined the term community of practice as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” According to Wenger, an increasing number of people and organizations in various sectors are focusing on communities of practice as a key to improving their performance.

This is certainly true for education, where building communities of practice among teachers and leaders is widely considered to be a promising strategy for sustained, substantive school improvement. “The path to change in the classroom,” writes Stanford Education Professor Milbrey McLaughlin, “lies within and through professional learning communities.” School redesign efforts have increasingly centered on the creation of structures whereby teachers can collaborate about their practice and build on the shared knowledge of how to support students and the broader school community.

Promise Neighborhoods

Many of the 21 Promise Neighborhoods planning grantees and the more than 300 organizations that applied for the program recognize the value of meeting, exchanging information, and building relationships with each other as a means to support the development of their cradle-to-career education projects. Examples of just some of the emerging Promise Neighborhood communities of practices we’ve heard about in the field include:

  • Several communities in Georgia, including two planning grantees (Atlanta and Athens) and two high-scoring applicants (Savannah and Macon) that are meeting in-person and via web conferences to share their work, specifically common challenges and opportunities in their state, such as the possibility of leveraging Federal investments in state longitudinal data systems.
  • Three planning grantees in Massachusetts (Boston, Lawrence, and Worcester) have met monthly under the direction of Mitchell Chester, the State’s Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education to align their efforts across the state.
  • A group of high-scoring Promise Neighborhoods applicants in Chicago (Aspira, Children’s Home and Aid, Goodcity, Logan Square NA, and SGA Youth and Family Services) are meeting to review peer reviewer feedback from the 2010 competition and share best practices as they begin their needs assessments and other planning activities outlined in the program’s notice inviting applications.
  • A working group of public agencies and philanthropic organizations in Los Angeles called the LA Neighborhood Revitalization Workgroup was established to support Promise Neighborhoods grantees and similar neighborhood-centered initiatives throughout the City. It is a potential model for other cities to create platforms for information sharing among place-based neighborhood initiatives.
  • In New York City, a number of local foundations are meeting with representatives from the two grantees from the City (Abyssinian Development Corporation and Lutheran Family Health Centers) to learn more about Promise Neighborhoods, how it fits into other federal education and community development initiatives, and how funders can support high-scoring applicants in their planning and implementation efforts.

Significant resources outside of the Department of Education are available to support these peer networks, such as the Promise Neighborhoods Institute (PNI) at PolicyLink, a foundation-supported nonprofit that offers tools, information, and strategies to assist communities interested in the program. The Center for the Study of Social Policy, a partner in the PNI, is drawing on its experience with communities of practice as a technical assistance provider for the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Making Connections sites. Other organizations facilitating the sharing of information among communities include the United Neighborhood Council’s Building Neighborhoods blog. Both the PNI and Building Neighborhoods are using technology to convene and share best practices among practitioners.

Online Communities of Practice

The potential power in social media and other technology tools is central to the investment of the Department’s Office of Education Technology in Connected On-Line Communities of Practice. The Department is currently supporting design research to develop a framework for on-line communities of practice in education. The goal is to use technology to improve tools for teaching, assessment, learning, and shaping school structures. This community of practice work will connect teachers, district leadership, education technology professionals, educational researchers, state and local data management personnel, and the special needs community with data, resources, content, and support.

Social media technologies and Web 2.0 structures (FacebookNingLinkedInEdmodo, etc.) will be explored as potential platforms for activities to support learning and teaching, including webinars, white papers, videos, peer-to-peer networking and problem solving, online training, collaborative environments, blogs, and forums. A Primary Technical Working Group of experts in the field of education technology, social networking, and communities of practice development are convening through the project in a series of meetings to develop an approach and framework by which to steward a platform for on-line communities of practices. These contact zones of interaction will thereby enable increased assistance and collaborative functions that will better ensure that education professionals have the tools they need to do their jobs.

Connected Online communities of practice stewarded through the Department will have the ability to navigate across several dimensions of research, policy, and practice, thereby accelerating innovative reform efforts. The direct and timely sharing of information, collaborative spaces, and expertise across domains and geography will enable increased contexts for supporting those who work in and around schools. Communities will facilitate problem solving approaches to schooling by giving educators the access to real time resources in a range of domains. Intersecting and crosscutting participation in multiple communities of practice, as well as attracting a critical mass of both participants in individual communities of practices and spotlighting high performing communities will increase the expansion of this effort.

Next Steps

As the Department of Education utilizes online platforms for developing communities of practice in Promise Neighborhoods and other programs, we hope to increase spaces for collaboration, knowledge sharing, and problem solving to close the achievement gap. Important areas for future development include how to connect communities across interest areas, expand audience participation to users who may not be technologically savvy and how to allow information sharing while recognizing the time constraints of those who serve high-need students and communities. More broadly, this work seeks to identify and effectively transfer the components of successful communities of practice to online educational communities. As school reform efforts in an environment of declining budgets signal a need for increased support, resources, and collaboration, this work seeks to better connect those in the field doing great work to improve outcomes for students.

Larkin Tackett serves in the Office of Innovation and Improvement as Deputy Director of Promise Neighborhoods. Karen Cator is the Director of the Office of Educational Technology.