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Professional Learning Communities Still Work (If Done Right)

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Late last year, the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation published a widely noted study intended to explore what teachers want when it comes to professional development. But particularly on the important matter of teacher professional learning communities, the study—conducted by the Boston Research Group—resulted in more confusion than clarity.

First, let’s look at the part that was not at all confusing. According to that study, titled “Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development,” teachers would prefer professional development that helps them plan and improve their instruction, is teacher-driven, includes hands-on strategies relevant to their classrooms, is sustained over time, and recognizes that teachers are professionals with valuable insights.

In addition, the teachers surveyed who said they see themselves as members of strong collaborative cultures saw significant benefits in their day-to-day work in key instructional areas, such as planning lessons, developing teaching skills and content, and aligning curriculum and expectations. They reported dramatically higher satisfaction “with day-to-day work,” their “perceived effectiveness,” and “their ability to meet challenges.”

These responses are consistent with research showing that the best job-embedded professional development occurs when educators are members of high-performing professional learning communities, or groups of teachers working together, in a structured format, to improve specific areas of student learning. A 2009 study by McKinsey & Co. of the world’s best school systems, for example, found that “the expansion of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) is indicative of the increased emphasis on teacher collaboration as a powerful means of professional development … professional development that is increasingly collaborative, data-driven, and peer facilitated, all with a focus on classroom practice.” So the conditions teachers in the “Teachers Know Best” study described as desirable represent a good description of PLCs.

The confusion in the Boston Research study arises in the finding that teachers surveyed say that the least beneficial of their professional development opportunities is in fact “professional learning communities.” How could this be so given teachers’ acknowledgement, in the same report, of the benefits of strong collaborative cultures?

Not ‘Just Another Meeting’

It is not clear from the report how the Boston Consulting Group or the respondents define PLC. But their use of the term is certainly not consistent with the PLC process we have witnessed in highly effective schools around the world. Some teachers quoted in the study indicate that they see their PLCs is “just another meeting,” a place to “share their frustrations,” or “a social hour.” If this is how educators are actually spending their time when provided with the opportunity to collaborate, we absolutely agree that their time is being wasted. But we want to stress as emphatically as possible that the conditions they describe are not related to the authentic PLC process in any way.

While providing time for educators to collaborate in meaningful teams is a necessary condition for effective PLCs, it is far from sufficient. A professional learning community is not simply a meeting: It is an ongoing process in which educators work collaboratively in recursive cycles of collective inquiry and action research in order to achieve better results for the students they serve.

For example, in the Professional Learning Community at Work model outlined by Solution Tree (which with we are both connected), the process includes the following essential elements:

1) Educators work in collaborative teams rather than in isolation and take collective responsibility for student learning.

2) Collaborative teams implement a guaranteed and viable curriculum, unit by unit.

3) Collaborative teams establish the criteria they will use in assessing student work, can apply the criteria consistently, and monitor student learning through an ongoing assessment process that includes frequent, team-developed common formative assessments.

4) Educators use the results of common assessments to help one another improve their individual practice; build the team’s capacity to achieve its goals; and identify individual students, by name and by need, for intervention and enrichment.

5) The school provides a systematic process for intervention and enrichment based on the needs of individual students.

Failures of Leadership

A process like that does not emerge by accident. It requires leaders at the district and school level to provide purpose and support for work to be done by collaborative teams and to maintain the groups’ focus on specific goals and initiatives.

Too often we see school and district leaders fail at these responsibilities, which results in confusion and frustration on the part of teachers. The teachers who participated in the “Teachers Know Best” survey offered excellent advice on what was needed to improve their ineffective collaborative time. They called for more structured agendas and objectives, mutual accountability, and protocols for giving and receiving feedback to one another. In high-performing PLCs, these matters are not left to chance but are well established to clarify and support the work of each collaborative team.

All teachers can benefit from engaging in the work of true PLCs. But perhaps those who benefit the most are the 150,000 first-year teachers who are recruited into schools—many of them high-needs schools—every year. These teachers are much more likely to experience success and remain in the profession when they have the ongoing guidance, mentoring, and support that the true PLC process provides.

In a study we conducted involving more than 200 schools in four countries with more than three-quarters of a million students, we found a strong link between gains in student achievement and long-term implementation of PLCs. So we continue to believe the PLC process, when done well, offers the best strategy for powerful professional development. The findings of the “Teachers Know Best” study should not be used to obscure that.

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