Building Professional Learning Communities
November 19, 2007
Building Professional Learning Communities
• Rick DuFour, a former-award winning high school principal and superintendent, is an education consultant specializing in learning communities and school improvement. He is the author of many books, including (with R. Eaker) Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement, and is a chief contributor to the Web site All Things PLC.
• Becky DuFour a former teacher, principal, and district administrator, is a consultant on school leadership and staff development. She is the co-author of Whatever It Takes: How Professional Learning Communities Respond When Kids Don’t Learn among other books and a contributor to All Things PLC.
• Anne Jolly, a former middle school science teacher and Alabama’s Teacher of the Year in 1994, is the author of A Facilitator’s Guide to Professional Learning Teams. She is currently the project director for professional learning teams at the SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Anthony Rebora (Moderator): Welcome to our live chat on school professional learning communities. We have a lot of great questions, and we are fortunate to have a very distinguished panel of guests online with us. Rick and Becky DuFour are leading education consultants on PLCs and the authors of a number of influential articles and books on the issue. And Anne Jolly, a former Alabama teacher of the year, is the author of A Facilitator’s Guide to Professional Learning Teams and has spent a lot time helping schools set up and maintain PLCs.
Before we get started, I want to encourage everyone who is interested in this topic to check out our recently published Teacher Professional Development Sourcebook. The current (and inaugural) issue focuses on teacher-led professional development initiatives and features an extensive interview with Anne. It also includes a substantial directory of professional development resources and services, with a whole section devoted to professional learning communities.
OK. Onto the discussion. ...
Question from Walt Gardner, education writer:
How do PLCs differ from longstanding staff development strategies?
Anne Jolly: Good question, Walt. Here’s the short answer: Most “longstanding staff development” seemed to revolve around the idea of building skills in individual teachers who then tried to apply these skills in isolation. Typically these workshops were one-time events with little or no follow-up support. Most were offsite and targeted to general academic needs of the in the school system or to the “topic du jour.” Workshop content was frequently valuable; however, only 8% of teachers actually made changes in classroom practice as a result of workshops. Enter . . . PLCs – a tailor-made process for leveraging workshop content as well as for generating new knowledge and skills on site! PLCs involve teams of teachers in working together to study, learn, and support one another as they make changes in classroom practice. This process is collaborative rather than isolated. Ongoing learning and support continue throughout the school year. This professional development occurs at the school site and focuses on needs of the specific students in that school. Teachers work as interdependent colleagues, and a culture of collaboration and collective responsibility takes root. When teachers work together in PLCs to implement new teaching practices, over 90% of teachers do so successfully. Teamwork and collaboration work! Thanks for asking. Anne
Question from Mark Crockett, Teacher, Western Albemarle High School, Crozet, VA: I do not argue with the notion of collaboration among and between teachers. But, is there any specific research evidence that content-specific PLCs, focused on common assessments, do in fact produce higher student achievement?
Rick DuFour: The research is considerable.The Center for School Restructuring studied over 1500 schools at all grade levels over a five year period to conclude the most effective schools operated as PLCs. Other researchers include McLaughlin and Talbert; Kruse and Mark, and Doug Reeves in his study of 90-90-90 schools. The Southwest Educational Development Lab has been conducting research on PLCs over several years. It wrote,"This review and synthesis of the literature on learning communities represents the work of highly reputed educational researchers in the fields of teaching and learning, and school change processes. Through defining characteristics and operational procedures, these researchers have helped us to understand more about these communities. Further, the research is clear about the significant outcomes for both staff and students that result from professional organization arrangements such as ....greater academic gains in math, science, history, and reading than in traditional schools and smaller achievement gaps between students from different backgrounds.” Another educational research lab, West Ed, identified schools making significant gains in achievement and reported its central finding, “The central importance of a professional community - a culture of learning will be no surprise to those familiar with other educational research.” Research conducted by the National Education Association concluded, “High performing schools tend to promote collaborative cultures and support professional communities.” The NEA calls for teachers to work together to develop and analyze multiple measures of assessment to refine teaching and learning. The NCTM, NCTE,NSTA,NASSP, NAESP, NMSA, National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, National Board of Professional Teaching Standards and National Staff Development Council have all called for schools to be organized as PLC’s. In terms of common assessments specifically, the research of the nation’s leading assessment experts such as Doug Reeves and Rick Stiggins have called for teacher-developed common assessments.England’s Paul Black has synthesized over 250 studies supporting the power of teacher-developed formative assessments and his colleague Dylan Wiliam asserts the The best way to support teachers in using powerful formative classroom assessments is through building-based teacher learning communities. As he wrote, “a focus on the use of assessment in support of learning, developed through teacher learning communities, promises not only the largest potential gains in student achievement, but also provides a model for teacher professional development that can be implemented effectively at scale.”
Question from Kris M. Krause, Lecturer, California State University East Bay: What are effective approaches to introduce professional learning communities to schools with little history of teacher collaboration?
Anne Jolly: You know, despite the increasing visibility of the PLC initiatives, the schools you describe are in the vast majority. The switch from an individualistic approach to instruction to a collaborative approach can be a mind-boggling shift for teachers. I’d suggest first working with the teachers in a school to provide them with basic information about PLCs. This would include laying some groundwork about the rationale for PLCs and a vision for what these can accomplish for teachers, students, and schools. It would also include giving a preview of what teachers do in these meetings . . . what do the meetings look like and sound like? How do they differ from regular meetings? Next – organize, organize. Who will be on teams, when will they meet, what resources will they need? Then it’s time for some skill-building. How and why do teachers set ground rules for meetings, how will they set data-driven goals? How will they make sure their meetings are productive and assess their team progress? Throughout the process, the key is support, troubleshooting, and encouragement. Remember, don’t regard where these teams are as “good” or “bad.” They are where they are. Work with each of them to get them to the next step in the process. I enjoyed answering that question ... thanks! Anne
Question from Trinidad Hernandez, University of Houston: Some faculty and staff may undoubtedly have a difficult time moving from a culture of isolation into learning communities. How may other faculty and staff help these professionals make that transition and understand their role as a collaborator and its importance?
Becky DuFour: Let’s begin with the assumptions that: 1.) all staff members have been organized into a series of collaborative teams, focused on student learning and 2.) time and support for collaboration are being provided each team by the administration. Some teams, however, are discovering some of their members are reluctant to collaborate for any number of reasons. (i.e. not wanting to share their hard work - ideas and/or materials; being fearful their ideas will be criticized by their colleagues; not convinced collaboration will actually enhance their teaching and ultimately student achievement; or simply not getting along well with their teammates). Here are several steps theses team can take to help colleagues who are experiencing difficulty; 1. Establish team norms –In PLCs norms represent protocols/commitments developed by each team to guide members in working together. Norms help team members clarify expectations regarding how they will work together to achieve their shared goals. Daniel Goleman’s states norms are “Ground rules or habits that govern a group (Goleman, 2002, p. 173) and that establishing explicitly stated norms is an essential first step in getting off to a good start and in transforming a group into a team. (i.e. We will begin and end our meetings on time; we will each contribute to team dialogue; we will share equally in the workload; we will listen respectfully; etc.) 2. Identify and pursue a common SMART (Strategic, Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results-Oriented, Time-Bound) goal – the very definition of a team in a PLC is a group of people working interdependently to achieve a common goal, for which members are held mutually accountable. Katzenbach and Smith’s research found establishing the right goals are the most powerful tools to help people begin to come together as a team. 3. Become skillful in having crucial conversations. Kerry Patterson et.al. (2002) offer some very helpful tips for having Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High This book could provide some strategies for members of the teams to use when they experience difficulty with the team process. 4. Become skillful in Howard Gardner’s seven strategies for changing someone’s mind (including your own?): a. Reason. Appealing to rational thinking and decision making. b. Research. Building shared knowledge of the research base supporting a position. c. Resonance. Connecting to the person’s intuition so that the proposal “feels right.” d. Representational Re-descriptions. Changing the way the information is presented (for example, using stories or analogies instead of data). e. Resources and Reward. Providing people with incentives to embrace an idea. f. Real World Events. Presenting real-world examples where the idea has been applied successfully. g. Confrontation* *In the early stages of working in teams in a PLC, there will likely be times when a staff member(s) remains reluctant to contribute to the team process regardless of how skillful the members are in the arts of persuasion. At those critical junctures, the principal must be willing to direct the team process. The hope is that the reluctant team members will ultimately experience the benefits of collaboration and will no longer need to be convinced. We have learned one of the best ways to help people believe in the power of collaboration is to put them into the team setting and then provide all members with time, support, resources and just in time training when they experience difficulty. Therefore, we have devoted multiple chapters to building and supporting strong collaborative teams in our book: Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, Many, 2006)
Question from Kevin Brennan, Principal, Carrington School, Waterbury, CT: What are some of the barriers to implementing PLCs, and how have they successfully been overcome?
Anne Jolly: You’re the perfect person to ask this question, Kevin! I see that you are a principal. You’ll be the front-line person in the “PLC barriers” department. First, remember that a barrier is not a permanent blockade – it’s just something to hurdle or go around. There are at least three things to consider in identifying the barriers for your school. First, what school policies and organizational supports are in place? Do teachers have time to meet and comfortable meeting space without interruptions? Is PLC time “sacred time” within the school day (i.e. free from other responsibilities and meetings)? How many other initiatives and responsibilities are competing for teachers’ time and attention? Are needed resources available? Providing up front support to get this going, and continuing support when it’s underway, will knock down a major barrier. Second, do your teachers have the information and skills they need to engage successfully in collaborative work? Provide this through trainings, and be sure that the training isn’t all up-front. It can continue throughout the year and even during team meetings themselves. Ongoing learning about PLC collaboration throughout the year can be a barrier-buster. Third, how do teachers feel about PLCs? Negative feelings can create barriers of resistance and apathy. There are several ways to address that barrier, including providing incentives like frequent feedback to teams, high visibility, professional development credit, time trades, tie-in with personal growth plans, take away some non-instructional duties, etc. That’s a brief and incomplete answer to a big question. But hopefully it’ll give you something to chew on. Anne
Question from Rosemary Knab, Coordinator of Program Development, NJ Center for Teaching and Learning:
What role(s) should school and district administrators play in the activities of a teacher lead PLC?
Rick DuFour: Administrators should create the structures and parameters to ensure the collaboration remains focused on those issues that have the biggest impact on student learning. For example, a leadership team could create a timeline for teams that clarifies topics and establishes expectations regarding what teams should produce as a result of their dialogue. By the second week, I would like you to present your team norms - the commitments you have made to each other regarding how you will operate as a team. By the fourth week I would like to see your SMART goal. By the eighth week I would like to see the essential standards you have agreed your students should achieve this semester. By the 10th week, let’s review your first common assessment. Teams should not have to guess about what they are expected to do. No team should ever have to say, “why are we here.” ON the other hand, teams ultimately should become self-directed so they don’t need the administration hovering. Initially leaders can monitor through products created by the team, but once the team becomes familiar with the process, it will take on more responsibility for making the process work.
Question from Brad Niessen - Instructional Technology Specialist: How would you address principals and teachers who say that they do not have time for learning communities? What are some examples of schedule changes that other schools or districts have used to build in time for learning communities?
Becky DuFour: We absolutely agree that time, during the contractual day, must be provided for teacher collaboration - just as principals, schedule lunch and teaching and learning time, time for techer collaboration must also be scheduled. We share about ten different ways time can be provided without requiring schools to keep the students at home, spend more money, or significantly shorten instructional minutes. For more information & ideas on Making time for teacher collaboration, please visit the following website: www.allthingsplc.info and click on “Tools & Resources” to locate a pdf file titled “making time for collaboration” You can also go to the “Evidence of Effectiveness” link on the same site and read about the various strategies each school on that list has implemented to provide the precious resource of time for collaboration.
Question from Lee Evans, World Languages Chair, St. Petersburg Catholic high School: Faculty working together cooperatively is essential for PLC’s. How do schools get enough time in a schedule the first year to get people working together? What are some of the different ways of putting this extra time into an already packed (and long) school day?
Anne Jolly: Well, Lee, my favorite answer for this one would be - redesign the entire school day so that teachers have a minimum of two hours a day dedicated to collaboration, and instructional planning. However – back to the land of school-based reality! Here are a few ways other schools have handled this. Some buy time for teachers by hiring teams of rotating substitute teachers or using paraprofessionals to release teachers from classrooms for an hour a week. Middle and high schools might use common planning time during the school day. Sometimes “specials” are organized into blocks of time to create common time for teachers to meet. Early start days and late dismissal days have worked well for some schools. These schools lengthen the school day for four days and bank that time. Then they release students early one day per week and teachers use that time to meet. Another options might be to allow teachers to during pep rallies and assemblies. Some schools hold PLC meetings in lieu of faculty meetings. One school I worked with paid the entire staff of 80 teachers for staying after school two hours per week to work in PLCs. (After school is my last choice for meeting time, but it certainly beats not meeting at all.) For more ideas, you can go to www.NSDC.org and type “Time for Professional Development” into the site search engine. In fact you can just google “Time for Professional Development” and you’ll find that you, I, and 197,000,000 others are working on this problem! Thanks for a highly relevant question! Anne
Question from Ryan Olson, School Psychologist, West Elementary: How do you approach and begin a professional learning community in a culture of high resistance?
Anne Jolly: Oh boy – have you hit a pervasive issue, Ryan! A negative culture has to be tackled one issue at a time. A couple of quick ideas. First, be sure everyone knows exactly what the expectations are and what the teams should accomplish. Then set up a communications process that involves team logs being sent electronically (preferably) to the principal and other team members. This sets the principal up to be able to provide quick, productive feedback to all team members by hitting “reply all.” Keep the team visibility high. Build in small successes so that when Mrs. J. uses a strategy successfully in her room, or the team has some other accomplishment, there’s some opportunity for positive vibes. Team members need to feel they’re accomplishing something. Be sure to have the team members talk about behaviors they value in other team members, and to turn this into a set of team norms. I could go on but these ideas should help to get you started. Thanks and be persistent! Anne
Question from Kathy, Teacher/Student: I am currently writing a research paper on PLCs. Can you tell me the history on Professional Learning Communities? I am not finding specific information concerning when they first began to develop. Also, what is the most important aspect of PLCs ? Thank you, Kathy
Rick DuFour: The term began to be used by researchers in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. Newmann and Whelage research in 1995 gave the term more prominence as did Judith Warren Little and Milbrey McLaughin. You will always find certain elements in the research on PLC’s - educators with high expectations for student learning. That is they believe the purpose of the school is to ensure students learn rather than they are taught. A collaborative culture to support student and adult learning. Frequent monitoring of student achievement and hunger for evidence of student learning, and then using that evidence to support students who need additional time for learning and to inform teacher practice as part of a cycle of continuous improvement.
Question from Pat Siano, Teacher and Professional Development Committee Member, Corinth Middle School:
In your opinion, what is the first step to begin the PLC process in a school district and WHY?
Anne Jolly: Hi Pat! First, do an upfront analysis to take stock of the current situation. What supports are in place, what do teachers, the principals, and others in the schools need to know about PLCs? How will they get that information? What are the current school cultures in terms of collaboration? Then develop a plan for how to proceed based on those results. The first steps in actual training involve providing the research-based rationale for PLCs and an overview of how PLCs are different from traditional professional development efforts. Good luck with your PLC work! Anne
Question from Davis Stewart, Teacher-Department Chair, Rocklin High School: How do you respond to critics complaint of losing instructional time when changing schedules to make the intervention piece of the PLC model, “mandatory” rather than “voluntary”? We are in the process of changing our schedule to include an extended lunch period and have concerned parents, mostly of high achieveing students, that do want to their students to lose instrucional time. Our resouces are limited with a high teacher to student ration and can’t offer enrichment activities.
Rick DuFour: If the analogy we use for schools is the factory, it makes sense that we would not want to slow down the assembly line. We would want every available minute to keep pouring in information and pounding in facts. If we think of schools as learning organizations, we would value time spent considering how to work smarter not just harder or longer. I would point out that when your students graduate from high school, if they elect to pursue higher education, they will probably only be in class 12 or 13 hours per week as opposed to the 30 or 35 you have in high school. Who would argue they will learn less during those 12 or 13 hours. IN terms of enrichment, if our students were being highly successful we simply encouraged them to pursue richer and more rigorous curriculum. We were perfectly willing to let successful students relax with some free time rather than feeling they had to be on task every second. Our adults are given some down time, why not the kids?
Question from Sammy Parker, former teacher: What are (1) the most serious barriers and obstacles to creating and, more importantly, sustaining PLCs and (2) your suggestions for overcoming those?
Becky DuFour: The research on PLCs indicates two barriers educators must overcome when making the shift from traditional school cultures to professional learning communities - from our own experience in leading and working with schools, we think the research is correct! The first barrier is overcoming our tradition of working in isolation. PLCs overcome this barrier by assigning staff into teams and providing teams with time, support, resources, and training every step of the way. Teams are expected to engage in collective inquiry and action research into questions focused on learning - teams generate products (i.e. norms, SMART goals, list of essential student learning outcomes, common team-made formative assessments, etc.) We’ve included a list of 18 critical issues for team consideration as a tool on www.allthingsplc.info and we’ve written about moving from a culture of isolation to a culture of collaboration in our book, Learning By Doing: A Handbook for PLCs at Work (Solution-Tree, 2006) The Second barrier is lack of clarity of purpose - even though most schools/districts have written a purpose/Mission statement that proclaims “learning for all,”, educators within those organizations often still operate under the assumption its our job to “teach” not to ensure “learning for all.” Therefore PLCs commit to ACT in ways aligned to their mission - learning. Collaborative teams of teachers work to clarify the most essential knowledge, skills, and dispositions, students must acquire, course-by-cours; they establish systems to monitor each student’s attainment of the essential learning through the use of frequent, team-made, common, formative assessments; and they work together to create and implement systems of both intervention for students who initially struggle and systems of enrichment for students who are ready to apply the learning at a deeper level. We’ve written extensively about this focus on learning in our books, Whatever It Takes and Learning by Doing.
Question from Tammy Rasmussen, Instructional Coach, Roseburg Public Schools: What would be the first book or article you would want a PLT to read as you build shared knowledge?
Anne Jolly: Hi, Tammy, For theory and a PLC basis, my favorite book is still “Professional Learning Communities at Work” by Rick DuFour and Robert Eaker. (All of Ricks books are great for providing information and motivation.) If you’re looking for books on the “how to” of professional teaming, you might try “A Facilitators Guide to Professional Learning Teams.” Other books would depend on what kind of knowledge teachers need in order to address the particular area of student need. These books might focus on providing research-based strategies for content and instructional strategies. Good luck with your coaching! Anne
Question from Dr. Charles Bevington, College of New Rochelle: Greetings, The “Cognition and Instruction EDU551" College of New Rochelle class of 27 students will be joining you today. “DuFour” is assigned reading. What is the connection between bulding lesson plans and professional learning communities?
Rick DuFour: Lesson plans focus on inputs. PLC’s are more interested in outcomes. When teachers gather to discuss how to teach a concept or skill, the conversation typically becomes a sharing of preferences -"this is how I like to teach the concept” or “this is how I have always taught the concept.” PLCs would rather have the conversation based on evidence of student learning, “how did you get such great results on our common assessment with that skill.” We are not opposed to joint planning of lessons, and there are some exciting things happening with Japanese Lesson Study. We want to emphasize however, that it is the evidence of student learning that should guide the conversation. Teachers looking at the results of a common assessment have better and more powerful information than teachers discussing how they like to teach.
Question from Terry Gurl, Doctoral Student, Teachers College Columbia University: How are PLCs different from lesson study groups? Was the idea developed with lesson study in mind?
Anne Jolly: Hi Terry, I must first confess to not being totally in the know about the latest events in lesson study. Based on what I do know, I think there’s a lot of commonality between PLCs and lesson study groups – or at least there should be! Ultimately PLC teams need to focus on providing effective, cutting-edge instruction to students in areas of student need (determined by data analysis). That requires ongoing study of research based information and teaching practices. Then teachers implement, examine, and adjust instructional practices. Sounds a lot like lesson study to me! Thanks for the question and good luck on that doctorate! Anne
Question from Reed Markham, Associate Professor, Daytona Beach College: How do you insure the commitment to continuous improvement in the PLC culture?
Becky DuFour: Continuous improvement cycles are embedded in the culture of a PLC because: 1.every team within the organization pursues SMART Goals (both short-term and long-term) and then becomes “hungry” for evidence that lets members know whether or not they are progressing toward the achievement of those goals. 2. Members of collaborative teams receive frequent & timely information (not just data) regarding the achievement of their students on a valid assessment, in comparison to other similar students taking the same assessment. Teachers are able to discover their own personal strengths and areas of need within the classroom AND they are able to identify students who need additional time and support to learn essential skills and students who are ready from a greater challenge. The continuos cycle of improvement is driven by every collaborative teams because they are constantly examining student work/results, celebrating the strengths, engaging in collective inquiry with their teammates regarding best (or better) practices; trying out some of those new practices (action research); gathering new data; sharing the new results/student work with the team...
Question from Barbara Howard, Exec Director, Professional Development, Scotland County Schools, NC:
In supporting and sustaining professional learning teams, what is the role of the principal?
Rick DuFour: I like Richard Elmore’s concept of “reciprocal accountability.” As principal, I will hold you accountable for engaging in certain processes to improve adult and student learning; however, I should be held accountable for providing you with everything you need to engage in those processes successfully. For example, if I ask your team to develop a common formative assessment, I have an obligation to provide you with: 1. time to address the task 2. an explanation as to why common formative assessments are beneficial for student learning 3. shared vocabulary so we all know what we mean by “common,” “formative” and “assessment.” 4. research and tools to help you build shared knowledge regarding the elements of quality assessments. 5. Guiding questions for you to consider as you develop your assessment 6. Access to examples of high quality assessments (for example, released items from the NAEP) 7. Criteria for evaluating the quality of your work (for example, “will success on our assessment translate into success on high stakes assessments” 8. Access to just-in-time professional development to assist you if you struggle. IN a sense the principal is the servant leader, asking “how can I help all staff be successful in the important work in which they are asked to engage.
Question from Seth Hunter, Teacher, Louisville Male High School: Have you found any significant differences between PLC’s that have formed due to mandate(s) and those formed by free will?
Anne Jolly: Ah, Seth, you may not like my thoughts on this question. To quote an expert who’s online right now, Rick DuFour stated in one of his books that collaboration by invitation doesn’t work because cultures of isolation are so ingrained in schools. I have worked in schools where individual voluntary groups formed and were highly productive. In my personal experience, I have not seen that spill over into entire faculties without some type of mandate (even “mandite lite”) on the part of the principal. And research shows that for the greatest changes to occur for students, PLCs need to be a faculty-wide initiative. So, I will defer to others on this issue and not claim expertise in this area. I’m just speaking from my experience. Keep working as a teachers, Seth. It’s the most important job in existence. Anne
Question from Brian Miller, Principal Mahwah, NJ: Will paying PLC teacher leaders a stipend for facilitating conversations about student work and instructional techniuqes be an effective means for holding them accountable?
Anne Jolly: Hmmmmm, Brian, good question. Let’s think about this. Incentives such as money are good motivators and may provide a greater sense of responsibility. I think accountability may be better determined by looking at the outcomes of the sessions on looking at student work. Consider using these types of ideas . . . how do the teachers respond during the sessions, what changes do these conversations make in classroom practice, and what adjustments do the facilitators make as they work with teams? Money is good . . . especially if you use it to show appreciation and build a feeling of responsibility. You may pay based on some specific indicators, but be sure the facilitators know the indicators up front. What a unique question! Thanks! Anne
Question from Mary Lou Blanchette Smith, Staff Developer, EASTCONN Regional Education Service Center: As a science consultant, I work with a variety of elementary teachers who have low self-efficacy when it comes to teaching science. What is the benefit of using PLTs as the model for science professional development over other PD models?
Becky DuFour: Most educators today agree with the research-and our own professional experience/wisdom - that the best PD is job-embedded and social. We learn best in the context of our own settings when the learning is relevant to our day-to-day responsibilities. We also know if we’re learning with others, we have a natural support system - people to trun to, reflect with, celebrate with, and lean into when we try new strategies. The collaborative teams that make up a PLC are the best structure to implement new practices, strategies, resources, etc. The National Staff Development Council (nsdc.org) lists “organizing the adults into a PLC” as the first standard for effective PD. If you can support teams of teachers as they engage in on-going collective inquiry and action research regarding science curriculum, instruction, assessment, and PD - you should begin the see that low self-efficacy regarding science transform into high levels of confidence!
Question from Ramona H. Edelin, Ph.D., Executive Director, DC Association of Chartered Public Schools: Please give specific examples of the sustained success of PLC’s in schools or school systems serving high percentages of children of color from impoverished backgrounds.
Rick DuFour: Education Trust has identified 3000 schools where students are outperforming what would be expected on the basis of low SES. Look at Doug Reeves’ research on the 90-90-90 schools. I think Ron Edmonds asked a very pertinent question 30 years ago - “How many schools would you have to see before you were convinced that what we do in schools can have a profound effect on student achievement, particularly for students from low SES communities. Finally, Marzano’s summary of 35 years of research concluded that schools that are highly effective almost entirely overcome the effects of low SES.
Question from Jon Hanbury, Math Coach, W. T. Cooke Elementary: I am very interested in establishing professional learning communities in my school....however, our current administrator is protective of our classroom teachers’ planning time. How can I encourage collective reflection on ideas and practices if my teachers are not given time during the instructional day to work together on such topics? How can I promote the need to work as a team to improve instructional practices?
Anne Jolly: Hi, Jon, It actually sounds as if your principal needs some research-based information on (1) the critical need for teachers to work together on the art of teaching and (2) the need for this to occur at some time other than after school. The principal is key here. Does (s)he totally protect planning time or are teachers sometimes asked to do other tasks during that time? If so, what task could possibly be more important than becoming cutting edge instructors for 21st century kids. I’d suggest you start by finding some information, books, and grabbing as many fellow teachers who want to improve learning for the students as possible. Then have a heart-to-heart with the principal. Keep the faith! Anne
Question from David Berman, K-12 Teacher & Ph.D. Student, UCR: In my experiences as both a teacher and a graduate student, I have observed a failure on the part of schools of education and school districts to establish policies and practices that foster the development of professional learning communities. How can teacher education programs as well as school districts facilitate the development and support of professional learning communities among teachers and administrators?
Rick DuFour: I hate to sound pessimistic, but I don’t think we can wait for higher education to foster PLC concepts. PLCs operate from the premise that our purpose is to help all students learn, that we must work collaboratively to achieve that purpose, that students are entitled to a guaranteed curriculum and formative assessments, and that educators should be hungry for evidence of student learning to inform and improve their professional practice. Speaking generally, higher education does not operate from the assumption that all students should learn (it embraces sorting and selecting), values academic freedom and personal autonomy above collaborative and collective efforts, and therefore feels no obligation to see to it that students in the same course or program have access to the same knowledge and skills or should be assessed according to the same criteria. K-12 will have to assume it must provide new educators with orientation to the PLC culture because those teachers are unlikely to find it in higher ed.
Question from Bethany Smith, Asst. Director of Learning Tech, NC State University College of Education: Have you investigated using any social network technologies (such as ELGG or ning) to facilitate a learning community?
Anne Jolly: You, know, Bethany, I’m actually doing something along that line now! I’m working with the Center for Teaching Quality and technology guru Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach to establish Virtual Learning Communities in a number of schools. I’m learning a lot about social networking, and it’s the most exciting thing I’ve done in awhile. I constantly look forward to it. Right now I haven’t jumped into ning, but if you’re doing so, I hope you’ll share your work far and wide! Anne
Question from Sue Bedard Teacher: What are some suggestions for teachers who are not pulling their weight within the group, especially when others are dependent upon them?
Becky DuFour: We recommend (and so does the research) that teams establish norms - collective commitments - regarding how members will work together and relate to each other. Once the norms are established, hopefully in the very early stages of the team process, its important for the members of the team to bring the norms to life. Just writing norms will not prevent issues like the one you’ve described. Here are some tips for using the norms: effectively 1.Each team establishes own norms 2.Norms are stated as commitments to act/behave in certain ways 3.Norms are reviewed at the beginning and end of each meeting until internalized 4.One norm requires team to assess its effectiveness every six months. This assessment should include review of adherence to protocols and the need to identify new protocols. 5.Less is more. A few key norms are better than a laundry list 6.Violations of norms must be addressed If one of the team norms, for example, is “We will share equally in the work” and a member of the team is not pulling his/her weight, then that behavior must be addressed. Either the team should have an “intervention” session with the colleague or the principal/team leader will address the behavior and help that team member get back on track. We’ve written in greater detail about this topic in Learning By Doing -
Question from Rosemary Knab, Coordinator of Program Development, NJ Center for Teaching and Learning: Anne: I think there is another part to the question about compensation for teacher leaders. Many PLC’s rely on a teacher leader to organize meetings, guide discussions, follow-up on loose ends. This is extra work. Why would we not compensate teacher leaders under these conditions?
Anne Jolly: Ah, you absolutely would, Rosemary. I may have misread the question . . . I do think that teachers should be compensated for their work. I can’t think of a group of people in the world who deserve compensation for their efforts more than teachers. I plan to take this one live shortly to the TLN network. I subscribe to the RSS feed from the Teacher Leaders Network (The “TLN Teacher Voices,” section to be specific) because it’s a way for me to stay in touch with today’s classroom realities and gain innovative ideas from the folks on the front line in our schools today. It’s a good reality check for those of us who have been out of the real classroom world for two or more years. www.teacherleaders.org So, check that page at some point and perhaps you’ll see a lot of responses to the issue of compensating teachers for what they do. They’ll agree with that, I feel sure! Anne
Question from Cindy Arizmendi, Graduate Student, Aquinas College, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Hello. I am researching PLC for a paper and 15-20 presentation to a group of my peers. Do you have any suggestions on how to relate the importance of PLC to students just beginning their teaching journey? Thank you
Becky DuFour: PLCs by nature learn together, they build shared knowledge on the same pool of information, engage in collective inquiry and action research about that information. So, you could certainly access some of the articles and resources on PLCs and provide your colleagues with a systhesis of that research. (www.allthingpls.info) has a weatlh of information! The article Rick wrote from Education Leadership, “What is a PLC?” available on that site, provides a very concise overview of the PLC concept. In addition to reading and dialoguing about PLCs, you could make site visits (or conduct video conferences) to schools that have been identified as high-performing PLCs and also make site visits to traditional schools - conduct your own interviews and action research about which culture promotes greater support for new teachers (and all teachers) and whic cultures lead to higher levels of student learning. We are so hopeful the new generation of teachers will enter the professional knowing the importance of collaboration focused on student learning -Best wishes with your project
Question from Marc de Stefano, science teacher, Frost Junior High School: I have been to one of your workshops, but one thing that I do not recall being addressed is what to do with students that are capable of learning, but for whatever reason, just, plain and simple, do not make school their priority. We are more interested in their education than they are.
Rick DuFour: We took this approach. We preferred that all the students who came to our school already knew how to write persuasively or were competent in algebra. Some weren’t. So rather than lament that fact, we set out to teach them how to do those things we valued - write, compute, etc. Similarly, we would have preferred that all our students came to us highly motivated with good study habits and strong work ethics. Some, however, did not have these wonderful traits. Rather than lament that fact, we set out to teach them those dispositions, primarily by insisting they do what motivated people with good study habits and strong work ethics do. We focused on their behavior not their attitude. We tried to create a school where it was much easier to be responsible and a big hassle if you were not responsible. We found that when you create a structure and culture that insists on the right behavior and reacts to the wrong behavior with consistent and sustained pressure, we could impact student choices and behavior. It doesn’t work for every kid, but most will choose to act in what they see as their best interest. If good decisions result in things they value (more freedom and autonomy for example) and bad decisions bring unrelenting pressure to change (i.e., a big hassle) most will ultimately make good decisions. The alternative, let irresponsible and unmotivated kids fail in order to teach them a lesson, does not, in fact teach any lesson other than, “the less I do, the less I have to do.” Allowing kids to act irresponsibly does not teach responsibility and we should quit pretending that it does. One last thought, my own school saw its failure rate drop from 35% to 1% and its drop out rate from 10% to .4%, so I am convinced adults can shape student behavior.
Question from Estella Cook, Instructional Coach, Marietta City Schools: How do we move our PLCs from being task-oriented (e.g. discussing when the next unit test will be) to utilizing their time together to analyze instruction, planning and assessment data?
Anne Jolly: Hi, Estella - the answer is . . . one step at a time. First, do they know how PLC meetings differ from traditional meetings? If not, that’s the place to start. Clearly define outcomes of PLC meetings. What are teachers expected to do? What will that look like (what activities will they engage in)? This is a common issue, and it’s a good question because teams have to start from where they are and move stepwise to where they need to go. They can do this with ongoing feedback, support, and facilitation. Hope that helps! Anne
Question from firstname.lastname@example.org: I find that many teachers don’t know how to communicate and dialouge effectively. What is the best way to get teachers to learn and become comfortable with these skills and behaviors? Do you recommend team development and team building training?
Anne Jolly: A wise friend once said to me, “Communication is a miracle.” How right she was! Teachers are generally at a disadvantage when they get eyeball to eyeball and are expected to have productive and effective conversations. After all, many still do their work in isolation. Conversation protocols can help with that. These range from scripted protocols (Critical Friends is a good source for these) to general guidelines. One of my favorite approaches is from a book called “The Art of Focused Conversation.” It recommends that groups use a four-phase discussion process. (1) First, discuss just the facts (that could be about an issue, an article, or whatever). (2) Then, discuss only feelings and reactions to that subject or article. (3) Then move on to implications for and applications to the team’s work. And finally, (4) discuss decisions that the team wants to make based on the discussion, article, etc. (The decision may be to not act on recommendations from an article, for example, but at least it’s a decision. Teams will probably not feel they’ve accomplished anything unless they make a decision of some sort.) Basically, this gives the team a lightly structured process for getting from point A (facts) to point B (decisions) in four simple steps. It generally requires one team member to facilitate the conversation and keep things on track. I do recommend team development. The most effective team-building will be connected directly to the PLC initiative, however, as opposed to being generic. If you bring in someone to do team building, ask him/her to weave the team building process closely to the PLC process so that the teachers see the point and purpose of the activities, and make direct connections to what they will be doing. Hope that helps! Good luck and happy communicating, Anne
Question from Bruce Harrison, Distance Learning Coordinator, Virginia Beach City Public Schools: Is the effective organization of PLCs any different in elementary and secondary schools? Elementary teachers often have NO free periods or planning time.
Anne Jolly: Bruce, what Dennis Sparks of NSDC says is apparently true . . where there’s a will, there’s a way. Elementary schools with their limited planning times are remarkably effective with regard to highly functioning PLCs. This may be partly because elementary teachers are naturally more collaborative - they have more in common to start with. If you want some wonderful ideas on how to find time for elementary PLCs, you might contact the principal of Walker Elementary School in the Edenton-Chowan School System in North Carolina. Best of luck! Anne
Question from Jonathan Higgins, District PD Coordinator, Manchester NH: What is an effective way to carry out teacher performance evaluation in a PLC school?
Becky DuFour: We have worked in and with schools/districts that have embraced the PLC concept and therefore changed teacher evaluation to align with PLC practices. For example, in one school, in the 3rd year of the PLC journey, the teacher association asked the administration to include “contribution to your collaborative team” as a major factor in evaluating teachers. I was fortunate enough to work in a district that allowed tenured teachers to elect to enegage in a collaborative, year-long action research project, linked to the team’s SMART goal, rather than being formally evaluated by the principal. When the teams’ began to align their own professional learning to the learning of their students, classroom performance began to change because teachers were driving their own improvement, no longer dependent on the infrequent formal evaluations to spark “change” in the classroom. Even our non-tenured teachers who still had to be formally evaluated, elected to also particape with their grade-level colleagues in the action research.
Question from Anthony Cody, Science coach, Oakland Unified School District: How much initiative and autonomy should site-based PLCs have? To what extent should the District or site administration dictate the agenda?
Rick DuFour: I have addressed this question at length in this month’s School Administrator magazine published by AASA. In brief, the central office should articulate clearly and with one voice, what it is “tight” about - that is, what it wants to see occurring in each school. For example, they might say we want the focus to be on learning, we want teachers to work in teams to establish common pacing and common formative assessments for their students. We want every school to have a system for responding when kids don’t learn that gives them extra time and support in a timely, directive, and systematic way. We want every teacher to receive feedback on regarding his students learning of essential standards, on a valid assessment created by his or her team, in comparison to the other members of the team. How these tight parameters get played out in each school would be for the staff to decide. Different schools might structure teams differently, provide collaborative time differently, use common assessments more or less frequently, create different intervention plans, etc. The central office should be “loose” on the details of implementation but “tight” on the core values that should drive the work of all schools. Finally, the central office should limit initiatives. I believe any school asked to learn to function as a PLC should be given a reprieve from any district-launched improvement initiative for at least three years.
Question from Catherine Ricci, English teacher and graduate student, Boston College: Does the advent of new teacher roles such as PLC involvement and teachers as researchers signal a paradigm shift in education? That is, will teachers begin to enjoy more power in areas such as systemwide curriculum design?
Becky DuFour: When PLCs are implemented district-wide, teachers are certainly empowered both at their own school sites and at the district level to engage in curriculum & assessment design. When we work with districts, we advocate that each school site should empower teams of teachers who share content (grade-level or course specific teams) or teams who share students (interdisciplinary teams) to become students of the resources that should guide their thinking about curriculum (i.e. state & national standards, a clearly defined list of prerequisite skills from the team in the course/grade level above them, district curriculum guides, assessment frameworks and data, textbooks, etc.) and ultimately clarify the most essential knowledge, skills, and dispositions each student must acquire as a result of that course or subject. If this work is boing done at each school site, the district can also establish a process (electronic or face-to-face) to bring teachers together from across the district to share and clarify the curriculum. Because teachers in PLCs are closest to the curriculum action, they are much more committed to teaching their guaranteed curriculum than in traditional schools/districts where someone else has made those imortant decisions.
Anthony Rebora (Moderator): Well, that’s all the time we have. I want to thank everyone who submitted questions. As I mentioned, we received a very large volume of questions for the this chat (a testament to the importance of this topic). I apologize if we weren’t able to get of yours. The transcript of the chat will be posted shortly on teachermagazine.org. Also, I encourage you to check out my interview with Anne in the Teacher Professional Development Sourcebook, as well as the DuFours’ work on the site All Things PLC. There are some great resources there, including an excellent blog.
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