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Professional Learning Communities: Making Students and Teachers Better

April 13, 2011 By Valerie Ong, Education Fellow

In some city neighborhoods, small towns, and even close-knit suburbs, each child has a lot of mothers and fathers “looking out” for him or her. In these places, adults don’t parcel out children as “my child” and “your child” but as “our children,” feeling some degree of responsibility for all the little ones playing up and down the block.

Some Minnesota school districts are trying to introduce a similar model in teaching, called a “Professional Learning Community” (PLC). The move pulls teachers out of isolation in their classes and places them into a community based on collaboration amongst educators to improve student achievement.

It turns the “my student” “your student” mentality into “our students.”

Three “big ideas” steer PLCs: clarity of purpose, collaborative school culture, and focus on results, according to PLC leaders Rick and Becky DuFour and Robert Eaker.

The Osseo School District was the first and largest Minnesota district to implement PLCs system-wide. Its program is currently in its sixth year.

National Staff Development Council and ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) recommended the district use the program to maintain student achievement increases, explains Candace Gordon, a staff development specialist who was part of Osseo’s PLC planning team.

PLCs are organized by grade level or subject. Typically a facilitator leads a PLC for the year, helping the team determine a SMART (Specific Measurable Attainable Realistic Timely) goal.

Four “critical questions” drive a PLC. The first is “what do we want students to learn?” This also must be achieved within a limited time, eliminating any unattainable goals. Julie Williams, a second grade teacher at Rush Creek Elementary and her second grade PLC agreed that “a given percent of their students would meet a targeted growth score in counting by the end of second grade.”

The second question asks: “How will we know if they have learnt it?” To answer this, PLCs will decide on an assessment tool like a quiz, determine when the quiz is given, and agree on how to score it. The assessments can be summative or formative. Gordon notes that teachers can expand their instructional repertoire by learning different classroom strategies from their PLC members when answering this question.

The third is “how to respond if they don’t learn?” Williams’ PLC uses an 80 percent score as an informal marker of student understanding. If only a handful of students score under 80 percent, a teacher with high scores could teach all these students instead of each teacher having to re-teach students individually. If many students score below 80 percent, teachers could learn successful approaches from their PLC and plan to teach the lesson over again.

Similarly, the fourth question, “how to respond if they already know it?” would focus on the exchange of techniques to raise the standards for students who score above 80 percent.

PLCs begin in the fall and are required to meet at least once a month throughout the school year. However, Williams notes that this minimum requirement does not provide nearly enough time for teachers to work together. Her PLC meets once a week for 45 minutes during the lunch hour, which is still too little time.

Williams emphasizes how the limited time for PLC meetings during the school day has proven to be her greatest challenge. Education Minnesota’s Susan Brady hopes schools can build PLC time into the work day.

The Osseo district designates some “system PLC time” during its four professional development days where PLCs can leave their school building and meet with another similar PLC in the district. Here again is the opportunity for teachers to expand their knowledge beyond their building through district-wide collaboration.

Working in PLCs allows teachers to partner with each other closely, sharing strategies and techniques that work and learning from one another. Before PLCs, Williams, like many teachers, would make decisions on what to teach her students built on her own judgment or driven by her text book instead of answering the four critical questions based on collective findings and common state standards.

When teachers work together instead of individually, students can be more uniformly prepared to move into the next grade, which can improve student achievement.

Williams admits that she felt skeptical and frustrated when she first heard about PLCs that sought to move the focus from teaching to learning. She felt that they were one in the same.

However, Williams has come to see that her students weren’t necessarily learning just because she was teaching. Working in a PLC allows her to work together with her peers, center on helping students learn, and make her a better teacher.

This has helped foster a collective approach to improving achievement for each and every student.

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  • Susan Oleson says:

    March 20, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    We have a group at our school that meets regularly and address the four questions posed in your article in regards to our school.  Do we need a trained leader to describe ourselves as a PLC or could you put us in touch with a mentor somewhere else in the state?
    Sue Oleson