Colorado’s new high school graduation requirements, and more diverse demographics, mean that PLCs have to be more effective than ever.
While the term professional learning community (PLC) has been around since the 1960s, the concept’s tipping point arguably occurred in 1998 with the publication of Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement by Drs. Richard DuFour and Robert Eaker. According to All Things PLC, this breakout book was the first to explain how and why educators working collaboratively with a focus on learning can increase student performance.
Since the book’s release, DuFour and Eaker, along with Rebecca DuFour, have continued to popularize the idea of PLCs across the country. While many PLCs are successful, others are struggling to deliver on the promise of improved student outcomes. If you’re faced with a PLC that needs a little TLC, or if you’re making your school or district a PLC and want to do it right, here are some best practices to put you on the path to success.
PLC Best Practice #1: Use Norms to Manage Human Dynamics
Anytime you bring a group of people together, personality problems can impede your progress. One person may dominate discussions and effectively “take over” the group. Trust may become an issue if team members aren’t willing to admit mistakes or if they refuse to share successful methods with others. And don’t forget, dynamics shift as people move in and out of the group.
Successful teams within PLCs operate with—and regularly revisit—norms that define how team members should communicate, make decisions, and respectfully disagree with each other. These should be written down and agreed to by every member of a team within a PLC.
PLC Best Practice #2: Let Data Drive Your Work
A key factor in most dysfunctional PLCs is a lack of data that can drive discussions and inform objective decision-making. At minimum, you need a robust data platform that provides insights into academic growth and performance at the student, classroom, and school levels, along with insights into teacher performance and school climate.
Without good data that’s easy to access through comprehensive reporting capabilities, PLC team meetings can quickly devolve into gripe sessions that divert attention from the work at hand. With good data, teams can accomplish great things.
In 2015, officials at Denver Public Schools (DPS) decided to replace a frustrating data platform—which actually broke down during an important assessment window—with Illuminate DnA. “The decision was based largely on price and reporting capabilities,” says Tim Leddy, who manages instructional systems as part of the district’s Academic Portal Team. “Illuminate was better at following our organization than any other solution we looked at.” Unlike the other solutions the district evaluated, Illuminate DnA can customize reporting at the student, school, network, and district levels, while integrating state assessments and other third-party data for a more holistic picture of student success.
PLC Best Practice #3: Create Common Formative Assessments to Drive Faster Results
Some of the most critical data points a PLC can analyze are results from common formative assessments—what Rick DuFour has called the “lynchpin” of the PLC process.
District 27J in Brighton, Colorado began using common formative assessments in the 2016-17 school year. Unfortunately, using Google to manage the data from these assessments proved unmanageable, and the district moved to Illuminate DnA the following year. Karla Reider, Instructional Specialist for Assessment and Data, says that educators are “really excited about the progress we’re making. And we are very pleased with the level of support we get from Illuminate as we deepen our commitment to let data drive our decision-making on behalf of our students.”
With data from common formative assessments, PLC team members can gain clear visibility into how students in any grade level are performing from classroom to classroom and from school to school across the district. This can and should lead to important discussions about what teaching methods and strategies are making the biggest impact. These conversations can range from general teaching style (e.g., lectures versus hands-on activities) to very specific information about how teachers phrase particular concepts, and are especially important for first-year teachers and experienced teachers who switch grade levels.
Of course, it’s important to frame these conversations without hurting anyone’s feelings. If a PLC team is following norms and is committed to real collaboration, discussions about teacher effectiveness can be conducted in the spirit of wanting all teachers to learn, improve, and succeed.
PLC Best Practice #4: Take an Inquiry Stance for Continuous Improvement
Data is necessary for student and teacher success, but it’s really nothing in and of itself. Educators must reflect on the data and take action to get any kind of meaningful results. In the K-12 educational context, engaged inquiry keeps educators focused on key challenges and makes positive, innovative change more likely.
Dr. Abram Jimenez explains how educators can use the Inquiry Cycle to provide more equitable outcomes for all students. The Inquiry Cycle is a conceptual framework that outlines five steps for successful reflection and action:
Step 1: Assess Your Current Reality – Collect good data and determine what it’s really telling you.
Step 2: Understand Root Causes – Investigate the reasons your data looks the way it does.
Step 3: Adopt a Theory of Improvement – What strategies and tactics can improve student outcomes?
Step 4: Set Measurable Goals – Develop concrete metrics and targets, including specific learning outcomes for each student, based on your theories.
Step 5: Plan for Action – Identify who is responsible for achieving goals, how they will do it, and by when.
Put Your PLC on the Right Path
Setting up schools and districts as PLCs can dramatically improve student outcomes and make work more rewarding for educators. By collecting good data and analyzing it using the Inquiry Cycle, you can minimize the distractions of human group dynamics and put your time and energy exactly where it belongs—toward helping all students succeed.
Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.
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