Written by Michael Harris on May 16, 2019
Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) have popularized over the years due to their emphasis on collaboration, their focus on using data to drive conversation and action, and their ability to discover insights that improve both instruction and student learning outcomes.
While PLCs have a lot of value to offer, districts often encounter a number of logistical and procedural challenges in their PLC structure and culture. Here are 4 common struggles that districts face—and tangible solutions that can help overcome them.
Struggle 1: Unclear Purpose
First, many districts struggle with effectively communicating the purpose of the PLC and their goal for meeting. PLCs can serve so many purposes that we can’t assume everyone inherently understands the PLC’s goal. In fact, Richard DuFour, a pioneer in the PLC framework, wrote that “the term has been used so ubiquitously that it is in danger of losing all meaning.” If there is ambiguity or confusion about why the PLC is meeting, it makes it very difficult to achieve the goal of meeting.
Solution: Identify Your “Why”
As a foundational (but sometimes overlooked) step, it’s critical that districts clearly state their “why” behind institutionalizing PLCs. What is the goal or mission?
Ensure your team is aware of the guiding questions that should be a part of the PLC. DuFour suggests the following questions:
1. What do students need to learn?
2. How will we know when each student has learned it?
3. How will we respond when a student either has or has not learned it?
Struggle 2: Data Literacy
Hand in hand with understanding the PLC’s purpose is understanding the role that data play in the PLC’s work. Confusion here might exist at a few different levels:
- Why data?: Here, PLCs are unsure how data connects to the goal of the PLC in general (e.g., We’ve not used data in the past, why should we now?)
- What data?: There may also be confusion about which data are needed for the PLC’s purpose–or, a lack of deep knowledge around those data sources (e.g., What should we be looking at or looking for?)
- When?: Finally, there may be confusion around balanced assessment systems and the importance of regularly looking at different data at different times (e.g., Why do we need to do this so often?)
Typically, these types of questions indicate a need to enhance or support data literacy within the team.
Solution: Address the Why, What, & When of Data
Try making a point of deliberately addressing these items in the PLC, and provide an opportunity and safe environment for PLC members to ask questions. In fact, you might even dedicate a meeting to answering these questions, so members can take ownership of the process.
- The Why: Have your teams work in small groups to fill in the following question: “We need data at our PLC meetings so we can (fill in the blank).” The benefit here is that your PLCs members are empowered to explore the reasons for themselves and begin to understand the extent to which they have access to the data they need so that they can analyze it, convert it into information, and ultimately take action.
- The What: As a starting place, check out our Assessment Literacy 101 eBook and Enhance Your Assessment Literacy to Support MTSS webinar. Common assessment blueprints, curriculum maps, and vendor-provided assessment resources are also helpful for developing deep knowledge about specific data sources.
- The When: Looking at data beyond benchmark data can be a paradigm shift in and of itself for some districts. Work together to identify how often pertinent data are available and what kinds of questions those data can and cannot answer.
Struggle 3: Lack of Norms and Documentation
A hallmark of a highly functioning PLC is that it has an established set of norms and effective documentation practices. Here, key topics and action steps are documented so they can be revisited during future discussions if necessary. But many PLCs meet, review data, and share insights without documenting what they’ve discussed or the next action steps that they’ve agreed upon. This can result in a lack of evidence or rationale for decisions and an inability to quickly recall salient points—which creates inefficiencies and ultimately ineffective practices.
Solution: Know Your “How”
At the beginning of the year, establish group norms that support productive work and are focused on growth. Examples might include:
- We respect the work of our colleagues and students
- We start and end on time
- We always make decisions based on multiple measures
- We follow a data protocol
Throughout the year, be sure that your meetings always have an agenda. Articulating the goals and tasks for a meeting helps ensure that priorities are addressed first and keeps the meeting on track. Without creating (and sticking to) an agenda, meetings can feel disorganized and are prone to being taken over by conversations that should be taken offline or addressed later. Be sure to record action items and review those task assignments before dismissing.
Finally, be sure that your agenda is realistic for what can be accomplished during a single meeting. If you try to pack too much information or too many tasks into a single meeting, it can cause frustration and a feeling that the work “never gets done.” Some PLCs choose to schedule out their meeting focuses: they might review student data in three meetings per month, and then allocate a fourth meeting to professional development. Others find it’s helpful to meet more frequently for a shorter period of time. That way, content and tasks can be broken up over many meetings without delaying progress, and the struggle of finding large blocks of time in multiple busy schedules is alleviated.
Struggle 4: Lack of Easily Accessible, Accurate Data
Having access to the right data is a critical component to PLCs’ ability to look at data with integrity and fidelity. Unfortunately, many teams struggle to access and bring the right data to the right meeting. This is often a result of data silos and disparate systems. For those who do bring data to the table, it is often pulled from a system at a point-in-time, which is often out of date before the meeting. Furthermore, the data is often not interactive or lacks drill-down functionality that allows teachers to dig deeper into the data quickly.
Solution: Have the right data at your fingertips
In a previous post, we’ve outlined why many districts are using data dashboards to help drive decisions and understand important data. PLCs have a similar need to integrate and visualize data to drive decisions. Depending on the PLC, this might include assessment blueprints (local, common, formative, benchmark, etc.), student data such as achievement, attendance, behavior, social-emotional, intervention information, and examples of student work.
Illuminate DnA, Illuminate eduCLIMBER, and Fastbridge Learning are supporting thousands of districts nationwide. Reach out today to learn how they can help your PLC visualize interactive data and provide workflow and collaboration tools needed for success.
As the PLC framework continues to gain traction, it’s imperative that leaders empower their teachers with the right tools, procedures, and data for the task. It’s important to adopt a consistent framework that is grounded in student-centered purpose, fueled by meaningful data, and anchored in norms that promote growth and productivity.
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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