Is It Worth It? Sharing Data From Successful PLCs
As we speak about professional learning communities, we know that excitement for student learning is palpable. It is impossible to not be jazzed when we speak about all students learning at high levels! The big question though, when people dig deep and begin to look at the nuts and bolts of truly focusing on learning for all is inevitably, “Is it worth it?”
Test scores from the latest administration of the Kansas Assessment were recently presented to the USD 207 Fort Leavenworth Board of Education. Rather than simply taking the yearly AYP data and presenting it, we looked at our growth longitudinally and wanted to show that the tasks associated with living as a PLC really made a difference. We addressed the question of “Is it worth it?” from a practical position.
Four Essential Questions
Everything we do at Fort Leavenworth is guided by these four questions. From budget development to curriculum alignment to parent/teacher conferences, we bring everything back to:
- What do we want students to learn?
- How do we know the students learned it?
- What are we going to do when the students do not learn it?
- What are we going to do when the students already know it?
For example, we used these questions to change how we choose new textbooks. In traditional textbook adoptions, materials from various vendors are reviewed and a text is chosen that is thought to be a good match to the curriculum. After implementation, the questions used to evaluate the choice were, “How do you feel about the new book?” or “Is that textbook working for you?”
In a PLC school, the four essential questions help us determine if a new book is going to help us in helping our students learn. We don’t worry about whether the text is going to “work for” the teacher. The template we have used during our latest curriculum text review is included here.
As we’ve learned to work as a PLC, we have gone from being teachers who looked at data as something we received to teachers who use data as a tool to improve learning. Functioning as a professional learning community meant we didn’t take for granted that students may have learned what a teacher presented. Rather, we learned to look at the data from common assessments as a guide for what each student needs to learn in order to master the essential outcomes.
This took practice for us as it was not how we were accustomed to working. We had been trained to teach, test, and continue on with the next unit, with the focus on TEACHING. Now we teach, assess, review the data, change our instruction to meet the needs of the student, assess again. This shifted the focus to LEARNING! By returning to the key question of what we wanted students to learn we were able to keep this new focus on learning, using results to guide us.
Working together came naturally to us. Working together INTERDEPENDENTLY did not. It was very easy to get together and “chat” about things like lesson plans, travel forms, and recess procedures. It was not until we began to look at our data that we realized, by accident, that some of us were better at some things and some of us were better at others!
A boost to our collaboration came from Cindy Wepking, a then third-grade teacher. In a meeting, she commented that one of the norms for her group was to leave their egos at the door. When everyone did that, honest conversations started to happen and learning was paramount. Realizing that it was not a personal affront to anyone when you spoke about data was a huge AHA moment for our teachers! It gave professionals permission not to have to be supermen and superwomen in their classrooms, but to focus on what they can do better – together!
Dedicated Time (Early Dismissal)
Through the years of learning to live as a PLC, we had the challenge of finding time to collaborate. We worked on carving out time in our weekly schedules using specialty areas and teacher plan times. That worked initially. However, we found that 40-45 minutes once per week was not enough to accomplish what we had set out to do.
Using the "Here’s What/So What/Now What” protocol, we met with our board of education to see if in fact we needed to move to an “early release” format.
We identified what we knew as fact. We looked at data and, without judgment or analysis, we were able to see our scores.
After we had identified our data, we were able to step back and analyze it, predicting what would happen if the data stayed the same with no intervention. We concluded that if we continued along this path, our students would not continue to grow in their learning. Teachers needed more time to collaborate and take collective responsibility to help students make this growth.
After engaging in the collection and analysis of the data and collectively studying best practice in improving schools, we recommend that students be dismissed two hours early on Fridays and that teachers use this time for collaboration in both vertical and horizontal teams. Three years later, we see that the data reflects that our analysis and plan were exactly what we needed.
“Is it worth it?” will always be a question for those interested in taking the PLC journey. While we have data to support it and strategies to share on how we have moved in the direction of learning for all, the greatest answer to the question is in the smiles of our children and stories of their parents as they know and share that student learning is what we are all about at Fort Leavenworth Schools.
For more in-depth data on Fort Leavenworth, check out their evidence of effectiveness page.