Marc Johnson

Marc Johnson, an educator for more than 40 years, is codirector of the Central Valley Education Leadership Institute at California State University, Fresno. He is former superintendent of Sanger Unified School District.

“We Used to Do PLCs. Now We’re Doing Common Core!”

Recently while attending a gathering of educators, I overheard a conversation between two teachers with one declaring, “Last year, we were doing professional learning communities, but this year, we are doing Common Core.” Hearing that made me think back to the start of our PLC journey at Sanger Unified. In May of 2005, Rich Smith, then deputy superintendent of Sanger, and I heard Rick and Becky DuFour for the first time. We were so impacted by the message we heard. The power provided by the structures for PLC work—"three big ideas (focus on learning, build a collaborative culture, and create a focus orientation)” and the “four key questions (What do we want our students to learn? How will we know they have learned it? How will we respond when learning has not occurred? and How will we respond when learning has already occurred?)” encompassed us as we returned to our district, began the journey, and never looked back. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, our district is a place where collaboration is a way of life, and the internalized focus on learning and results are what is driving the transition to a Common Core world of teaching and learning.

When I look at the transition to Common Core, I see again a powerful structure to guide the work and answer the four key questions!

  1. What do we want our students to learn? Having clarity around the essential skills that must be mastered on the learning journey is critical in the Common Core world. More and more I see units or modules of instruction being developed that will drive instruction for a quarter of the year and incorporate 10 to 12 standards into the learning journey. Before we begin that journey, it is essential that we take the time to “unpack” the standards, identify prior learning, note skills that we must tie into, and clarify the new skills that must be mastered by every learner on this journey.
  2. How will we know they have learned it? In the Common Core world, the end of the learning journey is a culminating student performance-based opportunity to prove that they know how to apply the skills they have acquired. To make sure that they are able to demonstrate their advanced depth of knowledge in this culminating activity, we must monitor their learning progress along the way. As we identify the critical learnings within the standards, we must also develop common formative assessments that allow us to monitor each learner’s progress toward mastering those skills on the learning journey.
  3. How will we respond when learning has not occurred? Building time for interventions along the way becomes even more critical in a Common Core world. Demonstrating deep understanding and depth of knowledge in a culminating task requires mastery of the essential skills before they get to the end of the journey! Using the data from our common formative assessments to identify the students who are struggling, providing them with additional time for learning, and an additional opportunity to demonstrate that they have learned the standards or skills, will assure that our students are able to apply these skills at deeper levels in the end.
  4. How will we respond when learning has already occurred? In a Common Core world, the measure of learning is how deeply our students can demonstrate their knowledge. For those who demonstrate mastery at high levels, why don’t we consider enrichment as an opportunity to again deepen their understanding? Engage them in activities that require them to generate a product that is evidence of even deeper knowledge. I was in a class recently where I saw an example of this. A group of fourth-graders were tasked with developing a learning chart for the class while the teacher was working with the students who had not yet mastered the essential learnings as evidenced by the results of the common formative assessment just given.

I am more convinced than ever that the road to success, especially in the world of Common Core, is the “Learning by Doing” journey of a PLC! A PLC is not something we do. It is who we are. It is the place where the world of Common Core will become a powerful learning journey for students and adults alike.



I think a main concern here is that under the old PLC guideline, having multiple reviews of the assessment led some teachers to "teach to the test". It was advocated by the original PLC goals, "Frequent common formative assessments represent one of the most powerful tools in the PLC arsenal." This goal has led directly to measuring the students skill set at Memorization. Now, the Common Core is asking for evidence based historical research and critical thinking. The new PARCC and SAT tests are measuring the new skill sets. Many teachers are having difficulty transistioning away from "test best practices" which is "frequent common formative assessments"....How can we help teachers transition to the more rigorous standards, especially if the districts tests are still aligned with practices that give students "multiple reviews" of the tests in order to raise test scores which may cause score inflation?

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Sarah Wydler

My district has been doing PLC's for 2 years now. I think teachers get caught up in the overwhelming nature of the constant shifts in schools and the sheer amount of acronyms is enough to create a new language. However if we peel back all the layers and take a closer look at what PLC's allow us to accomplish for our students, we will truly be amazed. The focus that we gain through our collaboration will provide educators with a great vehicle to create common core lessons and resources and in turn help us to better prepare our students to be career and 21st Century ready!

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Shelia Coleman

Common Core is the focus for my school district. The Leadership Team is assisting teachers to ensure that it is implemented into the classrooms. Teachers continue to collaborate on a regularly basis providing resources and ideas to ensure the new learning requirement. Common Core is making sure the students are thinking at a critical level.

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norma aguayo

The school district in which I work began the PLC journey about six years ago. While many schools struggled to unify and collaborate others took the PLC to a great degree of application. With the focus on Common Core, teachers continue to collaborate and create resources that meet the new learning requirements. Common Core is causing schools to refocus what and how content is taught. Doing so in a PLC setting is much more beneficial to teachers and students.

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Ross Rawlings

Common Core is a Hot Topic right now in the State of Maryland where I teach. Everything from parents complaining about adding it, news reports, teacher/union battles against the very thought of adding it to the existing curriculum, to the pros of why it should be there. As a high school teacher of music, I can see the validity in stretching ourselves as educators and making even larger attempts at reaching all of our students. In adding the Common Core Principles, should it succeed to be implemented fully (there are current negotiations to postpone or eliminate using it;) we as educators have an even greater hope of reaching more, if not all of our students and turning out more well rounded, critical thinking graduates.

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