Open dialogue is key to any professional learning community. This is your blog. It's your way to connect with other PLC practitioners by sharing insights, offering tips, and asking questions. Nationally renowned PLC experts Dr. Richard DuFour, Dr. Robert Eaker, and Rebecca DuFour regularly contribute to this blog, as do their associates. All contributing experts have successfully implemented the PLC at Work process. They invite you to post to this collaborative space.
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Posted on May 10, 2013
By Rick DuFour
We received an email from a high school teacher questioning her districtâ€™s effort to establish common pacing across the three high schools in the district. She seemed to object to this effort because her subject was non-sequential, and asked our opinion. This was our response.
There is a significant amount of research that providing students with access to a “guaranteed and viable” curriculum has a significant, positive impact on student achievement. “Guaranteed” means that all students will be taught the same skills and concepts regardless of the teacher to whom they have been assigned. “Viable” means that the curriculum can be taught in the amount of time a teacher has to teach. If a district is to provide students with a guaranteed and viable curriculum, it is perfectly reasonable that it establish parameters for common pacing.
You mention that your course is non-sequential, but don’t mention the subject. So let’s use U.S. History as an example. Your colleague loves the Civil War and devotes 6 weeks to teaching it. You devote three days to the Civil War. In this instance you allow a teacher’s personal interest to trump research on what is best for kids. If we use English as an example, you devote a month to writing an effective persuasive essay and your colleague devotes a week. Again, students do not have an equal opportunity to learn.
I should, however, also clarify that establishing district guidelines for common pacing does not mean a district should establish lockstep pacing whereby all teachers are expected to be teaching on the same page on the same day. This kind of rigidity robs teachers of the ability to make adjustments in their instruction based on evidence of student learning.
Most states and districts are attempting to translate the Common Core standards into curriculum guides with recommended pacing, so it is not unreasonable that your district would attempt to provide the guidelines that support a guaranteed and viable curriculum.
Posted on April 19, 2013
By Mary Ann Ranells, PLC at Workâ„˘ associate
The Idaho Leads Project is a professional development team focused on strengthening leadership capacity in Kâ€“12 schools in order to ensure the success of all Idaho students in the 21st century. The goal of the project is twofold: first, to support and enhance the advancement of educational improvement and reform in Idaho and second, to share, in an easily accessible manner, best practices to all interested districts, schools, and charters. From the beginning of the project, it was clear that the tenets of the professional learning communities process would provide the key ingredients to our success.
The Idaho Leads Project provides trustees, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, students, and community members across the state with support to become more effective leaders and to create high-performing schools where all students succeed. Boise State Universityâ€™s Center for School Improvement & Policy Studies was awarded an 18-month, $3.85 million grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation for funding this project.
Every Idaho district and charter school was invited to apply to join. Of the approximately 150 Idaho school districts and charter schools, 49 were accepted. As a statewide endeavor, the culture of collaboration in the PLC framework greatly expanded the opportunities and structure for building shared knowledge beyond our own schools and districts.
Those participating have so far convened for three regional network meetings where district teams (including students) have learned about building relationships, using effective practices, managing change, and committing to systematic continuous improvement in order to work together as statewide stakeholders to build high levels of leadership capacity at all levels. Each of these factors represents the key challenges that every PLC must address.Â District teams (including administrators, board members, parents, teachers, and students) have defined priorities, identified and celebrated successes, and determined areas where improvements can be made.
The powerful connection between the Idaho Leads Project and the PLC process is the beauty of collaboration within and across districts throughout the state.Â Not only are we sharing research, effective strategies, and celebrating increased student achievement, we are building a network of collaborative competition and establishing goals for which we are mutually accountable.Â The PLC process of collaborating with others to improve professional practice is essential to the success of the Idaho Leads Project.
Our school district was fortunate enough to be selected to participate in this amazing project.Â We were spoiled.Â For the first time in a very long time, our successes were honored and recognized.Â We were not told what to do, but we were given the tools, encouragement, and support to dream again, to believe in ourselves again, and to accomplish noble goals again.Â Every step has been an extraordinary affirmation of our PLC.
For example, in the Lakeland Joint School District, 99 percent of all eighth-grade students and 98 percent of students who are economically disadvantaged were proficient or advanced in reading on the state test.Â In 10th grade, 86 percent of all students and 84 percent of students who are economically disadvantaged performed at high levels in mathematics.Â We look at data differently and, as a result, we write SMART goals differently.
Even more impressive is the collegiality we feel as a state.Â We have renewed respect for our sister districts, and sharing great ideas has become the new norm. Plus, competitive collaboration is fun!Â There isnâ€™t anything we canâ€™t do together.
Above all, we are grateful to our critical friends and mentors from Boise State Universityâ€™s Center for School Improvement & Policy Studies. They raised the bar for excellence and created a clear, compelling path for success.
Stories about each of the 49 districts in the Idaho Leads Project, as well as other resources and information, are available at https://education.boisestate.edu/idaholeads/
Posted on April 16, 2013
By Jeffry Overlie, PLC at Workâ„˘ associate
A couple of years ago I read the book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (2010) by Christensen, Horn, and Johnson. It was an interesting read that outlined how technology has the potential to revolutionize how we meet the needs of students in our classrooms. In a nutshell, the authors argued that if used correctly, technological innovations will allow for greater student-centered classrooms and revolutionize the way students are educated.
When I finished the book, I was inspired, but I was also skeptical about whether our educational system would ever embrace the changes the authors outlined. Today, I find myself in the middle of the exact disruption described in the book. A school I work with, Shekou International School, has rolled out a 1:1 student-managed iPad program in grades 4 through 7.
In the four months I have observed this model, I have seen remarkable positive change. For example, there has been a significant increase in engagement as students use applications such as 30/30, Flipboard, Evernote, and Dropbox to organize and manage their resources and daily routines. There is also evidence of student-initiated differentiation, with students showcasing learning in new ways via applications such as iMovie, Popplet, Educreations, and Aurasma. Opportunities for collaboration have also been expanded with applications such as Skype, FaceTime, iMessage, and Edmodo.
So, what does this have to do with the implementation of PLCs in our schools? After all, classrooms in this school and others are being turned upside down by this disruption, so clearly the focus of PLCs should shift, right? Absolutely not. There is no arguing the positive impact that disruptive innovation is having on classrooms and student achievement, but this does not change the core beliefs of PLCs. Schools should continue to focus their attention on answering the four critical questions of PLCs:
It is clear that disruptive innovation will change how we go about answering the four critical questions of PLCs. In fact, I have no doubt that we will be able to leverage technology such as the iPad to become more effective in answering these questions and implementing PLCs. The introduction of disruptive innovation, however, does not replace PLCs. It is simply another tool which will make PLCs even stronger.
Posted on April 5, 2013
By Regina Owens, PLC at Workâ„˘ associate
Have you ever heard the reason for lackluster performance at a school is because the clientele has changed?
This is a phrase, a reason, an excuse that is increasingly used by educators or the educational system to explain or justify stagnant or low performance of students. It has been my privilege to serve as an educational leader in rich and poor, rural and urban, as well as brick-and-mortar and virtual schools. During my tenure, it has become common to hear administrators, teachers, parents, and even students lament over the quality of the schooling. Presently serving in an urban district that is majority minority and economically disadvantaged, I have become increasingly aware of the helplessness and hopelessness that can enter, invade, and take over the school culture when faced with great challenges and a changing and increasing accountability system. Without fail, on a weekly basis I consistently hear educators stating, â€śIt wasnâ€™t always like this. The students have changed.â€ť
After reading The Pedagogy of Confidence by Yvette Jackson, I am even more grateful for the professional learning community philosophy. Mrs. Jackson is a champion of HIP HOP: High Intellectual Performances of students produced by High Operational Practices of skilled educators. You see, I donâ€™t just believe in professional learning communities. I know them to be places of hope and restoration where dreams and aspirations for both teachers and students are renewed, defined, and dared to live again.
Why? Because a PLC is where HIP HOP thrives. It is where professionals examine their behaviors and set goals that are driven by data to ensure not just academic success but student success. The High Operational Practices include:
1. Identifying and Activating Strengths (of students and teachers)
2. Building Relationships
3. Nurturing High Intellectual Performances
4. Providing Enrichment Experiences
5. Incorporating Prerequisites for Learning
6. Situating Learning in the Lives of Students
7. Amplifying Student Voice
Because the professional learning community philosophy is a continuous improvement process, it allows educators to work collaboratively and interdependently on common goals sharing accountability for the outcomes. This is exactly what we need in a time of fewer resources and higher demands. We cannot continue to work at a deficit. We must have systems and structures that allow us to come together and work on any and all things that may impede learning for the adults or students. We must have a system that promotes strengths and celebrates improvement. For those of us who truly embrace the professional learning community philosophy, it does not matter the change or expectation we are faced with. We understand the power in which we operate.
All is not lost. Â There is hope.
Posted on April 2, 2013
By Geri Parscale, PLC at Workâ„˘ associate
A few weeks back, I was reading a CNN article on my computer titled â€śThe Rise and Fall of Sarah Palin,â€ť and while I did not give the article too much thought, I did catch one phrase that made me stop and think:
â€śIt wasn’t clear what Palin stood for.â€ť
That hits it on the head, doesnâ€™t it? If we do not know where we are going, how do we know if we get there?
Therein lies the importance of having a clear mission and vision for a school. Why do we have a school? What is our purpose? What are we supposed to be doing? What collective commitments have we made? Is it clear what we stand for? For us to be a PLC with a culture that is clearly about student learning first, last, and always, we must be clear about our purpose.
Yearly, our school district looks at its mission, vision, values, and goals. Without exception, we have discussions surrounding our purpose. We examine our mission. Those conversations help us to fine-tune our focus and provide all the clarity we need to ensure priorities are still in line with student learning. If we fail to do this, we have no road map for what we want to do or where we wish to go.
As we review our vision, we have an opportunity to use it to give us direction with our mission. If we are here to ensure that all students learn at high levels, how do we move forward? What is the focus of any professional in the building to meet the mission of our school? Inevitably, these reviews create further conversations about best practice in instruction and assessment. They help us to continue to better ourselves so that we provide the best to our students on a daily basis.Â The collective commitment that we have made to ourselves, to each other, and to students and families is that we will do whatever it takes to ensure that the mission of Fort Leavenworth Schools, “To achieve the highest level of learning for all through the tenacious pursuit of excellence,” is not just a phrase or a line; it is something that we live every day.
Posted on March 26, 2013
By Steve Pearce, PLC at Workâ„˘ associate
There are many middle schools across our nation that have an advisory or homeroom period built into their weekly or daily schedule to meet the needs of the whole child. In theory, this concept sounds good and makes sense to plenty of educators. But letâ€™s talk about the reality, and I will share some my personal experiences.Â I contend that many advisory/homeroom periods at middle schools are completely ineffective in meeting the intended purpose and that this time could be served for a better purpose that will impact student learning.
When I taught middle school, our advisory period was 25 minutes of survival for most teachers.Â Our well-intended social workers created lessons for us, but as a teaching staff, we had little ownership of these lessons, and the content usually lasted about 10 of the 25-minute period. Then we were stuck punting the remaining 15 minutes. This quickly created animosity directed toward this advisory period by most of the staff. I have four children, and two of them have been in middle school the last few years. They both had advisory periods once a week. I remember asking one of my boys about his most recent advisory period. He stated to me that they spent the entire time talking with their teacher about their favorite ice cream flavors.
With these two personal examples, I see 25 to 30 minutes of the school day that is being utilized in an ineffective manner. While I recognize that not all advisory or homeroom periods are ineffective, I have heard from hundreds of teachers in the last several years about plenty of ineffective models. I also hear from some of these same educators that they have no time during the school day to properly intervene and support their struggling learners. Are you thinking what Iâ€™m thinking? Maybe we can use advisory/homeroom periods differently. Maybe we can be strategic about that time to impact learning. Looking for an idea on what to do with an advisory/homeroom period that has gone stale and doesnâ€™t impact learning? At Jane Addams Junior High in Schaumburg District 54 (IL), the staff has come up with a twice per week 28-minute FLEX period as a way to use time during the school day to intervene with students.
Simply stated, FLEX happens twice a week at Addams. We have created this time by taking about three minutes off each of our nine periods during the school day. We have a fairly simple structure of what curricular area gets priority, and all teachers (core and electives) have access to this time. Electronic share folders are used to keep the staff aware of where students go, and the staff works together to make FLEX time as effective as possible. FLEX time is used for intervention, additional project time, reteaching, acceleration, and enrichment. Each department has the autonomy to determine how they will utilize FLEX each week.
While FLEX is not perfect, we do know that it is effective in meeting the learning needs of our students, and it has had a very positive impact on our overall student achievement. This concept was created by our staff, and they have great ownership over it. I would suggest that if you have an ineffective advisory/homeroom period and you are looking for extra time to support student learning, you may actually have the timeâ€”your staff just needs to reflect on a better way to use it!
Posted on March 20, 2013
By Will Remmert, principal, Washington Elementary School, Minnesota, and PLC at Workâ„˘ associate
High-functioning professional learning communities are challenging to accomplish and take dedication from all members of the school community. For staff to effectively collaborate, several things need to be in placeâ€”time to meet, group norms, data to analyze, and committed educators, to name a few. However,Â a critical step that is often overlooked is the need for educators to make the philosophical and cultural shift from teaching to learning.
DuFour, DuFour, and Eaker state inÂ A Leaderâ€™s Companion, â€śOne of the most important cultural shifts that must take place if schools are to perform as professional learning communities involves a shift from a primary focus on teaching to placing the primary focus on learningâ€ť (p. 49).
Historically, schools have functioned in a teacher-centric structure where educators dispensed knowledge and students were to act as sponges, absorbing everything that came their way. This type of structure was often good for the adult, but it didnâ€™t have a lasting positive impact on learning for all students. If we are to ensure high levels of learning forÂ all students, we must look ourselves in the mirror and decide if our school is benefiting the adults in the building or our students. We must ask: Was this physical structure built for adult employment or student learning?Â As educators, we owe it to future generations to begin functioning in collaborative teams to ensure learning for all students at high levels. This process begins by making the cultural shift from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning.
PLCs are student-centric andÂ transparent. The followingÂ reflection questionsÂ will assist you onÂ the journey to becoming a high-functioning PLC.Â Take a moment and reflect on the discussions youâ€™ve had with your colleagues in the past week:
As you further develop your capacity to function as a PLC, continue to be reflective and stretch yourselves professionally. Individually and collaboratively, make time to understand where you and your colleagues are and seek the path to make the cultural shift from teaching to learning.
Eaker, R.,Â DuFour, R., & DuFour, R. (2007) A leaderâ€™s companion: Inspiration for professional learning communities at workâ„˘. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Posted on March 19, 2013
By Garrick Peterson, PLC at WorkTM associate
The driving force of a culture focused on student learning isÂ addressing four questions:
The growth of our students at Lakeridge Junior High has been exciting to watchÂ over the years. We have committed to increasing the capacity of adults through the processes associated with being a professional learning community (see allthingplc.info and click on Evidence of Effectiveness). It has alsoÂ been excitingÂ to be able to turn more of our attention from addressing the needs of those who are not learning to those who are learning and helping them prepare for being admitted to college.
In working through the PLC process, Lakeridge has had success helping students who are at risk of not learning by soliciting the leadership and capabilities of students who already know it. In turn, we have been able to build the college resumes of students who already know it by giving them a chance to get leadership credit by helping students who are at risk of not learning.
I would like to give a few examples of combining our efforts in addressing the question of what we do for studentsÂ who are not learning and what we do for students who already know it, with two goals in mind:
Success and Leadership
Each of our incoming seventh-grade students is signed up for a course we call success and leadership. Six outstanding ninth-graders are put in each course and assigned five seventh-graders.Â Each ninth-grader is a mentor for the seventh-graders in an effort to help them be successful academically, socially, and emotionally in junior high school. Since implementing this intervention using our best students, seventh-grade failure has decreased by 24 percent.
Latinos in Action
As we improved our ability to meet the needs of our Hispanic population, it became a goal to give them experiences that prepared them for college. Leadership opportunities for Hispanic students were limited. Conversations about these students and studentsÂ achieving below grade level guided us to implement Latinos in Action. Latinos in Action is a leadership/service class. In this class, students are taught how to teach elementary students to read. Students are bussed three times a week to our feeder elementary schools to read with Hispanic students. They act as mentors and have become role models for these students. Since implementation of this intervention, the Hispanic students pass rate on the end-of-level English test has increased from 64 percent to 81 percent. Also, gang-related discipline incidents have decreased from 52 to zero. Most exciting is we are preparing a generation of Hispanic students for college by giving them the same high school credit as a student involved with student government.
One of the greater challenges we have experienced in our efforts to get all students to learn at high levels has been what I have heard Mike Mattos call our intentional nonlearners. These include students who do not attend school, refuse to work if they are in school, or in general do not engage in the education process.
This past year, 31 students in our school who were going into their ninth-grade year were identified as at risk for failure to graduate from high school. Each student had failed three or more classes as an eighth-grader, and we knew that if we did not intervene, graduation would not be a reality for them.
These 31 students were placed in one of three graduation success courses (with a class size of 10). One of our school counselors was responsible for each course. With each of the courses, two of the students at risk were selected as class leaders. Their job, in cooperation with the counselors, was to not let any student fail. It was amazing to watch these student leaders turn their attention to their fellow students. By the end of their ninth-grade year, 28 of the 31 students were on track to graduate from high school.
Each of these interventions and extensions have come about through collaborative conversations focused on student learning. The results have been incredible for those who struggle to learn and those who are our best. By allowing students to lead other students, we not only ensure the learning of those students who struggle to learn, but also help build leadership capacity and a sense of service in our best students.
Posted on March 12, 2013
By Samuel Ritchie, PLC at WorkTM associate
I know many of you reading this may not have an interest in the Chicago Bears and the hiring of their new coach Marc Trestman, but as I was reading an article this morning, I was struck by his description of being a head coach. He said, â€śI get to be the GPS system of the team. Every day our team will know where we are, where weâ€™re going, and how weâ€™re going to get there. Thatâ€™s the way to do it, one day at a time, so they can focus on doing one thing, and thatâ€™s winning the day.â€ť I donâ€™t know if Coach Trestman will be successful, but I like his approach. His statement brought to mind the importance of having a collaboratively developed mission, vision, values, and goals (MVVGs)Â to guide districts and schools on the school improvement journey.
In the foundational books Professional Learning Communities at WorkTM and Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at WorkTM, the authors identify and define the four building blocks of a PLC. These building blocks (MVVGs) define the purpose, destination, behaviors, andÂ checkpoints onÂ the journey. In chapters five and six of Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at WorkTM Richard DuFour, Rebecca DuFour, and Robert EakerÂ provide not only the research base for why, but also the process for how a district or school embarks on establishing its MVVGs.
What is the impact of having collaboratively developed MVVGs that are implemented with fidelity? Recently I had the pleasure of returning to a district I had previously assisted in developing the MVVGs. The district had implemented its MVVGs with fidelity and had celebrated successes both as a district and as individual schools over five years. The district was ready to establish its MVVGs for the next five years to guide its continued growth as an educational community and to raise the level of learning for all students. The district solicited volunteers from the school community and community at large. Forty-two people, representing all stakeholder groups, of overÂ 70 volunteers were selected to participate in the process.
At the first meeting, committee members were asked to share why they wanted to be members of the district MVVGs committee. A typical response was, â€śI wanted to be part of this committee because I know the tremendous impact the last document (MVVGs) had on moving the district forwardâ€”creating a supportive collaborative culture and raising the level of student learningâ€”and I wanted to be part of creating the new document (MVVGs) that will set the direction and have the same impact for the next five years.â€ť The responses ofÂ all 42Â committee members included these sentiments. I believe it is important to point out that onlyÂ 3 of theÂ 42 were members of the previous committee. Without exception, community members, parents, support staff, teachers, administrators, and board members understood the impact and value of having collaboratively developed MVVGs that are implemented with fidelity.
Does your district or school have a MVVGs document? Does it know what it wants to look like in five years? Can administrators, teachers, parents, board members,Â and othersÂ articulate how the district or school will be different in five years? If the answer is no, then how will you get there? How will you know which initiative to adopt and which to skip? What is the GPS system for the district or school?
If MVVGsÂ are the GPS system for your district or school, then every day the school community will know where they are, where theyâ€™re going, and how theyâ€™re going to get there. Thatâ€™s the way to do it so staff can focus on doing one thingâ€”and thatâ€™s working collaboratively to enhance student learning today.
Posted on March 1, 2013
by Rick DuFour
We received a question on the All Things PLC website from a high school English department that was in the process of revising its curriculum. The school offered three levels at each grade levels based on the rigor of the course. They wrote:
â€ścurrently we have three courses of American Literature for 10th grade students. One course if for the “middle of the road” student who doesn’t struggle with comprehension or writing and has retained previous skills from grades K-9 that will aid in success and give new skills for courses in grades 11 and 12. One course is for students who excel in reading and writing and want to push themselves to prepare for AP or College level courses in grades 11 and 12. And, finally, one course is for those who struggle with reading and writing and haven’t retained skills from previous grades. These students will work toward re-obtaining those skills and prepare to move to courses in grades 11 and 12 which could be lower rigor in nature as well depending upon the skill level increase.
The teachers were asking if the outcomes of the courses should be the same for all students, but the materials with which they worked would vary in rigor based on the level of the course. This is a question many schools are addressing, particularly in light of the Common Core State Standards in Language Arts.
My response is below:
I got your question regarding whether or not the outcomes should be the same for the 3 different levels of English classes you offer. You indicated that the levels were based on “rigor.” Â I would argue that the only reason to have 3 different levels is that you have 3 very different outcomes in mind.
For example, in my former high school we had three levels of English classes. They were as follows:
1. Honors: College level. This series of courses prepared students for success in the Advanced Placement program and test. It gave students access to college-level courses while in high school
2. Regular: College Preparatory: This series of courses prepared students for success in college English but did not give them access to college-level courses. The goal was to ensure students would succeed in Freshman English at the university without the need for remedial courses.
3. Accelerated: This series of course was offered only in the freshman and sophomore years for students who were reading far below grade level and could not be expected to succeed in the College Preparatory level. The goal was very specific – to accelerate student learning by providing them with a double block of English and tutorial time so that by the time they were juniors, they could move into and succeed in the College Preparatory program. The objective was not to serve as a four-year remedial program but a two-year launching pad because as juniors, the lowest level course available was College Preparatory. We recognized that not all students would elect to go to college, but we believed that those who did not still needed to be able to read text closely, write persuasively, etc.
So if you are going to have 3 levels, you must start with a clearly defined purpose for each level. Furthermore, the lowest level must be designed to accelerate student learning so that those students move out of it while in high school. Absent this plan to accelerate student learning you have simply created a remedial track that widens the achievement gap. There is abundant research that a four-year remedial program is detrimental to student learning and conveys a message of low expectations on the part of the school. You really need to rethink your 4-year remedial program. There is no research to support it.
I would also caution you about excluding students from rigorous curriculum. We would recommend courses to students and their parents, but if they wanted to enroll in a more challenging curriculum we allowed them to do so, with the caveat that we would review their placement at the end of the first grading period and if they were not passing we would move them to a different level. We discovered that we were not infallible, and that some students that we thought would flounder were so motivated that they would put in the extra time and effort to flourish in curriculum that was challenging for them.
The bottom line is that every student who enrolls in your school is entitled to be prepared for success on high stakes tests and should have the knowledge and skills to pursue some form of education beyond high school. That is the very premise of the Common Core State Standards and the key word there is “common.” So in that sense, there must be a rigorous baseline of proficiency for all students; however, students in advanced curriculum should be expected to achieve well beyond that baseline, otherwise there is no justification for creating that level. The only exception to this generalization would be those students who have a handicapping condition that is so severe and profound that their IEPs establish very different goals for them.
It is certainly acceptable to select texts based on the intended outcomes of the different levels of your curriculum, but your team should spend a lot more time clearly defining the purpose and outcomes of the different levels than selecting materials based on your perceptions of rigor.
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