Richard Smith

Rich Smith is a deputy superintendent who serves more than 10,000 students with a large population of minority and high-poverty students. He has been involved in public education for more than 33 years.

What Do We Do When They Haven’t Learned?

The implementation of a PLC is not a silver bullet, but a pathway to follow in working to ensure student learning. Implementation requires dedication and a focus on desired learning outcomes as teams work to answer the four key questions that guide a PLC:

  1. What is it we expect our students to learn?
  2. How will we know when students have learned it?
  3. How will we respond when students have not learned it?
  4. How will we respond when students have learned it?

At the junior and high school levels, answering the question “How will we respond when students have not learned?” must be a priority if a school or team of teachers is to reduce failure rates. For many secondary schools, addressing this question requires changes in beliefs and logistics. Ensuring that it is harder for a student to fail than to achieve requires the staff to focus on student learning and react when learning does not occur.

Washington Academic Middle School (WAMS), a 6–8 middle school, routinely failed one of every three students by the end of each grading period. For a middle school serving a population of 1,700 low socioeconomic, minority students in the rural heart of California’s Central Valley, a 33 percent failure rate draws little notice. The Central Valley is known for having one of the highest poverty rates in the United States, and failure has been accepted for years by placing blame squarely on the shoulders of the students and communities being served.

By the end of the 2005–06 school year, the WAMS staff had made a commitment to fully implement a PLC as they had been witness to the successful implementation of PLCs at its feeder elementary schools. The rising achievement levels of the students from the feeder schools forced the WAMS staff to reassess the belief that “these students” were incapable of performing at higher achievement levels.

As the WAMS staff developed and worked through the key PLC questions, they were confronted with logistical and scheduling issues when seeking to effectively address the needs of students who had not learned. Their answer to this issue was “student deployment.” The Algebra I team was one of the first teams to use student deployment to address the needs of students who had not learned. Collaborative teams at WAMS are organized by courses. Within the school’s master schedule, key courses like Algebra I are taught by at least three teachers per period.

Utilizing a flowchart of steps designed to answer the four PLC questions, the WAMS Algebra I team established the essential standard to be learned by all students and a pacing guide on a 10-day instructional schedule for the essential standard to be learned. The team also developed a common assessment and set a SMART goal. At the end of the 10 instructional days, the teachers gave the common assessment to determine if students had learned the prescribed essential standards.

The teachers then met as a team to review the common assessment results as compared to the SMART goal they had set. For each period Algebra I is taught, the teachers divided the students into three groups based on the common assessment results—those students who have learned the standards, those who need reinforcement of the standards, and those who need the standards retaught.

For the next two instructional days, the students were “deployed” during their Algebra I period. The teacher who was most successful in teaching the standard retaught those students with the greatest need, while one of the remaining teachers took the “reinforcement” group and the other took the “already learned it” group for enrichment targeted at deepening and expanding the learning of the standard.

At the end of the two days, the students were reassessed. Students were given the opportunity to raise their grade by demonstrating mastery on this reassessment. Students quickly learned that the goal of deployment is to ensure the learning of the standard and that deployment is not a punishment. Any student who still did not demonstrate mastery after the two-day deployment was referred for further instruction during a tutorial period and, in some instances, in a mandatory after-school assistance program. Remediation and support for individual student learning was continuous and ongoing until mastery is achieved.

Through their diligence and focus, the WAMS staff has reduced the student failure rate from 33 percent to less than 6 percent over the past four years. Student achievement levels have soared and a new pride and belief in the school and its students permeates the staff and community.

WAMS’s ranking as compared to all schools in California grew from decile 4 in 2005 to decile 7 in 2009. Measured against 100 schools with similar demographics, WAMS is now ranked in the top 10 percent of schools in California. On the California Academic Performance Index (API), which measures a school’s student academic performance on a scale of 200 to 1,000 points, WAMS has grown from a very low API of 668 in 2005 to an API of 799 in 2010. WAMS is currently 1 point away from reaching California’s established statewide school performance API target of 800.

Ensuring that it is harder to fail than to succeed is at the heart of WAMS’s deployment model. Answering the question “How will we respond when students have not learned?” by providing safety nets of support is critical at the secondary level if we are to cut failure rates and increase student achievement levels.



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This blog is very enlightening. I like the fact that the teachers made a collaborative effort to reduce the failure rate. These teachers are committed to working together to ensure that students learn. I like the idea of the deployment strategy where students received a common assessment based on SMART goals that the group set. The students learned, test scores were improve and the failure rate was drastically reduced.

This is something I would probably implement in my school.

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Staff at

Response from Merrilou Harrison, PLC at Work associate:
An effective process I used with my staff was the Team Feedback forms. They were to fill them out during each meeting, get one copy to the administrator and post one copy in the faculty room for other teams to reference. This began to focus the teams on wanting to help other teams in the building as well as help them see what other teams were doing. It changed the focus from what was beyond our locus of control to what we could do during our school day.

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Staff at

Response from Merrilous Harrison, PLC at Work associate:

As you know, a PLC first looks deeply at the data and the standards and then makes the decision as to what are the power standards. These are standards that we must ensure that all students master. We also make sure that our pyramid of intervention is in place so that we understand what the next steps are that need to be taken when children are not mastering the power standards. When looking at interventions for our students, we need to make sure that the power standards are not ones that we leave a handful of students behind in their mastery or understanding. This means that we continue to work with these students, presenting and interacting with the material in a variety of ways, ensuring that the student understands the importance of learning this standard, and that we as a system will not let them fail on these critical standards. Learning must continue when the majority of students have mastered the standard, but we must continue to work in a support strand with each student until the level of mastery is accomplished while they are learning new knowledge and skills. This many times requires some creative thinking about when and how this happens for the students that need the extra help. Having the team and building being systemic on the pyramid of intervention steps helps to make the decisions easier. More practical examples of how people have met this challenge is here on All Things PLC in looking at the Evidence of Effectiveness. There are also some excellent resources to read and use on the Solution Tree website that helps to answer specifics to think about in moving the students along their learning continuum.

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[...] The implementation of a PLC is not a silver bullet, but a pathway to follow in working to ensure student learning. Implementation requires dedication and a focus on desired learning outcomes as teams work to answer the four key questions that guide a PLC (Smith, 2011): [...]

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I would like to see what others are doing with their apathetic students. Currently, I have found it very successful to praise them profusely when the students choose to work. Almost all of my trouble students have really picked up the pace, and try on most days. Even if they do not complete all the work, I make a big deal out of what they have done, saying how proud I am of them, and that they are really “getting it”. This is all said quietly as I am passing by, so I don’t embarrass them in front of the class, and many are really starting to do great. But there are also 4-5 that I just haven’t been able to reach. All of the other teachers have these students, and my administrator is just as frustrated. I am curious to see what other teachers are doing when calling home doesn’t work.

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I love the idea of having the deployment. This sounds similar to what we do at the school I work at. I taught in second grade and for every unit the students took a pre-test. From there the five classrooms split their students into three groups depending on how they did on the pre-test. One group was advanced, one was progressing and one was limited. From there they were sent to a classroom for their "level" to be taught the concepts. After they were then given a post test to see their progress. For those that are still limited they would be pulled for additional help throughout the day. I feel that this is a wonderful teaching technique. It helps those who are struggling and challenges those who are achieving.

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I am a high school educator, and I have a department of very brilliant teachers, with great knowledge and experience. Unfortunately, during our PLC meetings, I have noticed that it has just been a session for most of them to complain about variables that are out of our control. I am seeking strategies on how to help them focus on what we can control and how they can move forward past what is out of our control. Any suggestions? If we are only focusing on the negative, how are we going to develop new and refined strategies that facilitate student learning?

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I can see this model working very well. The only problem I see with this is that the administration has to be on board with this 100%. If they are not, then the model will fall apart and all that work that the teachers did will have gone to waste. I really like the part where the three teacher are in the classroom teaching during Algebra 1.

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PLCs are something new in my school. I was placed in one at the end of the school year last year, but with me changing positions this current school year, I do not participate in a PLC. At the time, PLCs were not explained to me in detail, such as benefits and outcomes, and as a first year teacher I was very confused on my position in the group. Other colleagues that I talked to were not engaged and could not answer my questions effectively. It was like they were a part of it because it was required. After reading this article and learning about PLCs in my masters program, it is very informative. PLCs are in place for support, improvement, and reflection. This year I am part of our Learning Support Team, and we have not had any active meeting since the beginning of the year. It is very disappointing to see that no one is interested on how we can bring up student achievement within our department. With a 56% graduation rate, our school is definitely interested in student achievement, but with the lack of teacher and student contribution, it is hard to make that happen.

“How will we respond when students have not learned?,” for my school, it seems like the faculty does not, or at least not to full potential, respond to student who have not learned. I am going to take this article and the questions at the beginning of this article and present them to the vice principals and councilors to see if they will put present it to the team. I am hoping to gain motivation, collaborations, and cooperation from others to be able to have successful PLCs in my school.

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The "student deployment" is an encouraging strategy for intervention. It is true that the hardest part of planning is how to respond to students who did not learn the lesson. We have PLCs in our math department and we are teamed by the subject we teach. I just could see now how weak our school's PLC is. Actually, we are not doing it right because the intervention does not seem effective. I am going to share this URL and have my colleagues see how helpful this is.

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This sounds like a great plan and it is great to see that teachers are putting so much time and effort into student learning. My concern is when the students are broken up into ability groups. I understand that the teacher who taught the concept "best" will be reteaching the struggling students, but doesn't that create a lot of inconsistency? Looking back on my school career I think that I would have become frustrated by switching teachers, especially if I wasn't understanding the concept. It seems for this to be effective the teachers really need to know what each other are doing in their classrooms. I hope that this type of plan can take root in many schools and have great success!

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I think it is a great idea to use the "student deployment" method. I think this is the type of thing that could be beneficial in my district. I like how it puts the student's learning in the hands of all of the teachers and not just one classroom teacher. I think this would force more communication among groups of teachers which would make all of the teachers more aware of what and how they are teaching. This is an idea that I am going to suggest to others in my district. I hope this is something that they will consider implementing because our schools currently struggle with how to respond when the students do not show mastery. Thank you for the great ideas!

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Staff at

When I have experienced the synergy of being in or observing teams that were highly effective and productive, they were all built on high levels of trust. So much of what we do as teachers is a reflection of who we are and what we believe. So, it can be intimidating to share what we do because, for some, it can feel like we are sharing part of ourselves.

Based on what you have said, it might be helpful to your colleague if you model what it looks like to be transparent with your practice. For example, share some of your successes and struggles with her as they relate to helping your students learn those skills and concepts you and your colleague have agreed are most essential. You might try saying something like, “When I taught Y (this skill) I used this strategy and most of my students really seemed to understand. But when I taught X (this concept), many of them really struggled. You seem to be very good at getting your kids to learn X. Would you be willing to share with me how you get them to learn it?”

In addition to building a trusting relationship with your colleague during team meetings, you may also want to take some practical steps to get to know her a little better. For example, you could invite her to lunch, take a walk, or engage in some other activity that you both would enjoy.

-Aaron Hansen, PLC at Work Associate

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I love the term "student deployment." But what happens when the student that needs to be retaught the standard is being taught by the same teacher that taught him the first time because this was determined to be the "best" teacher. We all know that even the best teachers have students that fail. Are these students still "deployed" to a different teacher to see if a different style will help them?

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I am also a believer that implementing a PLC community is powerful to improving our students overall test scores. I have worked in two other schools that implemented the plan, but it was not very effective. Many teachers were not 100% committed and did not participate during our PLC discussions. This year I am at a brand new school, and we are currently implementing the PLC plan. I liked the idea that the team worked on the common assessment together, and also shared the strategies that they used during the lessons. I have gain valuable information that I can share to motivate all teachers to be active participants in the plan.

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As a PLC, our biggest struggle is to know when to move on. When we still have a handful of students not meeting standard, do we continue even after a few weeks of intervention? When do we finally say it is time to move on?

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I love the idea that you have the teacher who was most successful teaching a standard reteaches the students who did not get the concept required by the standard. As a fourth grade teacher in a small elementary school we have a team of two. When looking at results I often question the other teacher about what she did to help her students be so successful. Unfortunately, I'm not able to get much from her. I think she is not confident in herself as a person. Because of this I see a weakness in our PLC. Any suggestions on how to get her to open up so that I too can help my students gain from her insights and strategies?

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