Diana Walsh-Reuss, associate superintendent of schools for Riverside County

Riverside County Office of Education Uses PLCs to Support Special Education

The Riverside County Office of Education was awarded the 2010 Golden Bell Award for the implementation of professional learning communities to support students with severe disabilities.

The Riverside County Office of Education Special Education (RCOE SE) Unit PLC model is a perfect fit for the mission and vision of the Riverside County Office of Education:  “To ensure the success of all students through extraordinary service, support, and partnerships.” The PLC model has created a school-wide system of “extraordinary service and support” that meets the individual needs of RCOE students.  In addition, by implementing the PLC process, teachers have formed collaborative partnerships that have increased the success of our students.  The RCOE SE PLCs are a true example of extraordinary service, support and partnership.

Description of Project

The goal of The Riverside County Office of Education (RCOE) is to ensure that all students learn through the use of consistent systems and practices that are implemented with fidelity. The RCOE Special Education (SE) Unit serves 1,300 students with the most severe disabilities including cognitive and multiple disabilities, autism, vision and hearing impairments, and emotional disturbance. To meet the goal of high achievement, the SE Unit focused on developing an innovative accountability and assessment model.

After careful consideration of school reform initiatives, the PLC model was adopted in 2005. In the initial planning of the PLC model, a shift was required in educational practice from a focus on teaching to a focus on student learning. As the PLC model was developed, the SE Unit vision became “ALL Students Can Learn,” and teachers, administrators, and support personnel quickly developed a commitment and a dedication to student learning. This began our journey toward building a truly powerful and successful PLC. The motivation to implement the PLC process throughout RCOE Special Education programs was directly attributed to our goal to provide high-quality educational programs designed to meet the unique academic, physical, behavioral, and social needs of our students.

To implement the PLC process, the RCOE Instructional Specialist Team developed a unique process for teachers to meet monthly as collaborative PLC data teams. Teachers were organized in two groups with distinctly different curricular needs, the diploma bound team and the certificate bound team. These collaborative teams were then grouped by grade level for diploma program teachers and California Alternate Performance Assessment (CAPA) levels for certificate program teachers. Because RCOE programs span 7,300 square miles, PLC teams were also grouped into three geographic zones with 8 to 14 teams meeting in each zone once per month.

This organizational structure for PLC data teams allowed for a specific focus on student learning around the essential standards for those students. The focus of the RCOE PLC data team meeting is built around the four foundational questions:

  1. What do we want students to learn?
  2. How will we know when they have learned it?
  3. What will we do when they do not learn it?
  4. What will we do when they have learned it?

These four questions have helped us identify essential standards, select and administer common assessments, analyze assessment data, and determine research-based instructional strategies. For general education teachers, it is a challenge to effectively develop these steps utilizing grade-level standards and common assessments. For RCOE teachers, the challenge is much greater, as each RCOE student has been identified with severe special needs that require a different assessment system based on alternate standards. As a result, the RCOE Instructional Specialist Team developed a unique common assessment called the Formative Assessment of Standards Tasks (FAST). FAST is designed to address the needs of students with severe cognitive challenges and is aligned to the California Alternate Performance Standards.  RCOE Diploma-bound students also complete a comprehensive formative assessment schedule using the Performance Series assessment tool through Scantron which is aligned to the California Academic Content Standards. The Performance Series also allows for the special needs of diploma-bound students who are often performing below grade-level standards.

Innovative or Exemplary

The RCOE SE Unit PLC model is not only innovative, it has become highly respected as an exemplary program that has increased achievement for students with the most severe challenges. The RCOE SE Unit was the first to develop an accountability and assessment system utilizing the PLC model, a highly innovative approach for special education programs.

This was confirmed at a 2006 PLC training when RCOE staff had an opportunity to ask Dr. Rick DuFour, author/trainer of the PLC at Work model, for examples of other special education programs who were successfully using the PLC model. His response was “You are the first, and we are looking forward to hearing how you implement the model with special education programs.” This has been further confirmed by requests from districts across California and more recently New York City District 75 (operates the largest special education program in the U.S.), who have asked for information and training to implement this collaborative process that makes accountability and assessment systems meaningful for special education programs.

Making a Difference for Students

The success of the RCOE SE Unit PLC is evident in the increase in student achievement over the last five years. Since 2005, student proficiency rates have increased 46% in ELA from 39% proficient in 2005 to 85% proficient in 2010 (table A). RCOE students had similar results in math with a 47% proficiency increase from 32% in 2005 to 79% in 2010 (table B). These results can be directly attributed to the implementation of the RCOE professional learning community model. Since 2006, RCOE has consistently exceeded the Federal Annual Measurable Objective (AMO) targets by more than 20% in ELA and 15% in Math.



I think these four foundational questions are great. For “what do I want students to learn”, I think needs to be specific. What specifically do you want the student to learn about a certain content area. This is where goals and objectives come into play. The question I like the best is “what do we do when they learn?” I think this is a question not many teachers think about. I know I haven’t. If a student hasn’t learned something, we try a different style of teaching or use different techniques. But to think about what do we do when a student has learned it, that brings education to a new level. I would have the students apply what they’ve learned to their lives, the community or the world to show them the purpose of education.

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These results are phenomenal. It is refreshing to note that your organization did not allow logistical issues to hinder collaboration. Instead the challenges were met with creative and result-yielding problem solving. Any district searching for a model of a PLC for all areas of education should look to The Riverside County of Education. Congratulations!

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Wow!! What great success. I teach students with significant disabilities. By law we need to give our students access to the curriculum. This year, we are being given materials to help our students acccess the curriculum. As I begin to use the new materials, I will keep in mind the 4 fundamental questions as I plan my lessons for my students.

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I like your model of a PLC first because of the grouping of teachers in collaboration. Often teachers are not grouped in ways in which they receive maximum value for their time. Secondly, I think that the questions are useful especially the last question. Many times teachers think they have succeeded and are done and little thought goes into the future until annual ARD time.

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Alicia L

Congratulation on your students success! I am learning about PLCs in a course I am taking and after reading this success story I am more motivated to do collaborative planning.I will also spend more time reflecting on these questions:
1.What do I want students to learn?
2.How will I know when they have learned it?
3.What will I do when they do not learn it?
4. What will I do when they have learned it?
This is because in an attempt to complete the curriculum,I sometimes do not spend enough time finding solutions to those questions.

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J Farrington

I like the four foundational questions. The one that I particularly like is "what will we do when they do not learn it?". I am a special education teacher and struggle with this question myself. We as educators need more dialog when it comes to figuring out what to do next when we believe we have done all we can to teach a specific lesson or skill and our students just don't get it. I honestly need to know for myself, what will I do when they do not get it? I refuse to give up on my students but at times I just don't have the answer. This blog has really sparked something inside me to find more answers.

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