Progress or Procrastination?
I received a question regarding the timetable a school had established to implement the PLC process. According to the proposed timetable, this high school would devote one school year to helping teams establish agreement on the essential outcomes of each course. A second entire year would be devoted to developing common assessments. In the third year the school would turn its attention to providing students with intervention, and in year four they would consider how they might enrich the learning for students who were highly proficient. I was asked to weigh in on the effectiveness of this timetable.
My response was blunt. I asserted that it is ridiculous to devote four years to implementing the PLC process as described in this plan. Teachers can spend a year debating essential standards and go back into classrooms and return to business as usual. Extending the debate for an entire year means that none of the students in the school will have the benefit of a guaranteed curriculum. What students will learn will continue to be a function of the teacher to whom they are assigned. It should not take teachers a year to decide what is important in their content, and students should not have to play educational lottery regarding what they are learning for another year because the adults in the building can’t agree.
Common assessments are essential to determining whether or not the essential standards are being taught, and more importantly, learned. But it doesn’t take a year to develop a common assessment. And if teams merely develop the assessments and don’t use the evidence to intervene for students and to analyze the effectiveness of their individual and collective practice, why bother creating common assessments at all? Furthermore, when the team discovers students are not learning, does the school really need to wait until the third year to intervene? How can a school that declares it is committed to being a PLC wait three years before it addresses the question of how it will respond when students don’t learn?
There is a law in organizational theory called Parkinson’s law which says that work will expand to fill the amount of time we are willing to devote to it. Clearly this school serves as a model of Parkinson’s law. An international authority on educational reform, Michael Fullan has concluded that the specific steps schools must take to implement the PLC process are now so much more clear than a decade ago that even large schools can implement the process successfully in a single year.
The power of PLCs lies in a cyclical process of collective inquiry that results in a guaranteed curriculum, careful monitoring of student learning by the team, timely and systematic intervention and enrichment, and collective analysis of student learning to inform and improve the individual and collective practice of the team. Breaking that process into a series of disjointed tasks for four years is not in the best interest of student learning. I would strongly advise against what I consider to be organizationally-sanctioned procrastination that means the students entering the school as freshman this year will not benefit from the process until their senior year—if ever.
Consider this analogy. Imagine you want to become proficient as a tennis player, but you have no experience. You seek the advice of tennis professionals. The first informs you that he will devote the first year of training to working on your forehand, the second year to your backhand, the third year to your serve, and the fourth year to volleys and overheads. At the end of four years you will play your first tennis match.
The second pro gives you an introduction to each of the strokes so you establish good fundamentals, and helps you practice them for several weeks. He then calls you to apply your learning by arranging for you to play a match. Your opponent takes advantage of your inconsistent backhand and a weak second serve, and so in the next round of lessons, the pro helps you work on those aspects of the game.
Which strategy would be more effective in helping you achieve your goal—four years of training before you apply your learning to the full process or sound fundamentals, immediate application of your learning, and monitoring and adjusting based on actual experience? Of course no tennis professional would propose a four-year plan of preparation for learning how to play tennis. Teaching pros recognize we learn by doing and by making adjustments as we go, and this school should commit to do what PLCs do now rather than preparing for four years to do what PLCs do.
It would be far more effective for educators in the school to work their way through the entire process a unit at a time. Elementary schools may want to start with a particular subject area—say math. Teachers of a particular grade level then agree on the essential standard of the unit and the amount of time they will devote to it. They may want to develop and administer a common pre-assessment to gather information on pre-requisite skills for the unit before determining pacing. They would write a common assessment prior to starting the unit and then each teacher would use the instructional strategies he or she thinks will work best for students. On the designated day they would administer the common assessment and the entire team would analyze the results together. Each member would ask:
- Which of my students is still struggling with this essential skill?
- Which of my students has mastered the essential skill?
- What is an area in which my students excelled, what strategies led to their success, and how might I share those strategies with my colleagues, and conversely what is an area of weakness where I might seek help from my colleagues?
- Is there an area where students struggled regardless of the teacher to whom they were assigned and if so, what steps can our team take to address our own professional learning regarding teaching that skill?
In a middle or high school this conversation would typically best occur at the content team level—all 7th grade language arts teachers, all chemistry teachers, all physical teachers, or a vertical team of teachers teaching Spanish. Teams should create their own assessments rather than using textbooks or commercial assessments and should use performance-based assessments when the skill or concepts requires such an assessment. In that case, the team must agree on the criteria by which they will judge the quality of student work and practice applying the criteria to real examples of student work until they have mastered it.
Of course it does a school little good to monitor student learning unless it is prepared to respond to students who are not learning. This typically will require a manipulation of the schedule, but here again, why wait until next year. Schedules routinely change at semester and a determined administrator could work with a leadership team of teachers to develop a schedule and a process that ensures systematic intervention for students.
The bottom line is this: A team that begins to engage in this cyclical process in two- or three-week units will become far more proficient at the PLC process than teams who take four years before implementing the process.