PLCs: Super Bowls and Super Systems
Now that football season is officially over and Tom Brady has permanently secured his place as the greatest quarterback of all time, I cannot help but think of the plethora of parallels that exist between championship football teams and professional learning communities (PLCs). (By the way, don’t @ me over the Tom Brady declaration. With seven Superbowl wins, it’s not even up for debate! For my non-football friends, Brady is the dude that stole Leonardo DiCaprio’s model girlfriend Gisele...she “let go, Jack” #imaycryintitanictoo...I digress).
While it may not have been the NFL, I spent many Friday nights on the sidelines coaching high school football. It was on those sidelines that I got the first taste of the importance of championship teams securing a shared vision, mission, values, and goals. When I transitioned to instructional leader of our PLC, it became clear that this applied to teams of any kind- on the field or off. Understanding this allowed our guiding coalition of educators to successfully secure our fundamental purpose- ensuring high levels of learning for ALL. Thrilled with this clarity we soon began to see daily wins within our school, but we longed for a championship! I could not help but think that our PLC could benefit from taking a page straight out of the playbook of another football legend, Coach Urban Meyer, former Ohio State and University of Florida head football coach (again, don’t @ me; this guy wins everywhere he goes). Coach Meyer reminded us, “Average leaders have quotes, good leaders have plans, and exceptional leaders have a SYSTEM.” That was another “aha” moment for our PLC. A systematic process is needed not only to win college and professional football championships, but also to increase student achievement.
Buffum, Mattos, and Malone in Taking Action: A handbook for RTI at Work® must also be Coach Meyer fans, for they too remind us, “The key to team success lies in the development of systematic processes…” The systematic processes to which they are referring are foundational structures that promote consistent, respectful, and honest communication while holding us all mutually accountable. We as instructional leaders of PLCs should continuously facilitate dialogue to build shared understanding of these systematic processes. Likewise, we should always set and model expectations of how the commitment to the process should function. Operating within the system not only promotes equity but ultimately guarantees every student has access to the support they need identified by data.
For our PLC, the RTI pyramid has served as a powerful visual of a systematic approach that has helped organize and guide our school intervention process. Buffum, Mattos, and Weber outline this tiered approach in Pyramid Response to Intervention: RTI, Professional Learning Communities, and How to Respond When Kids Don’t Learn, and teach us that RTI has two defining characteristics: it is multitiered and systematic. The following is a breakdown of their three-tiered systematic approach to RTI that our PLC has successfully implemented:
Tier 1 - Often referred to as the “core program,” functions to provide all students access to essential grade-level curriculum and effective initial teaching. This step should be considered as “updating the core program.” We can initiate this tier by setting high expectations for students and staff, focusing our resource efforts and curriculum, as well as ensuring that all students learn by diagnosing problems and prescribing supports one child at a time.
Tier 2- Known as the “supplemental level,” this tier provides additional support to master essential grade-level standards defined by targeted learning outcomes. Here, our interventions are designed to meet the needs of both failed learners (students who failed to learn) and intentional non-learners (students who failed to try). We will not allow a student to opt out of learning (intentional non-learners). Instead, specific interventions are prescribed to meet that need, such as mandatory study hall, frequent progress monitoring, goal setting support, or targeted rewards. Conversely, failed learners need targeted instruction plus time to meet their supplemental learning needs. Common formative assessment analysis followed by targeted remediation aid in accomplishing this effort. By now in our system, fewer students should need Tier 2 interventions compared to those needing Tier 1.
Tier 3- Referred to as the “intensive level,” it provides intensive remediation in foundational skills without denying these students access to essential grade-level curriculum. Here, we are intentional in meeting the needs of students who show low content area skills and/or lack of progress over time when provided with Tier 1 and Tier 2 interventions. Tier 3 interventions are designed to address very specific areas of deficiency for individual students. Again, increasing with intensity but with fewer students.
As instructional leaders it is our responsibility to ensure that we implement systems such as the one mentioned above with sequential steps that simplify complexities. We are, after all, the head coach or quarterback of our team. And while we may not be the Tom Brady or Urban Meyer of education, a championship win for us as educators is ensuring ALL students learn and achieve at high levels. In order to achieve this objective we must have a system—not a program—for meeting the needs of all students. This will no doubt require us to have strategic and innovative approaches to reworking master schedules as well as motivating the mindset transformation of many members of our teams.
This may feel like an overwhelming and daunting task, but be encouraged! At its core, a systematic approach is about learning to focus on the process. It kills me to quote Coach Nick Saban (non-football friends, he was the former head coach of LSU, current coach of some team in Alabama...the one we don’t speak of...like Voldemort), but Saban does know a thing or two about trusting the process. He reminds us to “focus on the process of what it takes to be successful.” Successfully implementing a systematic approach does not happen overnight. It’s a process, my friends. And as we trust the process, we just might find that we fall in love with it as well.
Buffum, A., Mattos, M., Weber, C. (2008). Pyramid Response to Intervention: RTI, professional learning communities, and how to respond when kids don’t learn. Solution Tree Press.
Buffum, A., Mattos, M., Malone, J. (2017). Taking Action: A handbook for RTI at work®. Solution Tree Press.