Richard DuFour

Richard DuFour, EdD, was a public school educator for 34 years. A prolific author and sought-after consultant, he is recognized as one of the leading authorities on helping school practitioners implement the PLC at Work™ process.

Addressing Differences

In my previous blog, Two Different "Schools" of Thought, I reported that one of my fans has made it quite clear that his perspective on the purpose of schooling, the responsibilities of educators, and the indicators of a quality school are very different than those I espouse. How might we explore those differences?

I could suggest that we work together to create ways to determine if some teachers in the school have discovered strategies that are more effective in helping all students learn so that teachers could learn from one another. He dismisses this idea by insisting, "There is no such thing as best practice." Apparently, all practice is of equal value.

Perhaps we could examine the research. I have provided a comprehensive list of researchers who have endorsed each of the ideas I present. And that list is growing. Just this year, John Hattie reported the results of one of the most comprehensive syntheses or research ever conducted on factors that impact student achievement. Hattie’s synthesis considered over 800 meta-analyses and 52,000 research studies. At the conclusion of his analysis, Hattie advised that the best way to improve schools is to have teachers work in collaborative teams to clarify what students should learn, gather evidence of that learning through ongoing formative assessment processes, and use that evidence to inform and improve their practice. But our teacher rejects research supporting PLC practices as dogma rather than evidence and is "dumbfounded" by the popularity of the concept among researchers.

I could ask him to present the evidence that supports his assertions, but he does not feel compelled to submit any evidence. In fact, he admits there is no research that "well-funded think tanks, education professors, or consultants" subscribe to his view of how schools should be run. He insists that "professionals" pursue their own path. They are not required to justify their practice and are free to reject evidence and follow their own conscience.

Perhaps I could point out that virtually all of the professional organization and teacher unions in the United States have endorsed the idea that teachers should work as members of professional learning communities. Perhaps, as a high school English teacher, he can explain why the National Council of Teachers of English has created professional development kits titled, "Professional Learning Communities at Work" to "help educators zero in on the key issues confronting teachers and students in today’s English language arts classrooms." Unfortunately, this is of no consequence to him since he rejects professional organizations as part of the "educrats." He calls for teachers to "stand up to our unions" and "assert intellectual authority over the profession."

Perhaps I could point out that my passion for the PLC concept is not that of a theoretician but of someone who spent 34 years in public education where I witnessed the power of the concept in my own school and, more recently, in hundreds of other schools as well. No matter. Much of my career was in administration and administrators are not to be trusted because they only exist to saddle teachers with the latest fads.

Perhaps I could point out the hundreds of schools and districts that have demonstrated significant gains in student achievement by implementing the PLC concept. He has an answer. The improved results are based on standardized tests that have caused a "narrowed curriculum and diluted intellectual rigor." If I point to other indicators--lowered failure rates or improved graduation rates--he knows that these improvements merely reflect the lowering of standards.

Perhaps I could have him speak to teachers who have actually worked in high-performing PLCs. I have heard directly from thousands of teachers who say it has made their work more satisfying and rewarding and that they would never return to the days of working in isolation. He would dismiss them as "brainwashed" members of a "cult" who have been "willing to give up intellectual authority over their profession and allow themselves to be infantilized by condescending educrats."

I could point out the overwhelming evidence that traditional practices simply are not working for our students or our society (as I did in my November 12 blog, "Where Will You Put Your Energy?"). He argues that those results are not attributable to educators but to "funding, bad policy, bad working conditions, social and economic phenomena, and [my personal favorite] the culture of constant change, gimmickry, and fad-chasing that educational ’experts’ have been fostering in this country for decades in order to mask their own charlatanry and maintain their sham intellectual authority over teachers."

I could argue that the model of higher education where universities are able to screen and select their adult students is not a viable model for a K-12 system that is intended to meet the needs of any child who walks in the door. I might point out that the university system he holds in such high regard has a 30 percent dropout rate after one year, graduates fewer than half of its students in five years, and has one of the highest dropout rates among college students in the industrialized world. But given his position that educators have no responsibility to see to it that their students succeed, I doubt he would be troubled by any evidence suggesting that perhaps higher education is not the paragon of success that he describes.

I could refute his argument that attention to helping all students learn at high levels does not inevitably diminish the learning of high-performing students by sharing the experience of Adlai Stevenson High School. Since becoming a PLC, Stevenson has had the percentage of its graduating class participating in the rigorous Advanced Placement college-level program increase from 7 percent to 80 percent. I could point out that Stevenson students score, on average, 20 percent higher than the national averages on each AP exam despite the fact that only about 15 percent of the nation’s graduates wrote an exam in 2008. I could point out that the mode score of Stevenson students is 5, the highest possible score, that the school has produced more AP scholars than any school in Illinois, or that it has been named as one of the top Fine Arts Programs in America. I could cite the fact that the college graduation rate for Stevenson graduates has consistently been more than double the national average. Clearly this should demonstrate that the PLC concept does not foster mediocrity. He answers that other schools that have not implemented the PLC concept also perform at high levels and thus the concept has nothing to offer.

I could provide evidence from the 38 schools we feature in our latest book--schools from throughout the nation serving students of every socio-economic group--that have experienced tremendous gains in the number of students moving from "proficient" to "advanced proficient" in their state, but why bother.

This teacher has not felt the need to be consistent. He has criticized the PLC concept as a repackaging of old ideas that offer nothing new, something teachers have been doing forever. In the next breath he describes it as a dangerous new fad that will ruin the nation’s schools. He creates one false dichotomy after another. Schools must be intellectually rigorous or invested in the learning of all students. Schools must focus on gifted students or students who struggle. Teachers must be content experts or care about the success of their students. They can be creative and innovative if they work in isolation or mindless automatons if they work in collaborative teams. Schools can have "either obedient teachers or excellent ones."

He has insisted that the goal of the PLC concept is to impose conformity and mediocrity on educators by demanding that every teacher teach in the exact same way. I have written thousands of pages on the topic, but he would be unable to cite one sentence to support that assertion. The PLC concept calls for teachers to be empowered--to have a greater voice in determining what is taught, the sequencing of content, and how students are to be assessed. It does not endorse lockstep, day-by-day pacing and specifically encourages each teacher to use the instructional strategies he or she believes will lead to the best results. There is no one right way to teach a concept, but not all ways are equally effective. Teachers in PLCs work together to consider the effectiveness of their strategies on the basis of student learning, as evidenced on assessments created by the teachers themselves. The entire process is based on a belief in the internal expertise of teachers and their ability to learn from one another.

I remain passionately committed to being a proponent for the PLC process because I believe it best serves students and our profession. I am convinced that we have a moral imperative to do everything we can to promote student success rather than failure, and that our collective adult efforts can have a very powerful and positive impact on student learning. I will always, however, be willing to consider evidence that points to more effective practice. Unfortunately, this teacher has not expressed a similar openness. He has emphatically asserted that he "will never submit to your silly ideology," "I will not abide by your beliefs," and that he is among the "self-respecting teachers that aren’t buying it and we never will."

I guess it follows that teachers who embrace the PLC concept have no self-respect. I suggest that his insistence that he will do things his way regardless of what the rest of the staff elects to do and that his unwillingness to consider the point of view of others reflects the "bullying" and "dogma" he has attributed to me.

So be forewarned. If you agree with this individual that the job of teachers is merely to present content, that as professionals they should be left to work in isolation and with total autonomy, that they are not accountable for the learning of their students, that they have no obligation to work with or support their colleagues, that their schools promote excellence by doing nothing to help students avoid "the abject humiliation of failure," and that you will never consider any ideas or evidence that are contrary to your own, my books, this blog, and my ideas will only serve to annoy you.


Rick and Becky DuFour

Dear Eraduly,

Typically the easiest and most meaningful (to the team members) collaboration is job-alike. For example, all of the elementary music teachers from the same district form a collaborative team; or the elementary and middle school music teachers form a vertical team. But there are other options. We’ve written about this topic many times and educators from across the country have contributed additional ideas.

Best Wishes,
Becky & Rick DuFour

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Rick and Becky DuFour

Hi Cliff (Docgreen),
Your argument that the percentage of Stevenson students being successful in the AP program is solely a function of the socio-economic status of its students simply does not align with the facts. In 1985 two-thirds of the Stevenson student population came from high income communities and there were no ESL students; yet, 7% of the graduates wrote AP exams, the school had a 35% failure rate, and its scores on the ACT exam were only slightly above the national averages. In 2009 10% of the students resided in high income communities and one in four had parents who did not speak English at home; yet, almost 80 percent of graduates had been successful in the AP program, the school's failure rate had dropped to about 1% and its students score significantly above the national average on the ACT in ever aspect of the test. This ACT statistic is particularly interesting because all high school juniors in Illinois must take the test whereas in almost every other state, only the college-bound students take the exam. So a public high school that requires all students to be tested on a national assessment is scoring much higher than select college-bound students across the nation, and its scores continue to rise. So Cliff, if your argument that demographics is destiny were valid, the indicators of achievement at Stevenson should have been on a steady decline for the past quarter century rather improving virtually every year.

But rather than focus on a single school, look at the other high schools on this website. All of them have seen dramatic gains in student achievement in virtually every indicator. Some of those schools, for example, those in Whittier Union High School District in your home state of California, have experienced higher levels of student achievement despite a tremendous increase in the percentage of students who live in poverty to the point that today almost 3 of every 4 students is low SES.

You contend that schools that operate as PLCs focus only on raising student scores on multiple choice tests rather than focusing students on learning. Are you really suggesting that schools that are attempting to give all students the skills and self-efficacy to be successful in the most rigorous curricula a high school can offer are only interested in improving scores on multiple choice tests? If you go to the Stevenons website and download its annual student survey, you will discover that Stevenson graduates feel far better prepared than the other students in their college and are more than twice as likely to earn a degree within five years. So if a Stevenson student at Harvard or Northwestern or any public university or any community college reports she is better prepared, earns better grades, and is more likely to graduate than her peers, are you prepared to argue that she has those advantages solely because of her SES?, Would you accept the possibility that the achievement of students might have something to do with the effectiveness of their teachers? How many schools would it take to convince you that the professional practice of the adults in the school can have a dramatic impact on student achievement? I urge you to become a student of the structures and cultures of such schools rather than dismissing what they have accomplished.

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Can you identify the role of special area teachers (Art, music, Phy Ed, Library) in a PLC? Is it effective to have them folded into grade-level PLCs to focus on more general education goals, say, math and/or reading? Or is it more appropriate to have specialists meet as a PLC themselves with common subject-area goals to compare data and improve instruction so that student achievement in their specific subject areas is positively impacted?

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Hi Rick,
As an AP teacher (3 sections) I can see the value of collaboration,yet I think your example of Adlai Stevenson H.S. is misleading at best. The demographics make it a surprise that there was ever a time when only 7% participated in an AP program. The kids drive nicer cars than the teachers and come from well educated upper middle class parents that value education. I graduated from a H.S. where the teachers were not versed in all things PLC or PC or particularly caring about individual students, yet 95% of the students went on to college. I am not saying PLC is a bad idea, yet the focus is too much on creating a 'product' that is numerical to demonstrate that the kids can answer a m/c test a bit more accurately than last time. It would be refreshing to see a focus on how the tone or attitude of the students can be refocused on learning.

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Hi Ric,

Could you adrress a couple of questions/areas in future blogs?

1. How do PLC schools address the issue of "responsility" in a PLC? It seems to be surfacing as an issue this year in regards to work completion or failure?

2. How do you define "mastery" of essential learning skills.

Dale Mitchell
Supt. Homewood Schools
Long-time PLC Lincolnshire particpant.

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Randall Squier

You describe someone who is present in all types of organizations. When a teacher becomes so toxic, it becomes mal practice. Each school leader has the enormous responsibility of minimizing the caustic impact resisters have. School leaders mean more then the principal. With administrator turnover averaging five years, it is imperative that leadership capacity is grown among teachers. Principals must create positive movement. Fullan calls this motion leadership. Principals can do this if they keep the goals of the school to a minimum (3). Schmoker has been saying this for years. Then create the structures and “time between the bells” for teachers to work together in reaching their goals. All data that informs instruction must be transparent and results determine whether the teacher work is effective.
Our problem is we take so long to move in schools. We have a nasty habit of complicating a simple process to impact student learning. The irony is the reasons adults use to justify resisting working collectively is exactly opposite of why they have their students work cooperatively in the classroom, to provide a more effective and efficient way to learn. It is common sense to realize that a team of teachers looking at data will develop a wider range of ideas and solutions to support students who need additional support. To challenge those who excel, a team of teachers will always make a more robust enriching learning opportunity then a single teacher working alone. Working together the learning outcomes become clear for teachers and in turn the assessments they create are a more accurate, and fair measure of student learning.
We have many teams in our schools in Oxford who see the power in working together. We, the administrators, have not done everything perfectly. We have made a mess of some change initiatives. Yet, the teachers persevere in spite of us sometimes getting in the way. This happens because we have been committed to providing them time between the bells to go from congenial teams to collegial teams. If they need other resources we have found a way to provide it. We have been gentle bulldozers, sometimes too gentle, in pushing teachers to stretch their efficacy in the use of assessments as a formative tool. We now have teachers actually wanting data from benchmark assessments immediately, and they want it broken down to the individual student level so they can personalize their interventions and enrichment. They used to talk about data by looking at averages. Now they talk in specifics. They know what concepts or skills each student needs extra time and support. This has given us many reasons to celebrate. It is exciting to see the capacity of our faculty grow every day.
We still have our resisters, and always will. Our goal as leaders now is to spread the great work being done by some of our teacher teams and making it the norm building and district wide. This can be accomplished by staying true to our core values, continually clarifying and being precise in what we want students to learn so we can personalize our instruction and doing this by supporting, making time and expecting continual professional learning in order to build our collective capacity as a learning organization. It has been and will be messy, emotional and exciting!

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After reading Dr. Anthony Muhammad's description of a Level 4 Fundamentalist I'm wondering if there perhaps needs to be a Level 5!

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