Scott A. Cunningham

Scott Cunningham is principal of Olentangy Orange Middle School in Ohio. He has over 18 years of experience in education as a principal, assistant principal, and teacher.

Learning in a PLC: Student by Student, Target by Target

Collaborative teams in PLC schools use the four critical questions of learning to drive their collective inquiry and action research:

  1. What do we want students to learn? (essential standards)
  2. How will we know if they have learned? (team-developed common assessments)
  3. What will we do if they don’t learn? (systematic interventions)
  4. What will we do if they already know it? (extended learning)

(DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, Many, 2010)

These questions are absolutely fundamental to the PLC process.

When considering critical question 1, I’m not sure the first time that I heard or read the statement “student by student, standard by standard” from a great mentor and Solution Tree icon Mike Mattos, but I do know that the statement has been transformational for my school and many of the schools with whom I work. At Olentangy Orange Middle School we use the phrase “student by student, target by target” because when we were developing a guaranteed and viable curriculum, the educators involved decided to use the term learning targets instead of standards.

Once educators truly understand what this statement means and how to use it to actually identify students’ strengths and weaknesses to truly differentiate instruction, they will see incredibly high levels of learning for all students and address each of the four critical questions for every unit of instruction.

I want to share a few specific strategies that our teachers use to truly make sure that all students are learning at high levels by not only knowing, but also living the phrase, “student by student, target by target.”

Our staff uses question 2 (results from team-developed common assessments), to truly answer questions 3 and 4 on interventions and extending learning.

  1. We are very “tight” about our teacher teams instructing “student by student, target by target,” but “loose” about how they do it. 

We always encourage individual teachers to be creative in how they instruct and assess learning in their classrooms. Our teachers are continually looking for ways to improve their instruction to meet the needs of all students. As individual teachers test new strategies in their classrooms, they share insights with the other members of their collaborative teams.

  1. We are “tight” that all of our team-developed common assessments are aligned to learning targets, but “loose” about how teams indicate the targets on their assessments.

Some teams put the learning target being assessed above the actual question, while others code the learning target beside each question. The teams that code the learning target give a sheet with all the targets and codes to the students, so they also know which target is being assessed.

  1. We are “tight” that all students will be flex-grouped based on whether they achieve mastery of the learning targets, but “loose” about how the teachers actually flex-group.  

Flex-grouping has become a buzz word and when I’ve pushed people over the years to explain how they flex-group, I often hear the same story over and over. In traditional schools, teachers give a baseline reading assessment and group students on the basis of their score on that single reading assessment. These ability groups can remain the same all year long, sometimes even with the same teacher, resulting in high, medium, and low groups or tracking. This bad practice is frustrating because students are being ranked and sorted on the basis of a single test score.

We have taken a different approach to flex-grouping at Orange Middle School, and we do it differently depending on the subject and the team. Below are a few examples:

  • Our eighth-grade social studies teachers align every question on each assessment to a specific learning target. Students then work in groups to relearn the targets they missed or to do an extension activity if they achieved mastery of all targets.
  • Our sixth-grade science teachers assess students based on learning targets for a certain time period (such as a week) and then have an extension lab at the end for all students who have learned the intended targets. Any student who is missing targets during the week works on the targets in groups and as they learn, they are expected to complete an extended learning lab during an academic assist time built into the schedule.
  • Our math department uses preassessments of the necessary prerequisite skills to flex-group students to different teachers prior to a new unit. Based on the preassessment, students either receive more support or perform extended learning activities. Students who do not demonstrate mastery of certain skill go with one teacher; students who miss other targets go with a different teacher; and students who meet all targets go with another teacher for extensions. The teachers decide ahead of time who will be in charge of the relearning opportunities for each target based on their strengths in teaching those targets.

Grouping students based on mastery of learning targets instead of a single test score stops the high, medium, and low groupings because all students are working on areas of specific need based on their progress toward mastering specific learning targets (not scores).

This method is transformational because students start to take ownership of their learning when they know their specific areas of strengths and weaknesses and are expected to improve or extend their knowledge.

Prior to engaging in the PLC process, we had a culture in our school of “chasing the A.” As soon as a student earned 90%, they would say, “Well, I got the A so I don’t have to do anymore work.” However, when we truly live the phrase “student by student, target by target,” we no longer have to chase the A; we can truly focus on high levels of learning for all. We no longer settle for learning 90% of the intended targets or (for most students) learning most targets. Each student will learn all of the essential targets. As professional educators, it is our responsibility to make sure that this happens for all students.

DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. (2010). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.



I believe that the four critical questions are important to guide instruction. The four important inquiries are necessary for teaching reflections and can help eduactors and students achieve success. In addition, every student is the focus point and the classroom therefore, teachers should ask these four questions about all the students.

Posted on

Annette Salinas

This was a great read! PLC meetings on my campus are a great benefit. Us as educators need to be sure that the instruction we are giving to our students is thoroughly planned out. With the help of other teachers, coordinators, principals, we are responsible that all students have the opportunity to learn at high levels. In planning we must make sure that all targets are covered. I liked how you and your campus have put into place your system of meeting with your PLC communities. It seems like you are doing a great job!

Posted on

Sarah Sanders

We use the 4 questions in my school district. They guide our PLC and planning times. However, this is the first time that I've heard "student by student, target by target." Very insightful!

Posted on

Lynell Strickland

This was a very interested blog. I enjoy reading about the PLC. The name " Student by Student, Target by Target" states that your school is aiming to target students' strength and weaknesses. Thanks for sharing the strategies. The strategies are something that I would definitely share with my grade level PLC and school. It benefits both the teachers and students.

Posted on

Karleigh Baskett

I enjoyed reading about your expectations for PLC's. I like that although the teacher's are held to tight expectations for student success based on standards, the teachers are allowed to be creative in their lesson plans and assess their students in the way that works best for them. I would like for my PLC to work this way. Although we are allowed to try new things and share with the group, these have to be on top of the common formative assessments we are already giving, not instead of. This can make for too much assessment in one classroom! I have printed out this post to share with my PLC this Friday and hope to gain some flexibility within our grade level PLC.

Posted on

Michele McPheely

I really enjoyed reading your blog. It sounds like your school and teachers are doing great work for the students! I love the motto "student, by student, and target by target". It gives a very clear message that as educators we are going to make sure that each child is reaching her or his goals for each standard not just achieving a general grade for a subject. When I taught Kindergarten, I found that having a physical target for the kids where they got to move their paw print as they deepened their understanding on whichever standards we were focusing on at the time was very influential for them. I also had a chart for them in their folder that I would up date each time they improved their understanding, so that they could always see where they were for each targeted skill. The ownership they feel over their progress and pride in their growth is the best thing to see as a teacher.
I was wondering what your school/teachers do to help students know where they stand in relation to their targets? (It's always good to hear new ideas!)

Thank you for your blog post!

Posted on

Vanessa Garcia

The term "learning targets" is such a great way to view the standards. This is the first year we implement PLC meetings in my school district, and I am looking forward to sharing the in-depth of these four critical questions. Currently, we meet every Wednesday, and although this is a new experience, we are collaborating with one another for improving student learning. These new strategies will help in identifying the student's weaknesses and strengths.

Posted on

Erica Canales

The most successful teaching and the most significant student learning happen when teachers design the right learning target for today’s lesson and create a community of learners where students are highly engaged in a rigorous setting.
Where teachers use the learning target along with their students to aim for, and measure knowledge and understanding. A learning target is not an instructional objective. Learning targets vary from instructional objectives in both plan and purpose. Instructional objectives direct instruction, and are composed from the teacher’s viewpoint. Their purpose is to join outcomes across a sequence of related lessons. This assists educators in setting demanding goals for what teachers and principals should know and be able to do.

Posted on

Laura Klinefelter

I think these are great ideas to incorporate at schools and will benefit all students. I am curious after you have the priority benchmarks mapped out and you will hit all the standards before your state test. How do you have time to go back and reteach concepts that students do not understand. I am teaching 2 class of core with 6th grade that all fall in the red section which is falls far below. How do you have time in your scope and sequence to go back and reteach the key concepts they have missed and hit all the priority benchmarks . I think sometimes it is easier in different grades because they have less standards or more connections among standards. I am noticing my students are struggling I am taking time to help them but it is usually done before or after school. I never have time to help them during the day. The second struggle is the students that do not have time to stay after for help due to family commitment. We have broken all our test down to standards and are able to look at the data individual vs an A but I am still struggling to find the time to help all students.

Posted on