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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Teachers and Community Members Practice TLC with PLCs

Create a culture of collaboration and constant improvement with professional learning communities.
By Ellen Ullman

In movies like Dead Poets Society and Dangerous Minds, one heroic teacher single-handedly transforms an entire school system's dysfunctions. It's a nice storyline perpetuated by Hollywood, but far from reality in most schools.

"We need to let go of the idea that heroic individuals will change schools," says Richard DuFour, an education consultant who specializes in creating professional learning communities in schools. "Instead of looking for superheroes, we need to work collectively to help everyone be successful."

PLCs -- groups of educators and community members who work together toward common goals -- are becoming more commonplace in schools as savvy teachers strive for constant improvement in everything from creating lesson plans to changing school culture. They can focus on any subject of interest: technology, improving reading scores, or project learning, for example. A group can be organized by subject, grade level, specialty, or any combination of topics that administrators believe need attention.

It's hard to measure improvements in school culture, but some districts credit PLCs for making important strides toward that goal. The Sanger Unified School District, in Sanger, California, for example, went from being designated as "Needs Improvement" in 2004 to recently celebrating its first-ever Blue Ribbon status after PLCs were put into place. Now, there's close to zero teacher turnover, and student attendance is at 97 percent.

Since PLCs were organized at the district's Jefferson Elementary School, where 60 percent of the students are English-language learners, those students have hit 53 percent proficiency in English language arts, an enormous jump from 3 percent in 2002. In math, only 2 percent of the entire student body now falls below basic proficiency level, down from 68 percent.

For teachers like Nancy Krakowka, a sixth-grade language arts and social studies teacher at Cutchogue East Elementary School, on New York's Long Island, a PLC makes all the difference. "When I started, I was very protective of my curriculum," she says. "But some of my colleagues have better ideas than I do. When you put all these minds together, the end product comes out much better."

Ellen Ullman is a freelance writer and editor in Fairfield, Connecticut, who specializes in education and technology.

Go to "How to Create a Professional Learning Community," "How to Break Down Barriers to Starting PLCs and "How to Use Twitter to Grow Your PLN."

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Comments (16)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ann Mansfield's picture

It is imperative that ALL staff be a part of this process. It is a practice in some buildings to use specialists as "student supervisors" in order to provide meeting time for classroom/department teachers to gather.Please do not ignore the valuable input your building librarians, music, art, PE , etc. teachers can provide.

Lisa Alva's picture

[quote]I am puzzled how "working collectively to help everyone be succesful" squares with pay based on who gets the best test scores, as proposed by a recent AFT position, and looming on the horizon in districts nationwide. Can we have our working collectivly cake and eat our competition based pay cake?[/quote]
Interesting question: are the two things mutually exclusive? Or is one a reaction to the other? Here's what I mean. No one will be nervous about a proposal to add value based on test scores, if we all know what everyone else is doing. I'm not afraid of being fired if I know my lessons, pacing, expectations and student performance match yours. So if we function as a PLC or SLC or Critical Friends or whatever, we all win, students included. And wouldn't it be nice to ALL go to Jamaica with our bonus?

Tiffani Patrick's picture

But isn't the OVERALL goal the students? Shouldn't we be working to help the kids and not be so concerned about ourselves? I want more pay, too, but not at the cost of the children next door. I don't think merit pay will be based on "who does best." I believe it will be based on "student growth." So, all of us working together to help students grow and understand, in turn helps us reach the goals of merit pay. Merit pay can't be about pinning teachers against teachers...but should be about (and I believe it will be) ensuring academic success for ALL students.

Elizabeth Allen's picture

PLC's have made a difference not only with the success of our students through collaboration but with moral among the teachers. PLC's help us to really feel like we are a team working together to positively impact our student's learning. This year all schools in the district have gotten out one hour early every Wednesday so teachers in every school throughout the school district could collaborate in our PLC's. This has been fabulous!! Unfortunately, there are a few very vocal parents whose schedule was disturbed with this and they ridiculed our school system and called our PLC time "Wacky Wednesday". These few parents organized and helped to get some people elected to the school board who will listen to them and do what these few parents want rather than what is best for the majority of our students. At least that is the impression many of us who could not vote in those deciding districts have. The first item of business on this new school board's agenda was doing away with our county wide common PLC collaboration time. They didn't even take the time to look at the research or hear the teachers. So sad.

Erica Rinear's picture
Erica Rinear
English teacher 8th grade

"Race to the Top" in grounded in competition. It most certainly is structured to pit teachers against each other by tethering student scores to things like tenure and raises. It is foolish to think that a teacher's individual class scores,growth model or not,will be ignored in favor of collaboration. When I first started teaching, sharing and planning together were common-place. Now the culture is different; teachers are very protective of the materials and teaching strategies they use. The deterioration of collaboration has occured as more frequent high- stakes tests have been mandated. Politicians and high profile business moguls have determined what's best for our kids. I am glad I am not a teacher just starting out, especially an English teacher.

Judith Gray's picture

The best resources, support and training for PLC's are to be found at the National School Reform Faculty (NSRF) website. This professional organization has been training and supporting Critical Friends Groups (CFG's) since the early 1990's. NSRF's protocols to improve student learning and teacher practice are being used all over the country. Furthermore, research is available showing the positive impact of CFG's on schools and classrooms.

Homerlly's picture

It's as if education is now an automobile. Every year or so a fine working machine is reinvented and presented as 'new and improved'. However, is education like a car? Truth is it's the culture that has changed not the students. Our children are symptomatic of the ills of our cultural changes. What happenned to teachers know best and parents all or mostly all made sure their children did their work and strived to do better. Now parents are the challengers of the schools and many refuse to have their children cooperate in the system. Teachers have become the scapegoats for the ills of education. School boards have become the unwitting enemies of good education which had been tried and true in many decades previously. Schools have always embraced new ideas and new technologies, the idea that teachers are locked in their ways is hogwash. Teachers in my 41 years of experience have always welcomed improvements to the task. Now though the claim is teachers can't do the job. The truth is it's the changes in students and the lack of support as shown in the daily school wars between parents, administrators and teachers which results in confused children lost in space doing whatever they feel like doing. Homework is now seen as a waste and worksheets as decadent and counter productive to education. GET REAL!!

Nancy Peden's picture
Nancy Peden
Owner Lived Learning (www.livedlearning.net)

[quote]I am puzzled how "working collectively to help everyone be succesful" squares with pay based on who gets the best test scores, as proposed by a recent AFT position, and looming on the horizon in districts nationwide. Can we have our working collectivly cake and eat our competition based pay cake?[/quote]

Young people, who often understand peer to peer and collaborative learning and the ability to work in groups seem to have been doing ok in creating stars and winners.

Collaborative learning requires both the ability to work in the group and the ability to "work" within one's self.

The group is a resource and used to help each member to reach a satisfying personal outcome and the group as a whole to reach the group's intent: success for all (or most) who desire it and can relate to the group and to the self.

I feel the awareness that comes from the ability to work in a group will greatly assist in one's ability to "be competitive."

Nancy Peden's picture
Nancy Peden
Owner Lived Learning (www.livedlearning.net)

Group learning calls on double skills, ideally developing interpersonal skills (knowing the group) and intra-personal skills (i.e, knowing one's self.) No two individuals will have the same talent. The intent may be to present one's work as superior when "out there" in the world. In the group, the intent is to develop self AND the group.

The ability to work in a group is essential in our competitive world. The abilities developed in PLCs are abilities to know one's own needs and goals and to know and work on the group's goals. I believe this is more mature than "rugged individualism" where isolation and disconnect can actually hurt one professionally.

I see young people who are much more comfortable with peer to peer and collaborative learning creating much innovation and "stardom" while being greatly attached meaningfully in a group.

"Rugged individualism" could be called "lonerism" today. Reality is relational. Those who can relate,learn and work with personal and group needs, so that all are "winners" seems a more mature way to enter the world of competition. The group does not all succeed at once, although in allowing/helping individuals to find success IS the group success. This depends on the group's intent and individual ability to commit.

Holly Eva's picture

If all members of the team adopt all students as their own collectively, and they all agree to work in the best interest of each student, then wouldn't that make it easier for all members of the group to be decently compensated?

Just a thought... I know it sounds like the battle of communism versus capitalism; but even corporations and businesses operate in the same manner, where they have collaborative teams who all compete for merit-based salaries.

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