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."