Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Professional learning communities

Here are the two questions that I think matter most in education:
  1. What kind of classroom can help all students learn at substantially higher levels?
  2. How can we develop many more classrooms that work that way?
Richard DuFour's work on professional learning communities offers the best answer I know to the second question. A few quick excerpts from his edited volume, On Common Ground:
The professional learning community model flows from the assumption that the core mission of formal education is not simply to ensure that students are taught but to ensure that they learn.... Every professional in the building must engage with colleagues in the ongoing exploration of three crucial questions that drive the work of those within a professional learning community: What do we want each student to learn? How will we know when each student has learned it? How will we respond when a student experiences difficulty in learning?
* * *
Despite compelling evidence indicating that working collaboratively represents best practice, teachers in many schools continue to work in isolation.... The powerful collaboration that characterizes professional learning communities is a systematic process in which teachers work together to analyze and improve their classroom practice.
* * *
Working together to improve student achievement becomes the routine work of everyone in the school. Every teacher team participates in an ongoing process of identifying the current level of student achievement, establishing a goal to improve the current level, working together to achieve that goal, and providing periodic evidence of progress.
The PLC concept combines professional development, school culture, school improvement planning, and leadership ideas. It's easy to summarize and challenging to implement. My hunch is that for schools to take it on, they must be able to push aside many other competing demands on teacher attention.

As a state, we've made several efforts to head this way. The key PLC appear repeatedly in the state's Standards and Indicators for School Improvement, and the 2005 improvements to our professional development regulation push in the same direction.

At the local level, I count the "Black Box" high performance, high poverty schools as examples of the idea in action. In recent months, I've also heard superintendents Dale Brown and Stu Silberman describe the impact of this sort of engagement within their districts.

This big idea is changing our schools for the better, and we need to accelerate its impact.

Sources: The quotes are from From On Common Ground, edited by DuFour, Eaker, & DuFour, pages 32-40 (Solution Tree, 2005), by way of KASC's Insights journal. The Standards and Indicators are here, with the PD regulation here, and the Prichard Committees "Black Box" study here.


  1. You make a statement about 'competing demands on teacher attention'. When you talk with classroom teachers, although they may not cite all the demands on their time, there is the underlying knowledge they are being pulled in too many directions to remain focused on their real work. However, there are teachers who have found ways to prioritize and even share similar obligations with others to maximize time devoted to instructional pursuits. Although PLC indicates a specific group with stated shared objectives and norms, good schools with strong teachers and leadership have found and implemented ways to allow classroom teachers to devote time to their true calling without formalizing the group. It is my hope that as PLC becomes the standard for sharing, accountability, and improvement, the concept of spreading the load and minimizing distractions becomes a reality for all schools and classrooms so every student gets the best, focused attention of their instructors for superior learning opportunities.

  2. Thank you, Chuck!

    The key process can definitely happen without the official name. When I started reading DuFour, it made sense to me because it matched what I already knew about schools with great results.

    The work can't happen if teachers are constantly juggling many other demands. There are two priorities: doing this week's teaching well and making next week's and next month's teaching even stronger. Everything else can wait if necessary, or even disappear.

  3. I would like to add a link to your blog on mine that I just started. My topic is also PLC, and we are just getting started with this in our district. Is that a problem?



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