Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Getting smarter off each other (Quality agenda item 2)

In a nutshell, the title summarizes what happens in professional learning communities: the member-teachers become more effective at their shared craft "off of" each other. When I heard the "getting smarter" phrase in a WUKY report on a new UK multidisciplinary program on muscle health, it struck me as perfect for many other collaborative endeavors.

When PLCs work on becoming "more effective," they apply a concrete understanding of what counts as effectiveness. Their discussions are focused directly on individual student learning, in a steady cycle of data-teaching-more data. They harness the power of assessment for learning, and get the potent learning benefits that come from that data-driven approach.

The PLC model offers a solution to the giant puzzle of best practices. The puzzle, of course, is that nearly all teachers have read about and talked about the research-based methods that promise the biggest improvement in student results. That happens, I think, because teachers have been asked to implement those methods in the isolation of their separate classrooms. Adding collaborative support can be the difference between trying an idea once and trying it repeatedly with increasingly robust understanding of what needs to be done--and the difference between a quick failure and a sustained success at applying a new approach.

What can be done at the state level to push toward making professional learning communities a standard feature of educators' work lives? Three levers will be especially important:
  • Honest evaluations followed by strong help to improve current skills, including KDE monitoring how local board evaluation procedures are implemented.
  • Strong scrutiny of school improvement plans submitted to KDE by schools that miss their achievement gap goals, with primary focus on the quality of professional growth activities.
  • Scholastic audits and reviews that focus intensively on the quality of evaluations, professional development, and instructional leadership.
Notably, state laws and regulations already call for all those steps. While the legal language may need some refinement, the main shift needs to be in the priority given to this work. Even when the Department wants mainly friendly relations with school and district leaders, KDE must speak honestly about failings in these areas. Even when budgets are shrinking, this work must be funded.

Other blog links: read more about PLCs here, and more about assessment for learning (a core part of "balanced assessment") here.

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