How PLCs power progress in schools
Question: Do teachers’ professional learning communities in education impact student achievement?
Answer: Yes. But only when PLCs in schools give educators have ample time and space to dive deeply into data, provide one another with constructive feedback and collaborate on innovative and differentiated approaches to instruction that will impact all students, administrators and other experts say.
“We have very little teaching in isolation anymore,” says Phillip Page, superintendent of the Bartow County School System in north Georgia. “Since our teachers have been collaborating, they’ve taken more of an ‘our kids’ approach as opposed to a ‘my kids’ approach.”
Page is not alone in seeing results. And education experts are reimagining the PLC concept to move beyond the school building and into the globally connected world of social media and other interactive online platforms.
These resources now allow teachers to create extensive global learning networks, says Torrey Trust, an associate professor of learning technology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s College of Education.
“Where we’re heading is super exciting because you’re no longer limited to the PLC in your school or a professional development day,” Trust says. “Online, there’s a world of supportive educators—on Twitter, writing blog posts and sharing digital tools.”
PLCs in schools are safe places to share challenges
Gillian Chapman, superintendent of rural Teton County School District #1 in Wyoming, has seen the power of PLCs at work at two of her schools.
Jackson Hole Middle School had slipped on some standards but improved dramatically on a 2019 state assessment after teachers in various content areas received PLC facilitator training from the state of Wyoming. These teacher leaders were then able to create safe, non-judgmental places where teachers could discuss challenges, Chapman says.
“The stress is off a little bit because teachers are not being evaluated by the folks on the PLCs,” she says. “They can admit they are wondering about something or they have a concern. They can show their data without feeling like, ‘Oh gosh, if I show my data my job might be in jeopardy.’”
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At Colter K-5 Elementary School, leaders bring all new hires into the PLC, which then “renorms and reforms” around the new member, Chapman says.
“A lot of times, there’s an unwritten rule on teams that if you’re new, you don’t participate,” she says. “But teams work because you build on the skills, training and past experiences of the individuals.”
The PLCs are key in supporting the district’s Success 2022 goals, which include having all 3rd graders reach proficiency in reading and math. Grade-level and content-based PLCs meet at least once per week during time that has been built into the school day.
Teachers compare students’ performance on common assessments, among other data, and then share ideas for why some students or classes may have shown greater growth. PLCs make presentations to the entire faculty about once per month so other teachers are aware of each group’s priorities.
Chapman’s role is to give her principals flexibility to set their own schedules so they can provide time for teachers to get the most of out their PLCs.
“In PLCs, you get so many better ideas because you have a team that’s in the boat with you and you’re all rowing in the same direction,” Chapman says.
Effectiveness in professional learning communities in education
Bartow County schools’ PLCs meet twice per week during built-in collaboration time. A key focus is when different classes get significantly different results on common assessments, says Page, the superintendent.
“We have certainly seen a more targeted focus on instruction,” he says.
The PLCs are also analyzing state standards to determine which are the most important for students to achieve at the next grade level.
“States give you more standards than you can possibly teach so, instead of teachers going off in isolation and saying, ‘There’s no way I can teach them all,’ we’re asking our teachers to determine together what they believe are the essential standards for kids to be successful,” Page says.
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As an extension of the PLCs, teachers also hold college-style office hours twice per week to meet individually with students who need enrichment or extra help. The PLCs also design “response days” during which students have a chance to catch up on skills they have not yet mastered.
“A PLC is the best PD that you can get because teachers are having conversations about their effectiveness every day,” Page says. “You’re helping each other get better because you want each other to do better.”
PLCs in education lead to inclusivity
Some educators are letting Universal Design for Learning (UDL) concepts guide PLCs in being more responsive to students’ learning styles.
UDL allows teachers in PLCs to look for various types of evidence to determine when different students are making progress—or when certain students need interventions, says Katie Novak, assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction, and human resources at Groton-Dunstable Regional School District in Massachusetts.
The district’s PLCs design instruction for specially designated WIN blocks (or, “What I Need”) in which teachers can provide assistance or enrichment to students. But UDL is not merely personalized or individualized learning, says Novak, who has presented at education conferences on using universal design concepts in PLCs.
“We’re now seeing a much wider variability of learners within every single class,” she says. “UDL is how we design learning that works for all students. UDL is the foundation of an inclusive classroom.”
Where to find 30 ideas in an hour
Technology now allows PLCs to grow into professional learning networks that transcend a school building, a district, and even states and nations.
And whereas even effective PLCs can still be regimented by an administrators’ priorities, online tools give teachers the freedom to explore a wider range of interests from more diverse sources, says Trust, the UMass education professor.
“It’s evolved to self-driven teacher learning,” Trust says. “The way we expect learning to happen in the classroom, can now happen for teachers through all the tools we have today.”
When Trust does presentations, she’ll show a screenshot of an educator’s tweet that has gotten hundreds of responses from around the world.
“Yes, Twitter is a place where celebrities share photos of food, but it can also be a powerful learning experience,” Trust says. “When I join a Twitter chat, after just an hour I end up with 30 open browser tabs with all the new resources I’ve looked up.”
Teachers can use a tool called tchat.io to follow the conversations going on around specific education hashtags, such as #edchat, #mathchat or #spedchat. Other teachers use the Voxer ‘Walkie Talkie’ app that allows teams to meet through audio messages.
However, some teachers find Twitter is not ideal for co-constructing new lesson plans or other projects. Instead, they can move to platforms such as Google Hangouts, she says.
Of course, whether teachers are connecting on Twitter, Pinterest, Google Hangouts or elsewhere in the virtual world, they should reflect regularly on whether these resources are improving their practice, Trust says.
“If you are connecting with a PLN but haven’t taken time to reflect on whether it’s having a positive impact on student learning, that’s a big gap,” Trust says. “You might not be in the right spaces to discover the right tools.”
Matt Zalaznick is senior writer.