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October 10, 2010

Getting it right is a journey

by Chris Lindholm

Now in a new position in a different school district, I am appreciating the points in the post below from a different lens.  Moving a school – or a district – down the change continuum to embrace the core elements of PLCs is indeed a journey that requires savvy, strategic decisions that are executed with discipline.  As we did in ISD 720, we have a ways to go in ISD 191… 


I recently ran across and article posted on the AllThingsPLC blog written by Thomas W. Many, an administrator clearly more experienced in leading PLCs that I am.  The article, called "A Rose by Any Other Name: Professional Learning Communities" eloquently argues that calling a team or group of staff that meets for the purpose of improving what we do should not be called a "PLC."  To call it a PLC is to miss the point.  He argues that teachers and staff need to meet in all kinds of teams to address the different focuses of a school and that all of these teams need to embrace the core concepts of being a PLC.  "The truth is that teachers are members of all kinds of teams: grade-level teams, departmental teams, job-alike teams, child study teams, problem-solving teams, and a myriad of other teams. Simply adding “PLC” to the team name does nothing to improve a school. All it does is create another team!"  He goes on to say that naming a team a PLC actually hinders the process of moving a staff towards functioning as PLCs should. 

The SJH leadership team launched an initiative just this fall organized in what we have referred to as "PLC groups."  This decision came after a couple of years of work on establishing true teacher leadership roles and debate about how to best support teachers to improve our success meeting school improvement and staff development goals.  Reading Thomas Many's article questions our decisions and raises points worth our attention.  Indeed, it is not what we call the group that matters – it is the results that matter.  Department meetings, vertical team meetings, child study meetings, and meetings of that… well… PLC thing… all need to embrace the core elements of a successful PLC to get the results we are looking for.  Fortunately, Mr. Many doesn't leave us high and dry on how to do that. 

What is clear is that meaningful changes in practice—not labels—are the reason teams in a PLC are more successful. DuFour observed, “The pertinent question is not ‘Are teachers collaborating?’ but rather ‘What are teachers collaborating about?’ ” (DuFour et al., Learning By Doing, p. 91) We know effective teams focus on improving student learning, so why not simply utilize existing team structures and focus on what effective teams do to help all kids learn?

If the fundamental purpose of a team is learning, the research is clear: effective teacher teams—whether labeled as PLC teams or otherwise—focus on clarifying essential outcomes by class, course or grade level. They spend time developing common formative assessments and establishing targets and benchmarks for their students. They come together to analyze assessment results and use the data to plan appropriate interventions and instructional improvement strategies.

We know students benefit when teachers work collaboratively toward the common goal of high levels of learning for all. Specifically, students benefit when teams of teachers focus on clarifying what kids should know and be able to do, create common formative assessments, design systematic pyramids of intervention, and provide more time and support to those students who don’t learn in the course of initial instruction. Finding answers to these critical questions is the work of an effective teacher team.

Students and teachers benefit when principals devote their energies to designating protected time for teams to meet during the school day, supporting the creation of smart goals targeted at improving student learning, and designing strategies for monitoring the work of teams in order to articulate, protect, and promote what is important.

So what's our next step?  Clearly our BLT members need a better understanding of what successful PLCs do and strategies for making it happen.  We need to better articulate what student work our teams are looking at and how to use this process to help get improved results.  We need to work together with a tenacious focus on our goals and demonstrate effective leadership to get every staff member making a significant contribution.  Thank you Mr. Many for raising a few points that we needed to hear.  It's up to us to make it happen – and we will!


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