Not too long ago, I was asked to write a piece about how leaders and teams can determine if they really are working in an accountable professional learning community. This is a real issue, as possibly the biggest roadblock to helping all students learn at higher levels and doing the work of a PLC is when an organization gets caught in “PLC Lite.” PLC Lite is defined by Dr. Richard DuFour and Dr. Douglas Reeves as “when educators rename their traditional faculty or department meetings as PLC meetings, engage in book studies that result in no action, or devote collaborative time to topics that have no effect on student achievement—all in the name of the PLC process” (DuFour and Reeves, 2016, p. 69).
I have written a lot about becoming an accountable professional learning community. I provide several key steps in jump-starting the process in my book Shifting from Me to We. I wrote a blog article for allthingsplc.info, published in March of 2020, about the importance of establishing team norms as a foundation for teams to build on. So, when I was asked to write this new article, I gladly accepted and set about creatively coming up with the top five things administrators and team leaders can look for:
- Do teams have clear agendas?
- Is someone taking notes?
- Are teams analyzing data, not just looking at it?
- Are the common formative assessments short and centered around one standard?
- Are teams analyzing the adult practices that created the data?
I finished the article well before Thanksgiving, and all was good.
As I reread it and reconsidered what I had written, I believe I captured key analytical pieces of the professional learning community. It would be very difficult to do the work of a PLC without those five things. However, something was missing. As I thought about it more and more, maybe it was the holiday season, maybe it was the reflecting I did on schools and districts that have not faltered in this work in spite of everything 2020 has thrown at them, but I believe all accountable PLCs have one more piece that PLC Lite schools lack. And what a big piece it is. What is discussed in meetings shows up in classrooms, and there is an unwavering urgency to help all children learn. This is it, the heart and soul of an accountable PLC.
If what is discussed in the meetings does not affect the classrooms, then teams are just reciting song lyrics with no melody.
Schools and districts that are stuck in PLC Lite do meet. They meet in teams, they meet in subcommittees and action groups. Task forces gather on a regular basis. They discuss the issues of the day, then feel really good about the discussions, pat themselves on the back, and move on about their business in exactly the same way they did before the meeting.
Schools and districts that are accountable PLCs meet in collaborative teams to analyze student data and adult practices that created the data. If something does not directly lead to more students learning at higher levels or improved adult practice, it is not discussed. There is no discussion of the COVID situation, parents, or state mandates, except in the context of how those things affect student learning and how they can be overcome. Teams focus on what standards all students need to master before they exit a given grade level or class. How the teams will know the students have mastered the content. What additional time and support will be provided for a student who has not yet mastered the content, and how will they extend learning for students once they have demonstrated proficiency. Nothing else can be discussed at the meetings, because these four questions will take up all of a team’s allotted time.
Then teams—and this is really what separates accountable teams from PLC Lite teams—change their practice based on what the student data is showing them. Teams may go a day or two slower this year than they have in the past or a day or two faster based on the speed the students are learning the standards. If the student data is showing the team that this cohort of students do not do well with lessons that are largely based on direct instruction, then they change up and use kinesthetic activities or other techniques. It does not matter that direct instruction has worked well for the last ten years; this year, it does not, and that is what matters. Accountable collaborative teams are fluid, reacting to meet the needs of the students. They do not force the students to meet their teaching style. Remember, it is a professional learning community, not a professional teaching community.
Accountable teams meet to take action; they do not meet to meet. The collaborative meeting is a conduit for team members to become more effective teachers and help more students learn at a high level. Meetings conclude with next steps or team-chosen mandates to drive their work forward.
Teams that operate within a PLC recognize there is an urgency to the work they do. It is a footrace to get students to feel successful and productive in school. Students begin kindergarten with a high enthusiasm for learning. However, that enthusiasm drops every year that students are enrolled in school (Jenkins, 2019, p. 10). One of the reasons students become disengaged in the process of school is they are not successful at school. The work of accountable collaborative teams mitigates these feelings because they are ensuring students’ needs are being met in the classroom.
Collaborative teams ensure that the most essential standards and skills at each grade level are prioritized. (Question 1 of a PLC: What do we want our students to know or be able to do?) These teams work together to create short, frequent assessments around those essential standards or skills. (Question 2 of a PLC: How do we know if each student has learned it?) Through these focused, team-created assessments, collaborative teams provide students with frequent feedback as to their successes and challenges. If students have not yet mastered the standards or skills required for future success, then they are provided with additional time and targeted support to ensure mastery. (Question 3 of a PLC: How will we respond when some students do not learn it?) When students are being successful, teams provide extensions utilizing “important-to-know” or “nice-to-know” standards that would otherwise be taught briefly or skipped altogether in order to buy more time to be spent on the most essential standards. (Question 4 of a PLC: How will we extend the learning for students who have demonstrated proficiency?)
If a leader wants to see if your collaborative teams are doing the work of a professional learning community, do not check in on the meetings. Instead, visit the classrooms of team members, and watch how each student’s individual learning needs are being met. If what is discussed in meetings does not appear in the classroom, then one must ask why are teams meeting?
DuFour, R., & Reeves, D. (2016). The Futility of PLC Lite. Phi Delta Kappan, 97(6), 69–71.
Jenkins, L. (2019). How to Create a Perfect School: Maintain Students’ Motivation and Love of Learning from Kindergarten Through 12th Grade. United States of America: LtoJ Press.