Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) have quickly become one of the most universally applied PD strategies in K-12 education. According to Dr. Richard Dufour, a well known and respected thinker in teaching and learning, “the professional learning community model has now reached a critical juncture, one well known to those who have witnessed the fate of other well-intentioned school reform efforts. In this all-too-familiar cycle, initial enthusiasm gives way to confusion about the fundamental concepts driving the initiative, followed by inevitable implementation problems, the conclusion that the reform has failed to bring about the desired results, abandonment of the reform, and the launch of a new search for the next promising initiative.”
As a company focused on helping districts assess impact, we decided to host a 45-minute panel-style webinar with a diverse group of educators to explore the answer to this big, essential question:
Seven years ago, Colonial School District did away with after-school faculty meetings, making PLCs the primary focus for raising student achievement. Instead, they worked with their teacher’s union to find 90 minutes per week of dedicated, protected, and uninterrupted time for teachers to collaborate.
Several of the 26+ districts Leslie Abbatiello’s Professional Development and School Improvement team works with have turned team meeting time into a modified version of lesson study, giving teachers the opportunity to identify their own problems of practice in their classrooms. Teachers collaborate to develop a lesson, then teach the lesson in their classrooms while the rest of the team observes. Afterwards, they debrief together to discuss how effectively they’ve addressed the initial problems of practice and make adjustments for the future.
Dustin Andrus and the Instructional Technology team at BT-BOCES help the 20 school districts in their region find time for PLCs by designing protocols for digital feedback loops that act as extensions of in-person PLC time. Teachers use this space to share student artifacts and reflect on progress on their individual goals which simultaneously promotes teacher agency. Knowing there’s an established audience of teachers in their PLC group helps maintain accountability. This is particularly effective for large and rural districts whose teachers struggle to find quality face-to-face PLC time with other educators at their level.
As the tech-integrator on the panel, Dustin Andrus highlighted how some districts have started experimenting with Swivel technology to break down the barriers of being intrusive in each other’s classrooms and allow analysis to happen during the lesson instead of after.
Swivel is used to record students working during a lesson as a non-invasive way to capture student activities within a live environment. The PLC group sits in a separate room and watches the live teaching, sharing thoughts aloud, and recording their comments in a live session. It also helps the PLC group get a better idea of what really goes on in a classroom when visitors aren’t present and is, most importantly, less intrusive for students.
From day one, Colonial had district and building level administrators participate in PLC groups by providing observational feedback using rubrics and, most importantly, gathering feedback from their teachers on supports needed to be successful. Though many districts struggle to balance the time demands on an administrator’s schedule, Colonial found it essential to have their instructional leaders in PLC time. By making time to participate, they demonstrated their commitment to the initiative and to evolving together–and ensured that PLC time was maximized by creating a tight feedback loop.
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