Medium 9781932127423

On Common Ground: The Power of Professional Learning Communities

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This anthology presents the recommendations of education leaders, and each chapter contributes to a sound conceptual framework and offers specific strategies for developing PLCs. These leaders have found common ground in expressing their belief in the power of PLCs although clear differences emerge regarding their perspectives on the most effective strategy for making PLCs the norm in North America.

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Section 1 Overview of PLCs

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Victor Hugo once wrote, “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come” (Hugo, 1883–1884). Those committed to improving K-12 education should be heartened by Hugo’s assertion, for there has never been greater consensus regarding the most powerful strategy for sustained, substantive school improvement. Mike Schmoker (2004) has cited “a broad, even remarkable concurrence” among educational researchers and organizational theorists who have concluded that developing the capacity of educators to function as members of professional learning communities is the “best-known means by which we might achieve truly historic, wide-scale improvements in teaching and learning” (p. 432).

Educational organizations of all varieties have also endorsed the concept of professional learning communities (PLCs). The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (2003), created for the expressed purpose of developing strategies for recruiting, preparing, and supporting an exemplary teaching force, concludes that “quality teaching requires strong professional learning communities” (p. 17). Five “Core Propositions” guide the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, another organization created to advance the quality of teaching and learning. One of those propositions asserts that teachers must be members of “learning communities . . . [who] contribute to the effectiveness of their schools by working collaboratively with other professionals on instructional policy, curriculum development, and staff development” (2004). The Keys Initiative of the National Education Association (2004) was designed to help educators develop shared commitment to high academic goals, collaborative problem solving, continuous assessment for teaching and learning, and ongoing learning for professionals—critical elements of the PLC concept. The American Federation of Teachers (2004) has endorsed the premise that teachers should be engaged in a “continuous process of individual and collective examination and improvement of practice,” and that staff development should be “job-embedded and site-specific”—once again, proposals consistent with the PLC concept.

 

Section 2 Critical Questions of PLCs

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In an astonishingly short period of time, the standards movement has swept the nation. While only a handful of states had adopted academic standards in the early 1990s, the use of standards is now a matter of federal law and all 50 states have adopted one version or another. Although the terminology surrounding standards varies widely, the notion that an educational system should have a coherent set of expectations about what students should know and be able to do is widely held in public and private schools throughout the world. As standards have become commonplace in the United States, forests have been cleared to publish the documents accompanying academic standards. Every textbook and curriculum document in the land claims to be “standards-based,” as if such an imprimatur were the educational equivalent of a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” of a bygone era. The cynics were certain that—along with Outcomes-Based Education, Behavioral Objectives, Mastery Learning, and a host of other reform ideas—standards would go the way of the dinosaur and eventually be of interest only to educational paleontologists of a future era. Standards advocates, on the other hand, were certain that the battle was won with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. Both sides were wrong. The one thing that can be said with certainty is this: Standards are not enough.

 

Section 3 Creating PLCs

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School success depends, more than anything, on the quality of teaching we provide. Unfortunately, much of the instruction we provide is not what it should be. For one thing, the actual, taught curriculum varies widely from teacher to teacher; many students never even have the opportunity to learn essential knowledge and skills (Berliner, 1984; Marzano, Marzano, & Pickering, 2003). Teachers themselves agree that the actual quality of lessons in many areas is poor or inconsistent; they agree that the most fundamental elements of effective lessons, which most teachers know or have learned, are routinely left out. As a result, one representative study found that “in just one academic year, the top third of teachers produced as much as six times the learning growth of the bottom third” (Sparks, 2004, p. 47).

This lack of effectiveness is entirely unnecessary. We have the means to make teaching more effective and consistent than ever before and to create the kinds of schools students deserve. The place to begin is with a set of simple structures and practices that constitute what are now being called “learning communities.” As I will attempt to show, this is not a fad. On the contrary, it may represent the richest, most unprecedented culmination of the best we know about authentic school improvement.

 

Section 4 Placing PLCs in a Broader Context

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The Effective Schools movement will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2006. The history of the Effective Schools movement began with the publication of the Equal Educational Opportunity (EEO) study, also known as the “Coleman Report,” in 1966. The now infamous conclusion of that report—that schools do not make a difference—triggered a response that has come to be known as the Effective Schools research. The EEO conclusion was significant because it suggested that if one wanted to know about the achievement of children, one needed to look at the homes from which they came, not the schools in which they learned. Left unchallenged, this conclusion would have essentially rendered schools passive players in helping children achieve the American dream.

In response to this report, a number of independent educational researchers set out to find schools where all children—especially minority and disadvantaged children—were mastering the intended curriculum. It was thought that finding such schools would serve as compelling evidence that the conclusions of the EEO study were not totally accurate. This successful effort identified many schools that challenged the EEO conclusion that “schools do not make a difference.” These initial studies changed the conclusion to “some schools make a difference” and led to the emergence of two new questions:

 

Section 5 A Call to Action

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We often pose this question to groups with whom we work: “If we could present an absolutely irrefutable case that the successful implementation of professional learning community concepts in your school will result in higher levels of student achievement and greater professional satisfaction for your educators, would you be willing to make substantive changes in your traditional practices to effect that successful implementation?”

We are confident we can make a compelling case for PLCs. For those who would be persuaded by a clear consensus of the leading thinkers in the field, we point to the authors of this book and many other renowned educational leaders who endorse the concept. For those who want a solid research base in support of PLCs, we can provide it. For those who are skeptical of research and want to see actual examples of schools and hear from the practitioners who have created PLCs, we can refer them to schools at all levels.

In fact, it is not difficult to build a strong case for the concepts upon which the PLC model is based, and for years we looked for just the right argument—the most persuasive metaphor, the best powerful illustrative example, the clinching closing argument—that would be so compelling that educators en masse would acknowledge that the PLC model was preferable to their traditional practices.

 



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