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<p>Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work<sup>TM</sup></p>

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This 10th-anniversary sequel to the authors’ best-selling book Professional Learning Communities at Work™: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement merges research, practice, and passion. The most extensive, practical, and authoritative PLC resource to date, it goes further than ever before into best practices for deep implementation, explores the commitment/consensus issue, and celebrates successes of educators who are making the journey.

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Introduction Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work

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In our first book, Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement (DuFour & Eaker, 1998), we stated the premise of that book in its opening sentence:

The most promising strategy for sustained, substantive school improvement is developing the ability of school personnel to function as professional learning communities. (p. xi)

Our conviction in the validity of that statement has not wavered; however, we now have much clearer insights regarding the most effective strategies for helping educators make the transition from traditional schools to professional learning communities (PLCs).

A number of factors have contributed to our new insights. First, we have had the pleasure and privilege of working with and sharing ideas with some of the most influential people in education: Roland Barth, Michael Fullan, Wayne Hulley, Larry Lezotte, Doug Reeves, Jonathon Saphier, Mike Schmoker, Dennis Sparks, Tom Sergiovanni, and Rick Stiggins. These respected colleagues and friends have enriched our lives. They have shared their expertise, responded to our questions, enabled us to understand the complexities of school improvement at a deeper level, and helped clarify our own thinking.

 

Chapter 1 New Insights Into Professional Learning Communities at Work

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Strong professional learning communities produce schools that are engines of hope and achievement for students. . . . There is nothing more important for education in the decades ahead than educating and supporting leaders in the commitments, understandings, and skills necessary to grow such schools where a focus on effort-based ability is the norm.

—Jonathon Saphier

New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.

—Kurt Vonnegut

According to legend, when good friends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau reunited after a long separation, each would ask his colleague, “What has become clearer to you since last we met?” It has now been 10 years since we wrote Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement (1998). In this volume, Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work, we answer the question, “What has become more clear to us regarding the promise, potential, problems, and pitfalls surrounding the PLC concept?”

 

Chapter 2 The Rise and Fall of School Reform

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Education reform has become the new status quo. Every president aspires to be the education president, every governor the education governor. The reform process has never ended because the reforms have typically led to disappointment—and to constant demands for still more reforms.

—Terry Moe

We cannot solve the problems of today with the same thinking that gave us the problems in the first place.

—Albert Einstein

Although the United States was the first nation to embrace the idea of free universal education for all its children, its schools were specifically designed to sort and select students according to their perceived abilities and likely vocations. Thomas Jefferson asserted that general education was critical to the vitality of the new republic, and he proposed 3 years of public schooling for the children of Virginia. He also, however, designed a system of education that ensured only the 20 boys of “best genius” in the state would be “raked from the rubbish annually” to receive up to 10 years of schooling at the public’s expense, and that only half of those would ultimately be admitted to the university each year (Jefferson, 1782). Schools became adept at this process of separating the wheat from the chaff, and for most of the nation’s history, there was very little wheat. In 1900, only 10% of high school-aged Americans attended school, and it would be almost 175 years after Jefferson presented his plan for “universal” education before the majority of students who entered public schooling in any given year would complete a high school education.

 

Chapter 3 Making the Case for Professional Learning Communities

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The use of professional learning communities is the best, least expensive, most professionally rewarding way to improve schools. . . . Such communities hold out immense, unprecedented hope for schools and the improvement of teaching.

—Mike Schmoker

Research demonstrates that the success of most interventions designed to improve organizational performance depends largely on implementing what is already known, rather than from adopting new or previously unknown ways of doing things.

—Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton

What would it take to persuade educators that successfully implementing professional learning community practices is the most promising path for sustained and substantive improvement of our schools and districts? A leader facing this challenge could take some comfort in knowing that there is abundant research to support PLCs. That leader could present the following findings from researchers both inside and outside of education to convince those who find research persuasive.

 

Chapter 4 The Challenge of Cultural Change

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The pathology of American schools is that they know how to change. They know how to change promiscuously and at the drop of a hat. What schools do not know how to do is to improve, to engage in sustained and continuous progress toward a performance goal over time.

—Richard Elmore

The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping old ones.

—John Maynard Keynes

External efforts to improve schools invariably focus on structural changes—the changes that impact policies, procedures, rules, and relationships. When a state or province increases graduation requirements, mandates more minutes of instruction in a content area, adopts more rigorous standards for teacher certification, or creates a system of sanctions for low-performing schools, it is engaged in structural change. When a district moves its high schools to a block schedule, reorganizes its schools into smaller units, announces its junior high schools will now function as middle schools, or requires students to wear uniforms, it too is engaged in structural change.

 

Chapter 5 Clear Mission and Shared Vision

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Great schools “row as one”; they are quite clearly in the same boat, pulling in the same direction in unison. The best schools we visited were tightly aligned communities marked by a palpable sense of common purpose and shared identity among staff—a clear sense of “we.”

—Thomas Lickona and Matthew Davidson

You can leave a lasting legacy only if you can imagine a brighter future, and the capacity to imagine exciting future possibilities is the defining competence of leaders.

—James Kouzes and Barry Posner

In Professional Learning Communities at Work (1998), we stressed the importance of a faculty developing a shared understanding of and commitment to the fundamental purpose of its school. We still do. After all, a 5-year study of more than 1,500 schools in 16 states conducted by the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools found the most successful schools function as professional communities “in which teachers pursue a clear shared purpose for all students’ learning, engage in collaborative activity to achieve that purpose, and take collective responsibility for student learning” (Newmann & Wehlage, 1995, p. 30). Certainly clarity of purpose and a willingness to accept responsibility for achieving that purpose are critical to school improvement.

 

Chapter 6 Shared Values (Collective Commitments) and Common Goals

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Values provide guidelines on how you should proceed as you pursue your purpose and picture of the future. They answer the question . . . “How?” They need to be clearly described so that you know exactly what behaviors demonstrate that the value is being lived. Values need to be consistently acted on, or they are only good intentions.

—Ken Blanchard

Abundant research and school evidence suggest that setting [common] goals may be the most significant act in the entire school improvement process, greatly increasing the odds of success.

—Mike Schmoker

Once educators have clarified the fundamental purpose or mission of their school or district and described the future they are trying to create through developing a shared vision statement, they should turn their attention to the third building block of a professional learning community: shared values, or collective commitments. Whereas the mission building block addresses the issue of why our organization exists, and the vision building block establishes what we hope it will become, values address how we will fulfill our purpose and make our desired future a reality. When educators clarify and commit to certain shared values, they are engaged in the essential ABCs of school improvement—identifying the actions, behaviors, and commitments necessary to bring mission and vision to life.

 

Chapter 7 Teaching in a Professional Learning Community

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The most persistent norm that stands in the way of 21st-century learning is isolated teaching in stand-alone classrooms. Transforming schools into 21st-century learning communities means recognizing that teachers must become members of a growing network of shared expertise.

—Kathleen Fulton, Irene Yoon, and Christine Lee

Confidence blossoms when people feel connected rather than isolated, when they are willing to engage and commit to one another, when they can act together to solve problems and produce results, ignoring boundaries between them. . . . Bonds grow from working together on real and important tasks that achieve success.

—Rosabeth Moss Kanter

During one of our workshops, a panel made up of teachers from highly effective professional learning communities was fielding questions from the audience. When asked how teaching in a PLC is different from teaching in a traditional school, one of the panelists answered, “Working in a PLC means you never again have to face the challenges of teaching alone.” We think that concise answer captures the most significant distinction between working in a PLC and a more traditional school. The collaborative culture and systematic supports embedded in a PLC have significant benefits for teachers:

 

Chapter 8 Assessment in a Professional Learning Community

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Control and improvement come from measures that provide information about processes, measures that give people immediate and understandable information about how they need to act.

—Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton

When both the creation of assessments and the evaluation of student work are the result of collaborative processes, teachers and school leaders can quickly evaluate the effectiveness of strategies, make mid-course corrections, express some new hypotheses about what actions they might take to improve student learning, and within days or weeks, have additional evidence with which the new hypotheses can be tested. Their model of teaching professionalism is . . . a commitment to a continuous cycle of “try it, test it, improve it.”

—Doug Reeves

Consider, once again, the origins of public education in the United States. If elementary schools were created to sort and select students according to their aptitude, to sift the “boy of best genius” from the rubble each year, and if high schools were created to classify and then educate students according to “differences among children as to aptitudes, interests, economic resources, and prospective careers” (National Education Association, cited in Lazerson & Grubb, 1974), then educators needed tools to assist them in the sorting and classifying process. Assessments of various forms became the instruments for addressing that need.

 

Chapter 9 A Tale of Excellence in Assessment

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In the previous chapter, we examined the technical aspects of assessment in a professional learning community. In this chapter, we illustrate the potential power of effective assessment practices through the oldest teaching vehicle known to man—a story.

This story proposes a model of excellence in assessment in a PLC. The protagonist of the story is a high-school teacher, but the message applies equally and with little revision to middle and elementary schools as well. “Once Upon a Time: A Tale of Excellence in Assessment” first appeared as Rick’s contribution to Ahead of the Curve (DuFour, 2007).

After 10 years as a high-school social studies teacher, Peter Miller was convinced that kids were kids and schools were schools. So when his wife suggested they move across the country to be closer to her family, he willingly agreed. He applied at several schools and was offered an interview at Russell Burnette High School.

The interview process at Burnette intrigued Peter. At every stage of the process, the selection committee stressed that the school had created a collaborative culture in which teachers worked together to help all students learn. Teacher teams had created a “guaranteed and viable curriculum” that specified the knowledge, skills, and dispositions all students were to acquire in each course. Peter was asked to review the “Essential Learnings” established by the U.S. history team and was struck by the fact that the curriculum stressed only 10 key concepts each semester, rather than the long list of discrete facts he had been expected to teach at his former school.

 

Chapter 10 Intervention and Enrichment in a Professional Learning Community

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When you start with an honest and diligent effort to determine the truth of the situation, the right decisions often become self-evident. . . . You absolutely cannot make a series of good decisions without first confronting the brutal facts.

—Jim Collins

. . . Schools that have made great strides in achievement and equity [employ] immediate and decisive intervention.

—Doug Reeves

Imagine parents who are visiting a number of different schools to determine where they will enroll their children. They visit with the principals to ask questions about each school and its policies, practices, and procedures. The following conversation ensues:

Parents: “We are impressed by your school’s mission statement, which is very emphatic about your commitment to helping all students be successful here.”

Principal: “Yes, in fact, our school motto is ‘success for every child.’ We do whatever it takes to help every student learn at the highest levels and to ensure we leave no child behind because failure is not an option, a mind is a terrible thing to waste, and the children are our future!”

 

Chapter 11 The Classroom as a Learning Community

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I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized.

—Haim Ginott

Running a school where the students all succeed, even if some students have to help others to make the grade, is good preparation for democracy.

—William Glasser

Although the emphasis of this book is the importance of educators working together to create schools and districts that function as professional learning communities, individual teachers can apply the same principles and concepts to create learning communities in their classrooms. Just as schools benefit from a focus on learning, a collaborative culture, and the use of evidence of results to inform and improve practice, so do the classrooms within those schools.

 

Chapter 12 The Role of the Principal in a Professional Learning Community

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Throughout the years, leaders from all professions, from all economic sectors, and from around the globe continue to tell us, “You can’t do it alone.” Leadership is not a solo act; it’s a team performance . . . the winning strategies will be based on the “we not I” philosophy.

—James Kouzes and Barry Posner

Sharing leadership is a fundamental principle and dynamic of learning communities. We encountered no instances to support the “great leader theory,” charismatic people who create extraordinary contexts for teaching by virtue of their unique vision. Strong principals empower and support teacher leadership to improve teaching practice.

—Milbrey McLaughlin and Joan Talbert

When the first studies of effective schools were conducted in the 1970s, researchers concluded the correlates of effective schools—high expectations, clear and focused academic goals, a safe and orderly environment, and frequent monitoring of student learning—could neither be brought together nor kept together without strong administrative leadership from the principal (Brookover & Lezotte, 1979; Edmonds, 1979; Lezotte, 1991). This finding regarding the critical role of the principal in creating the conditions for school improvement has been replicated repeatedly for 30 years. Consider the following findings:

 

Chapter 13 The Role of the Central Office in a Professional Learning Community

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Major change almost never wells up from the bottom. It begins near the top (and if not, it almost never takes hold without strong backing from the top). It typically starts with a key leader and a small core of people who care strongly about a particular solution to a problem. It spreads out from there. As the process unfolds, the need for pressure and support requires the assertion of executive influence. . . . Authentic leaders develop and maintain their capacity to apply top-down influence.

—Robert Evans

The Effective Schools researchers of the 1980s argued that the individual school should serve as the primary unit of change in school improvement (Lezotte, 2001). After his extensive study of schooling in America, John Goodlad arrived at the same conclusion, arguing that school improvement should “shift from the district level to the school site” (1983, p. 556). Consequently, the role of the central office in improving student learning went largely unexamined. Eventually, however, “it became clear that school improvement resulting in increased student achievement could only be sustained with strong district support” (Lezotte, 2001). Recent research has revealed “a statistically significant relationship between district leadership and student achievement” (Waters & Marzano, 2006, p. 3). Considerable attention is now being paid to the important role the central office can play in school improvement, and recommendations regarding how central office leaders can best fulfill that role have become more explicit.

 

Chapter 14 The Role of Parents and the Community in a Professional Learning Community

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Almost every study supports the fact that parental involvement helps student performance, but defining what parental involvement means is one of the hardest tasks facing parents and educators today. What is the most effective way to do it?

—Monika Gutman

Nowhere is the two-way street of learning in more disrepair and in need of social reconstruction than in the relationships between parents, communities, and their schools.

—Michael Fullan

When George H.W. Bush convened the nation’s governors to establish Goals 2000, the national goals American schools were to achieve by the millennium, they included the stipulation that “every school will promote partnerships that will increase parent involvement and participation in promoting the social, emotional, and academic growth of children” (United States Department of Education, 1995, p. 43).Within a few years, the Department of Education stipulated “every school will actively engage parents and families in a partnership which supports the academic work of children at home and shared educational decision making in the school” (United States Department of Education, 1995, p. 43). Despite these federal directives, educators have generally remained ambivalent about parent and community involvement in their schools. The two most frequent complaints we hear about parents when we work in districts are 1) “They don’t get involved in their children’s education,” and 2) “They get too involved in their children’s education.” Like Goldilocks, educators seem to prefer parents who are neither too hot nor too cold, but “just right.” They struggle, however, to articulate exactly what “just right” parental involvement might look like.

 

Chapter 15 Sustaining the Professional Learning Community Journey

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The final challenge—and the one that solidifies success—is to build so much momentum that change is unstoppable, that everything reinforces the new behavior, that even the resistors get on board—exactly the momentum that develops in winning streaks.

—Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Imagine you go to the doctor to seek advice regarding how to lose weight. The doctor responds enthusiastically and confidently, assuring you she has the solution, a foolproof way for you to accomplish your goal. “It’s simple,” she says, “all you need to do is change your lifestyle to ensure you eat less and exercise more. If you adhere to that prescription over time, I guarantee you will lose weight.” The doctor’s logic is unassailable, and if you follow her succinct admonition to change your lifelong habits so you eat less and exercise more, you will indeed lose weight. Anyone who has ever attempted to make this transition, however, can attest to its difficulty.

Perhaps you picked up this book hoping it would provide you with a foolproof strategy for improving student achievement in your school or district. If so, we can assert enthusiastically and confidently you will improve student achievement when the staff of your school becomes proficient in doing the work of professional learning communities. We can offer an unambiguous answer to the question, “How can we improve student learning?” However, we recognize that applying this answer in the complex cultures of schools and districts is anything but easy. The cultural shifts that are necessary remind us of the advice offered to Blackthorne in the novel Shōgun, as he struggled to learn the customs and language of the Japanese: “It is all so simple, Anjin-san. Just change your concept of the world” (Clarell, 1986, p. 504). Developing schools and districts as PLCs is not easy precisely because educators will be called upon to change their concept of their world. Readers who are looking for “easy” would be advised to continue doing what you have always done, which is certainly less troublesome than substantive cultural change.

 

Appendix

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Effective Schools research began in the 1970s by Ron Edmonds, Larry Lezotte, Wilbur Brookover, Michael Rutter, and others as an attempt to find schools that were consistently more effective in helping all students learn regardless of race or poverty. It was one of the first research models that disaggregated data. The following list, developed in the 1990s, summarizes what Lezotte (1991) has called the second generation of research on effective schools. It includes seven “correlates”—factors that are correlated with effective schools.

Effective schools have an orderly, purposeful, businesslike environment that is conducive to learning without being oppressive. Students work together cooperatively, respect human diversity, and appreciate democratic values.

The staff in an effective school demonstrates its belief that all students can attain mastery of the essential school skills. Teachers develop and implement a wide array of varied strategies to ensure that students achieve mastery. The school responds to and assists students who do not learn.

 

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