If you want to see academics and practitioners largely agree on a school reform, mention professional development–heads will nod vertically–and then mention professional learning communities (PLCs), and the nodding gets vigorous. Groups of teachers in a school or across the district who come together regularly to discuss and reflect on curricular, instructional, and organizational issues of great importance to them is a no-brainer for most educators. Both professional development and PLCs are often praised and funded.
So what have PLCs wrought thus far? Insofar as academic achievement, a few studies find modest correlations between PLCs and increased test scores. Correlations, of course, do not mean that PLCs caused higher test scores. When it comes to impact of PLCs on teaching practices, occasional results show promise but studies remain sparse. Given this underwhelming display of evidence, why so much support for bringing hard-working professionals together weekly to talk and then return to their classrooms?
The answer: There is power in groups working together to improve student learning. They can create a school culture where morale is high and teacher and student attrition is low. But with so little time and opportunity for teachers to come together to work on common problems and figure out solutions, teachers analyzing their classroom practices and acting collectively still remains rare. Unstudied by researchers, however, have been those infrequent instances when determined teachers band together to achieve outcomes that many others thought unlikely.
My experience as a high school history teacher in Cleveland many years ago when ten Glenville high school teachers (out of 50 on the faculty) dissatisfied with our peers’ low academic expectations of the largely minority student body began work in our classes to get more students thinking about college. An interracial group of teachers, we shared the strong desire to help many of our students who excelled academically but had not considered higher education as an option after graduation. We met weekly after school and in evenings to discuss classroom strategies. We sponsored school-wide events to raise money for scholarships, involved parents, and enlisted groups in the black community to help. The principal supported our initiative, even meeting at his home. Over the course of five years, we recruited more faculty to join us as we slowly, often stumbling along the way, increased the number of graduates continuing their education. Those teachers became my close friends and remained so years later.
Or consider 4100-student Brockton High School (MA). A decade ago, a group of teachers upset over low test scores designed and implemented (with the support of the principal) a program that made every teacher in every subject focus on reading. Scores climbed. Now, one of those teachers is the principal. Note the size of the school. Yet not a word about dividing the school into academies or “small learning communities.” Teacher-initiated and grounded in daily classroom practice, these practitioners working quietly and determinedly confounded the mainstream wisdom opposing big high schools and turned it around.
Now consider groups of teachers who decide to collaborate and establish their own school. These teacher-run schools have no principals. Across the country, groups of teachers have founded charter schools or persuaded their school boards to let them take over failing schools. Reporting high morale, less attrition, and strong motivation to improve student learning, these cooperative ventures in rural and urban districts have begun to make headlines and attract notice.
None of these examples (and there are scores of others unrecorded by researchers) was designed or funded as professional development or PLCs. They were spontaneous and, ultimately, sustained programs that had clear purposes aimed at changing outcomes such as low test scores, championing more students to enter college, or simply believing that teachers working together, unconstrained by a principal’s agenda or whims, could do a better job of educating students.
What’s the point of citing these examples of seat-of-the-pants professional development and spontaneously generated PLCs, past and present when, clearly, the evidence is weak that these are replicable and can “go to scale?”
I have two reasons. First, they show the critical importance of prior “strong ties” among teachers that propelled their activism. Not “weak ties” that characterize many PLCs organized by non-teachers. (See Jones-Chris-2006)
Second, amid current unrestrained teacher-bashing, anti-teacher union rhetoric, and policy elites’ romance with pay-for-performance schemes these instances of collective teacher action begin to counter the dominant social belief that individual teacher heroes can save schools. We live in a culture where societal rewards (and media attention) go to individuals, a society that worships heroes and yawns at group solidarity. These instances, then, demonstrate the power of teacher-led groups with “strong ties” to design their own professional development, create their own PLCs, and succeed in helping themselves and their students.