Professional Learning Communities: A Popular Reform of Little Consequence?

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.

23 Comments

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23 responses to “Professional Learning Communities: A Popular Reform of Little Consequence?

  1. I don’t see a strong argument here against PLCs, per se, but I do see a case started against administrator-driven groupings. In my limited experience as a school administrator, I am seeing teachers who, for years, have worked in isolation. Only after being “forced” into a team did they see the value in working towards a common goal and sharing instructional strategies through meeting on a consistent basis. What, then, should be done for the loners? Wait until they decide to begin collaborating? We wouldn’t just wait around for our students to do what is best if we knew “forcing” them in a certain direction would be beneficial, so why wait for teachers, too?

    • larrycuban

      Dear Matt,

      I do not argue against PLCs. I simply pointed out that they have a paltry evidence base for student outcomes and shifts in teaching practice traceable to the impact of PLCs. I gave three examples of de facto PLCs that were voluntary groupings of teachers that succeeded in altering curricular, instructional, and organizational patterns in their schools. These PLCs had “strong ties” among their members as opposed to so many PLCs that have “weak ties” because of the coercion that you mentioned as a way of dragging in “loners” who don’t want to belong. I favor voluntary collaboration among teachers rather than coerced participation. “Loners” will join once a critical mass of teachers at grade-levels or in departments see the sense of the PLC helping them and their students and are not expected to take the time out of their schedules.

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  3. Sondra

    this is a clever piece and reminds me of the recent article by Gladwell that social movements start with ‘strong ties’ rather than weak ones contrived on facebook or in other ‘communities’ like PLCs.

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  5. Larry, I appreciate this post very much as it pertains to any group of professionals. For example, I work in private industry and I’ve worked with groups of salespeople that really like to collaborate, learn with each other, share materials, and get results. But, often, there has always been what I call ‘lone wolves’ who simply do not want to participate and isolate. They stick to their territory and that’s it. However, many of these ‘lone wolves’ are very high performers who regularly achieve or exceed the corporate objectives. Some of these ‘lone wolves’ simply do not belong and are not performers,and in prviate industry there is an easier pathway to excuse them from the environment.

    I’d imagine my experience with that is a decent analogy for PLCs.

    Now, another point is that I’ve come across a district that has made a district level commitment to increasing graduation rates that I feel is a much larger effort than the small PLC concept. Here is my post on CarmenK12 about that http://carmenk12.com/2010/09/22/washoe-county-school-district-nevada-increases-graduation-rate/

    Thanks for all your posts and thought.

  6. Rick DuFour

    If your interpretation of the PLC process is teachers coming together to meet once a week and then returning to their classrooms to work in isolation, then I agree that there is little, if any evidence, to suggest that PLCs will have a positive impact on student learning. That is not, however, the PLC process that I advocate.

    That process calls upon teachers to work together in collaborative teams to implement a guaranteed and viable curriculum, to gather ongoing evidence of student learning through formative assessments in their classrooms and team-developed common formative assessments. Very importantly, the process asks teams to then use that evidence to identify students who need additional time and support for learning or enrichment and extension of their learning, to inform and improve the practice of individual members of the team, and to identify and solve learning problems that are occurring across the team. We also ask that the school create an actual plan of systematic interventions to ensure students who are struggling receive additional time and support for learning in a way that is timely, directive, and systematic.

    For each step of this process, collaborative teams of teachers are empowered to make significant decisions. They have the major voice in clarifying essential learnings, creating valid assessments, analyzing data, and creating systems of intervention. And while the team determines what students will learn and how their learning will be assessed, each teacher is free to use the strategies he or she feels will yield the best results.

    This process has a rich and growing research base to support it. John Hattie’s synthesis of over 800 meta-analyzes of factors that claim to impact student achievement concluded that this is the best process for raising student achievement. Alan Odden’s study of district’s and schools that doubled achievement concluded that they invariably operated as professional learning communities. Sir Michael Barber’s study of the world’s best school system concluded that they function as professional learning communities. The Wallace Foundation study on effective leadership (one of the most exhaustive studies on the topic ever conducted) concluded that, “Leadership effects on student achievement occur largely because effective leadership strengthens professional community—a special environment within which teachers work together to improve their practice and improve student learning. Professional community, in turn, is a strong predictor of instructional practices that are strongly associated with student achievement.
    The link between professional community and student achievement may be explained by reference to a school climate that encourages levels of student effort above and beyond the levels encouraged in individual classrooms.” Judith Warren Little’s study of schools concluded that, “Effective professional development might thus be judged by its capacity for building (and building on)… professional community….
    Schools that are well organized for professional learning stand to reap the benefits of demonstrable student gains and enduring teacher commitment.” Newmann and Wehlage’s longitudinal study concluded, “Schools that operate as strong professional communities contribute to student achievement and to equitable distribution of achievement, whether measured in ‘authentic’ or conventional ways.” Louis and Marks found that when a school was organized into a professional learning community “achievement levels are significantly higher.” The Southwest Educational Development Lab, the Institute for Research on Teaching, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform are just some of the educational organizations that have concluded PLCs have a positive impact on student achievement.

    Furthermore, if you consider the various elements of an effective PLC process separately – implementing a guaranteed and viable curriculum, using formative assessments in the classroom on an ongoing basis, using actual evidence of student learning from team-developed common formative assessments to inform professional practice and drive continuous improvement, and creating systems of intervention to provide students with additional time and support for learning – the research base in support of PLCs expands even further.

    Thus, I consider your characterization of the research as scant to be inaccurate and misleading. I fully support your premise that teacher bashing, anti-union rhetoric, and calls for merit pay will do nothing to improve schools and instead deflect attention away from the formidable challenges educators face. Educators are the hardest working people I know, but they are working in a system that supports isolation rather than collaboration, independence rather than interdependence, and activity rather than results. It is time to change the system, and it won’t change by itself or by the occasional groups who volunteer to collaborate with others.
    If the PLC process truly represents what Milbrey McLaughlin has called “our most promising strategy for sustained and substantive school improvement,” we have a moral imperative to do more than hope random teachers will somehow be moved to create their own spontaneous and informal PLCs. Nothing has prevented them from doing so in the past, and yet they have not become the norm. Educators must assume some responsibility for the traditional structures and cultures in which they work and take purposeful steps to make the collaborative PLC process “the way we do things around here.”

    • larrycuban

      Thank you very much for your comment. I know of your work in various places around the country and colleagues, whose opinions I respect, speak highly of what you do.

      Your ringing defense of the research base for PLCs is admirable but, for me, less persuasive given that the effects of PLCs on student achievement (test scores) will always be indirect (as you put nicely in your comments) and a quite small effect size (a small fraction of one standard deviation). Few of the researchers you cite report student effects size.

      For me, however, that–student gains on test scores– is not the most important rationale for PLCs. After all, policymakers say they want and use research–evidenced based programs, for example. Yet we both know that policymakers will adopt and fund programs that have few shreds of evidence to support them. I need not cite examples since both of us know about such decisions.

      Your comments hit upon far more important reasons than student test scores. Reasons that may not give decision-makers justification to move forward on PLCs but ones that are critical to teachers and their classroom practices in each and every school. Most important is that the kind of PLCs you describe focus on classroom practice and content issues and, in doing so, encourage teacher collaboration, breaking down the structural isolation that age-graded schools have established since the 1850s–no, the date is not a typo. Second, such collaborations working on curriculum, assessments, and other issues create vibrant learning cultures that can spread to an entire school and district . I could go on but you know these reasons far better than me.

      Thanks again for your comment.

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  8. Rick DuFour

    Hi Larry,

    Thank you for the clarification. My concern was that your initial post is being interpreted as your assertion that the PLC process is much ado about nothing with little evidence to support it because the process is of “little consequence.” Your clarification helps to establish that you believe:
    1. While there is considerable research to support the PLC process, the evidence is indirect rather than causal. Agreed. On the other hand, there is little in educational research that establishes a direct cause and effect relationship regarding student achievement. I am not inclined to dismiss all evidence that is not quantifiable. You statement that there is “scant evidence” or “paltry evidence” to support the PLC process would have been more accurate had you said, “There is little evidence that establishes a causal relationship” or even, “While there is considerable evidence supporting the PLC process, I question the value of that evidence.”

    2. There are important reasons for implementing the PLC process that go beyond test scores. Agreed. In fact, we implemented the PLC process in my large high school ten years before there were state tests in my state. We were driven by the belief that a commitment to equity demanded that what a student learned, how the student learning was assessed, and what happened when a student struggled to learn should not be based solely on the practices of the individual teacher to whom that student was randomly assigned, but should instead represent a collective commitment on the part of our staff to promote high levels of learning for all students. We also had to acknowledge that our existing practices of assigning students to five different ability levels according to rigid caps and quotas based on a single nationally-normed test, the isolation in which our teachers worked, and the enormous differences in students’ opportunity to learn based on the uncoordinated curriculum, instruction, and assessments of instructors who taught the same course (in name only) were not leading to high levels of learning.

    I think we both champion collective teacher action and educators having a major voice in designing their own professional development. We both believe that, “The public schools, for all their faults, remain one of our most stable and effective public institutions – indeed, given the increase in social pathologies in the society, educators have done far better in the last generation than might be expected.” I also think both of us acknowledge that powerful strategies can be implemented badly and do more harm than good.The biggest difference between our respective positions as I understand it, is that you favor “voluntary collaboration among teachers rather than coerced participation.”

    I applaud you and your colleagues who created the voluntary group that gave up their personal time to work together to improve the learning for your students. Unfortunately, your efforts had little or no effect on the teachers who elected not to participate, and that troubles me. When your band of colleagues left the school, I imagine that the structure and culture of the school continued to support teacher isolation, and that troubles me. It also troubles me that your effort had to occur outside of the school day rather than as part of your routine work.

    In contrast, in our school we addressed the challenges we faced as an entire staff. We created task forces to investigate our current practices and identify practices that might be more promising. We engaged the entire staff in small group dialogues to ensure their questions were answered. We searched for common ground, and when we reached the point that the task force was ready to present specific proposals for implementation, we asked the entire staff to contribute to a comprehensive list of reasons not to move forward as well as a list of reasons we should implement the proposed changes. Thus, we ensured that all points of view were heard.

    And when it became evident, even to those most adamant in their opposition, that the will of the group was to move forward with implementation, we did – as a staff. Individuals were not allowed to opt out but were, in effect, “coerced” to work in collaborative teams, implement a guaranteed curriculum, develop common assessments, and participate in a process to improve our individual and collective practice based on actual evidence of student learning.

    We created structures to support the teams, provided time for them to meet, allowed each team to identify its focus for professional development, and clarified what teams were to accomplish as part of their collaborative process. The teams themselves were empowered to develop curriculum, pacing guides, rubrics, assessments, etc., and each teacher was free to use whatever instructional strategies he or she deemed effective as long as students were successful in achieving the outcomes established by the team. There were staff who were not happy about participating, but they were required to participate in the process nonetheless. As the benefits of the process for both students and teachers became clear, many of the teachers who had been most opposed to moving forward became staunch advocates. It has continued now for over a quarter of a century through six different principals and four superintendents. The faculty committee that has participated in the interview of each new principal has asked for assurance that the principal will honor and support the collaborative team process. Very importantly, every indicator of student success has steadily improved for more than 25 years.

    I am certain that if we delayed implementation until every one of the educators on our very large staff endorsed the idea, we would never have moved forward. I am equally convinced that if each person had the autonomy to opt out of the collaborative work while others engaged in it, the process would not have been sustained and our students would not have been well served.

    I am not opposed to educators creating informal groups based on shared interests, and I agree there are lots of examples in which they have done so. I hope they will continue to do so, and I am excited by the possibilities for expanded groups through social networking tools.

    I think you would have to agree, however, that even though educators have not been forbidden to collaborate, schools have done little to encourage, support, or expect that collaboration. As you point out, for over 160 years schools have been structured to support educator isolation and independence rather than collaboration and interdependence. It is unrealistic to think educators will overcome that history and the flawed systems in which they work without changes in structures that support new expectations of what it means to be a professional.

    Covey talks about the difference between urgent and important. In my experience, when educators were invited to collaborate, they typically agreed collaboration was important, but there was always something more pressing – papers to grade, a lesson to prepare, a phone call to make. So we took steps to do more than invite collaboration, we embedded it into the routine practices of the school. Just as there were times when I scheduled a teacher to teach a class, there were other times I scheduled that teacher to meet with colleagues and collaborate on the issues that most directly impacted teaching and learning. The educators in our school had no more discretion to opt out of their team meeting than they did to opt out of their fifth hour class. But despite the “coercion,” I am absolutely confident that the people who participated in this process believe it helped them become more effective in making a difference in the lives of their students. Our experience is consistent with the message that emerges from research on both individual and organizational change – sometimes changes in behavior are necessary to change beliefs and attitudes.

    So my assumptions are that schools have a better chance of fulfilling their purpose of helping all students learn at high levels when:
    1. educators work collaboratively rather than an isolation
    2. teachers responsible for a given course or grade level have clarified among themselves the knowledge and skills all students should acquire regardless of the teacher to whom they are assigned
    3. teachers themselves are carefully monitoring student learning through an ongoing assessment process that includes team-developed common formative assessments
    4. teachers work collectively to use evidence of student learning to inform and improve their professional practice
    5. the school should have a coordinated plan that provides students who struggle with additional time and support in way that is timely, directive, and systematic.
    I also believe that a student’s right to attend a school characterized by this vital learning community trumps an individual educator’s desire to work in isolation,

    In virtually every profession there is an expectation that its members will collaborate with others in a collective effort to meet the needs of those they serve. I don’t know why in our profession we would we make collaboration optional. I am, however, open to any research you can provide that establishes a causal relationship between schools that merely encourage educators to collaborate and evidence that the practice leads to higher levels of learning for students.

    Sincerely,

    Rick DuFour

    • larrycuban

      Dear Rick,
      Again, thanks for the rich comments you made on my earlier reply. I appreciate very much your pointing out the areas of agreement and where we continue to disagree.

      Your work as principal of Adlai Stevenson High School for many years fostering teacher collaboration and its longevity through other principals and superintendents is a testament to both your beliefs and hard work. I applaud that. You do draw the line, however, over voluntary and compulsory, arguing that coercion is necessary at times. Your experience at Adlai Stevenson and elsewhere support your belief. I understand that but still, respectfully disagree.

      First, there is little evidence that either depending upon teachers to volunteer or coercing them into collaboration creates effective communities. Perhaps you know of such studies and could point them out to me.

      Our beliefs, not evidence, dictate which direction to go. As a principal and later as superintendent you pursued that belief. When I was a high school teacher, the principal was neutral to our de facto PLC and would not require teachers to join. When I was a superintendent, I chose voluntarism again and again in the wide array of district- and school-driven professional development. It was my belief then and remains that today. Why? Because teacher choice of where they want to teach, what programs they want to work in, and with whom they want to collaborate is a powerful motivator as can be seen in the alternative school movement in the 1960s, and more recently, in small high schools, charter schools, whole school reform models, and magnets.

      But it is unwise to continuing arguing whether voluntarism or coercion is a wise PLC strategy since no one can show cause-effect outcomes either way. I categorize your views and mine as beliefs, not facts. So let’s continue to focus on establishing and sustaining more teacher collaboration within structures that oppose such cooperation.

  9. Hi Larry,

    Just an FYI to the discussion. There is increasing evidence that schools have been cheating on standardized tests to show increased growth. Some schools have been caught changing data to demonstrate better graduation numbers and to show less discipline problems, as well as graduation rates. Here in CA, some have been busted changing answers to make more students eligible on the CAHSEE high school exit exams. It’s all about the API and NCLB. And PLCs are feeding some of these actions. These realities do not necessarily indict the PLC movement.

    High stakes tests that are quantitative measures only, lead to these sorts of outcomes. Numbers do lie, we are finding out. If we go to merit pay for teachers who get higher test scores, then watch out, it might be Kentucky of the late-90s, all over again. Odden, et al, have written much about merit pay for teachers. But I won’t get into that.

    Schools (admins and teachers) around the nation, are resorting to mere formative assessments that measure whether a student bubbled in “A,” or “B.” Do we actually learn from this well enough to implement changes in instruction? I challenge this.

    Basing competition on increased growth evidenced quantitatively does lead to cheating. Surprise! Many of the schools busted for cheating have PLCs and use CFAs. I am involved in researching the PLC movement at this time. It is becoming “cult-like” and no one is questioning it. I am finding some interesting things about the numbers resported and the numbers upon which initial studies have supposedly validated the early successes of the Professional Learning Community movement.

    There is little or no indication of student learning in using only quantitative measures. Without direct one-to-one feedback, no one knows anything other than “we use objective tests becasue they are easy to grade.” The way a test is worded can skew so very much. As an educator, I use several methods to assess, and they are more authentic. Solution Tree was wise to link-up with Bob Marzano.

    Please note, I have been trained in PLCs, CFAs, Assesment strategies, instructional methods, and hold five earned degrees—including the Ph.D. in Teaching and Learning. I have taught at universities and colleges for a decade in education and psychology, been in education for over 30 years, and serve as a professional development leader in the largest high school district in CA. I am on the inside of the movement. My goodness, I am even co-chair of our WASC committee, and one of the lead writers. All of that has been said for this purpose: “We’ve all bought into the notion that all the PLC numbers are valid and accurate, without checking for ourselves.”

    The real test for me is this: Are our high school seniors more ready for college now, or less ready, after having 4-5 years under our belts with PLCs? Are teenagers in middle schools and junior highs showing great gains, followed by drop-offs in high school? Schools who report wonderful gains have found their students are increasingly having to be remediated as college freshmen, in math and language arts. The numbers are higher than ever, but schools are showing unprecedented growth after using PLCs. So, how do increased test scores, CFAs that measure learning and high grades flesh out at the next level? See why I argue for better teaching, and less emphasis on testing? As an aside, there is serious competition under way between PDSs and PLCs. Professional Development Schools have a more comprehensive approach, using the university as a base for joint-success, and reaching more shareholders. Their purpose is to “develop.” The PLC’s purpose is “learning”–or at least it was! I find the PLC works best at the elementary level.

    I am aware as the next person, of the benefits of “intervention,” so-called. At the secondary level, why is it incumbent upon the already overburdened teachers to assure student success? We cannot motivate a person who chooses not be motivated. Where is the family? In my mind, any professional community must involve families. True communities involve ALL shareholders.

    There is one thing that teachers have benefited from, in terms of the PLC movement. They are talking. Again, this is nothing new for those whose relationships are solid already. To be sure, this is most often a good thing for students. Teacher collaboration is wonderful.

    Technology has made it easier to collaborate. Without technology and data, PLCs would still exist, but they would look different–like the old days.

    Collaboration is a win-win, if done correctly. In all honesty, with the upcoming shift from benchmarks and state standards to “common core standards,” we are becoming quite programmatic in our teaching–even lock-step. Assessments will change a bit now. Teachers will be called out if they teach anything that is not measurable and not in the core. If you think this is a stretch, then guess again. My wife has already been told that nothing can be done in class that is outside the standards. K-3 already has these in place here. Her large K-8 district has already been spreading this message.

    My students learn, not because I measure their learning. They learn because they are engaged to do so and own their learning. A good teacher makes learning relevant and measurable in addition to a 7-question formative assessment each day, or maybe even in spite of the assessment. Truthfully, with teenagers, what they learned today is often gone by tomorrow. Real measures of learning would be best given the next day, for what is learning without memory of what was learned?

    Poor teaching does not yield good learning. I opt for taking the focus off student measures of learning and onto teachers measuring their teaching–and not because “Johnny put A and Mary put B. Let’s talk about why that was and change our teaching so they both put C next time.”

    Practically, there is no magical benefit for teachers who use CFAs, whose styles vary and whose classes do not have the same types and levels of students/achievements.

    To measure all classes with a common assessment is not a good measure of their learning. Qualititative assessment is better, but less practical, I know. I challenge why a “common assessment” is better than individual teacher assessment? I can easily discuss why MY students did poorly on MY test, just as well as why MY students did poorly on OUR test.

    I understand that here in CA, we are doing away with state standards, and focusing down on the essential core. We will be asked to measure students’ learning of this core. We will be asked to increase overall scores. Never mind that schools have paid students to earn better scores in the Spring. Pay no attention that schools have changed numbers to show more students eligible for this, or that. I could go on.

    With respect to the direction the PLC movement is taking . . . I am quite offended by the “psychologizing” that is now under way. We are told to “keep at it,” and “stay motivated,” etc. Many teachers are tired of the “top-down” authoritative approach, just because the PLC gurus say that is how best to “get it done.” I challenge that notion. The reality is that districts have invested obscene levels of cash into Solution Tree and they must stick with it.

    In closing, the PLC movement will come-and-go like most education movements. I do look forward to the day when we all can get back to teaching with meaning, teaching with purpose for life, and cease the every day measuring. One of the reasons students are apathetic in schools is that teachers are way too busy testing and measuring to spend the time to connect with students as humans. Students are now entensions of PLCs and the discussion surround CFAs. Measuring real-life preparation and learning are seen best in deep relationships, success at college and career, and heard best at one’s retirement party.

  10. Steve

    The PLC process is the application of the scientific method to the educational system. It is conceptually perfect. Why it fails most often, from what I’ve read and experienced, is because school administrations lack the knowledge and ‘guts’ to implement them properly. Where there is no accountability or consequences, there is no PLC …

    • chris

      It seems most utopian based theories fail because of people problems. Human dynamics are an inescapable aspect.

      The real question is identified by both Cuban and Dufour: whether coercion or bottom-up expansion lead to the most significant changes. I believe Vogt (2012) has an interesting comparison between heavy coercion in the English model and laissez faire expansion in the Swiss model. Unfortunately I’m still digging around for hard data that teases things out.

      • larrycuban

        Chris, thanks for the comment. I am unfamiliar with the Swiss and British models. Thanks for raising it and offering a source.

      • chris

        According to Vogt, the English enforcement of their joint planning collaboration model, tends to follow a scenario of contrived compliance and eventual burnout: similar to Hargreaves perspectives/findings on enforced collaboration. Vogt concludes, based on limited data, that high-functioning enforced collaboration models can only be sustained via coercion. I haven’t found much data on the percentage chance such enforced scenarios actually have of evolving into self-sustaining collaborative groups, like Dufour’s district, nor have I found much on the probability initially coerced collaborative groups have on evolving into self-sustaining self-selected groups. As you mention in response to Dufour, the research is not experimental, and so meta-analysis data, like Dufour relies on, is likely to suffer from positive effect reporting bias (just like untold numbers of other historical, idealistic educational solutions).

        In broad or experimental based implementation I suspect whether PLC implementation avoids the contrived compliance trap likely depends on the probability top-down heavy change initiators have of changing their style to listen/elicit/respond to the people on the front line and the shadow systems that always emerge.

        The district I’m currently working with definitely has clear negative student performance results associated with their well supported move to PLC’s. Yet there are lots of pieces that are working well, and are working well for homogenous keener groups and working well in a one-sided way for heterogeneous mentor/mentee groups.

        I suspect the real test comes when the change leaders have to switch gears from transformative enforcers to adaptive responders based upon what the system needs for balance in its new trajectory. Ron Willis has some unrecognized theoretical work that is phenomenally insightful in this regard. “A Complexity and Darwinian Approach to Management with Failure Avoidance as the key tool (2001)”

      • larrycuban

        The elaboration of your earlier comment helps. Thanks, Chris.

  11. Marc

    oh my…just read up on professional learning communites. The fact that Rick Dufour is troubled by the “loan wolf”, troubles me. There is room in teaching for people who do their own thing. In fact, I have seen a concerted effort in a large metro school district, to hire on the basis of youth, beauty, and personality alone. Team players is what they want! trouble was, they couldn’t manage a group of kids! Some of the most gifted teachers I have met are social malcontents, who for whatever reason, kept to themselves. I’m perfectly cool with that. After examining, briefly, the PLC philosophy, I keep feeling the “control” bug creeping into the theory. Freedom to be who you are is dashed. What I also see is little evidence of improvement or a narrowing of the achievement gap. At least Mr. Dufour admits that, after being confronted. But the reason for that is simple. The problem is cultural; plain and simple. And don’t take the sanctimonious route and try and blame that on my “white privilege”. Forcing people to collaborate is a time and money waster. It will have little effect, I can guarantee that. What school administrators and education researchers always do best, is meddle and gum up the works. Of course, it is a huge cottage industry; often under the guise of “non-profits”. Well, that “non-profit” continues to pay the bills for the people who work there. Fair enough. They need to eat. But be not deceived into thinking that this is the future. Because if it is, what will become of other education theories? And won’t it be necessary to come up with another idea? Education theorists would be out of work. A good education should be content and skill based, and students should be grouped according to their ability. It should be foundational with a specific scope and sequence, easy for that loan wolf or social butterfly to understand Most of all, it is not rocket science (unless rocket science is what you teach). Good teachers inspire by teaching about the wonder of life. Give me a teacher who is a good person, can manage a group of kids, and has a firm knowledge of their subject matter. It matters not if they prefer to keep to themselves. This is one more theory coming from a group who spent precious little time in the classroom. And while PLCs may bear fruit for some, in terms of relationships and shop talk, live and let live. Our ranks welcome all people who were called to teach. Let us never forget, it is a service profession.

  12. I’ve enjoyed reading the above-mentioned discourse on the rationale for implementing learning communities within our schools. To add to the conversation, I’d like to share a research project a colleague and I conducted. Our objective was determine whether or not PLCs have a positive impact on student achievement?

    For a copy of our brief meta-evaluation study of 13 dissertations on PLCs and student achievement (which includes findings, conclusions, and implications for action), feel free to visit:

    http://wisefoundations.wordpress.com/2011/09/25/plcs-their-impact-on-student-achievement/

    Cheers!
    Perry

  13. i'm special ed!

    there has been a good discussion here. i am in a school district that has been on this “journey” as the propaganda calls it. the plc thing has some good points on it and it is quite visible. it has made the school a better workplace to be in, when we’re talking about interpersonal relationships of adults. to a certain degree, it has made happier employees and as we know, happy employees are effective employees.

    the speaker brought before us to talk about the efficacy of the plc process described three school districts in two different states. one or two of these schools were successful despite the odds stacked against them — minority population, socio-economic status of the area, etc. honestly, it was quite a fairy tale and i would be one most happy if was like this throughout the world. however, to use the example of one school in an entire districts, and from three districts in the entire country as a model, is not at all scientific. but we all love fairy tales and stories about how the underdog overcame the given odds.

    one participant here in this discussion mentioned that the plc process is bringing the scientific method into the teaching profession, which is both noble and nice. i guess we are all acting on the hypothesis that if the scientific method has brought us technology and all these comforts, shouldn’t applying the scientific method bring good things to education as well.

    education, after all, is will continue to be an art. true, we may teach science and math in school (mostly because there’s nowhere else that is going to be taught,) but education itself is not science. teachers are emotional creatures who, after wanting the kids to be critical-thinkers, actually are naive enough to be so gullible after being presented with wonderful statistics.

    i used to work in sales and i know how carefully chosen words and carefully selected numbers can be worked to tell a different story to a certain group of people, especially when you know what they want to hear. and teachers want to hear all about student success.

    why not let teachers be who they are rather than force an unproven system upon them? teachers, after may be individualistic and creative. i don’t think we should be surprised at the staggering acceptance of the plc process among educators. despite teaching the scientific process to kids, we are not actually critical thinkers ourselves. after all, if we were that discerning, we would have been doctors, physicists, lawyers, wall-street traders, accountants, generals and admirals, and oil executives.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for taking the time to comment on professional learning communities and your skepticism about them. Since I am unfamiliar with your speaker and the examples he or she gave, I cannot comment on those examples. As for teaching being individualistic and creative, it is (and can be) collaborative and scientific in certain aspects of teaching (e.g., reading, how children learn). What gives decision-makers and specialists heartburn is that teaching is not only one thing or another. It is a complex endeavor that challenges even the most effective teacher simply because there are unpredictable aspects in lessons and students’ responses cannot be easily programmed. As a special ed teacher, I am sure that you know that.

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