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Professional Learning Communities

"Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success." -Henr

On-the-fly conversations regarding students occur on a regular basis among teachers. They have many positive components: conversations are student centered, teachers are supportive of each other and they meet on their own time. However, they are limited and are subject to the interruptions of daily school events, and teacher collaboration is left to chance. These teachers need administrative support to improve the likelihood that their efforts will raise student achievement to a significant degree.

As Jim Collins outlines in his book Good to Great, great organizations identify simple but profound ideas and focus on those ideas. There is no silver bullet to reach collaborative nirvana; rather, it is achieved in small steps that turn a flywheel-in this case a collaborative commitment to learning for all students-unerringly forward.

In recognition of this, the Capistrano Unified School District in California recently retooled itself as a Professional Learning Community (PLC) where teacher collaboration focuses on what and how students learn. The following steps were taken:

Collaboration is more than collegiality. It is hard work, as tough questions must be confronted.

Teacher collaboration became a major district objective in a consensus building process with teachers, staff and parents.

Principals attended a series of in-service presentations to help their schools function as professional learning communities.

Time for collaboration was built into each teacher's workweek as part of the contractual day. Students now come to school late or leave early one day each week, to create time for teachers to work together.

The focus of staff development-built on the work of authors such as Richard DuFour, Robert Eaker and others in the Professional Learning Communities movement-has shifted from teaching to learning, and from anecdotal to data-based decision making.

Collaboration Conversations

Teachers are in their weekly team time, which is part of their contracted day. Students don't arrive on campus for another hour. Let's drop in on a current teacher meeting:

Kathy: Okay, did you bring your results from our last team assessment for the common denominators lessons?

Lori: I have mine here. Most of my classes did well, and 74 percent of students scored 80 percent or higher. Those who didn't score so high had a problem with question number seven on improper fractions.

Denise: Mine too. Our team goal is for 80 percent of our students to pass the cumulative fractions test with an 80 percent score. My guys are close, but I need to go back to work on denominators with improper fractions.

Cristina: I changed question seven.

Kathy: Looks good-the phrasing is clearer. Now what will we do for those students who scored under 80 percent?

Lori: I formed a small group of four in my third period class for small group instruction using math manipulatives. My quick check at the end showed that they were getting it. Two of the students went back to the main group today.

Cristina: Okay, let's all try that and reassess the students on Friday.

This kind of conversation is becoming the norm among teacher teams throughout the district. Teachers meet regularly to establish goals for student learning and develop common team assessments to measure progress towards these goals. Teachers adjust instruction and share best practices based on assessment results and student achievement. Interventions are developed for students who are not learning. The process is cyclical. Data show that student achievement is rising and that the gap between NCLB subgroups continues to narrow.

Working as a Professional Learning Community makes it more likely that teachers will ask the right questions about student learning: What do students need to know? How do we assess learning? What do we do when students do not learn? What do we do when students have already mastered expectations? Such work is grounded in a few key beliefs:

Collaboration is more than a process or structure. It is a commitment to core ideas about student learning.

Teachers who collaborate effectively do so systematically across the organization.

All students must learn. The variable is no longer student learning-that is the outcome. The variables are resources and time allocated to ensure student learning.

Teachers set specific and timely goals to help all students learn.

Teachers share and change instructional practices in a strategic way based on assessment results.

Collaboration is more than collegiality. It is hard work, as tough questions must be confronted.

Change happens at the school level with specific guidance, support and focus from district level administration.

Eamonn O'Donovan is principal of Ladera Ranch Middle School in Ladera Ranch, Calif.