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Rick and Becky DuFour

Professional Learning Communities at Work
The Whittier Union High School District administrators who organized the Whatever It Takes campaign.
The Whittier Union High School District administrators who organized the Whatever It Takes campaign from left to right: Assistant Superintendent Martin Plourde, Carlye Olsen, accountability director, Superintendent Sandy Thorstenson, Richard Russell, student support services director, Assistant Superintendent Loring Davies and Associate Superintendent Paul Muschetto.

In 1969, a concern with the deep inequity of students’ experiences and opportunities in traditional school systems first drove social studies teacher Rick DuFour to begin advocating for the kind of reforms that would jell into his transformative model, Professional Learning Communities at Work, some 16 years later. The core belief of the PLC at Work model—that all students should have access to the most rigorous curriculum and that all students should learn, was counter to common practices in the era when DuFour taught. “It seemed like the school was paying more attention to how students dressed and their compliance to rules rather than whether or not they were learning,” he says.

DuFour strove to promote a more student-centered approach to instruction during his five years at Batavia High School in Illinois’ Batavia Unified School District 101, where he instituted a pilot program in which students could give anonymous feedback to their teachers. Later, as dean of students and then principal at West Chicago High School in Illinois’ Community High School District 94, he continued promoting a student-centered culture, but says the climate was not conducive to change because of an ongoing acrimonious relationship between the teachers’ union and the school board.

DuFour’s sense of outrage on behalf of students over the lack of uniform school policies toward grading, assessment, tutoring and parent communication followed him to Adlai Stevenson High School in Adlai Stevenson High School District 125, in Illinois. DuFour says Stevenson’s rigid tracking system allowed only 10 percent of incoming students access to the rigorous curriculum of Advanced Placement, with 25 percent of incoming freshmen assigned to remedial tracks and most honors program placements seeming to go to students from more affluent communities.

Rick DuFour converses with practioners at a PLC event in Hollywood, Calif.

For DuFour, whose teaching career had been an entry into the world of higher education when his home state of Illinois offered free public university tuition to the top 10 percent of high school graduates in exchange for a five-year teaching commitment, this policy was a further injustice to students. “It offended my blue-collar sensibilities,” he says. “I also didn’t like the randomness of teacher practice that amounted to an educational lottery for kids. Our teachers worked hard and loved their students, but I don’t think they gave much thought to the inequity of our system because it was all they ever knew.”

PLC at Work Ensures Success for All

Influenced by the practices in studies such as “In Search of Excellence” by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, “Corporate Cultures” by Allan Kennedy and Terry Deal, and “On Leadership” by John Gardner, DuFour first implemented his PLC at Work model at Stevenson in 1985. As a replacement for the school’s remedial program, it was designed to ensure success for all in a college-preparatory program offering several layers of intervention support.

All incoming freshmen were guaranteed a study hall each day, a faculty advisor, an upperclassman mentor, a weekly check with their counselor, and progress reports or grades every three weeks. If they struggled, they got help in their advisory period from their upperclassman mentor. Those continuing to struggle were moved from study hall to a tutoring center until grades improved. Students still unsuccessful were moved from tutoring centers to guided study, where a staff member monitored their work each day. If they still struggled, they were dropped from a period and put into a study skills class, monitored each day, and assigned a student support group. In addition, the school partnered with their parents to change their behavior.  

Instituting many layers of intervention paid off. Between 1985 and 1987, DuFour’s experiment at Stevenson yielded dramatic results. Students receiving D’s and F’s dropped from 36 percent to 6 percent, and those earning A’s and B’s increased from 48 percent to 75 percent. In 1991, DuFour became superintendent of Adlai Stevenson High School District 125, where he remained until 2002. During his tenure in the district, the high school was described by the United States Department of Education as “the most recognized and celebrated school in America,” won four Blue Ribbon awards from the United States Department of Education, and was one of the first comprehensive schools designated by the DOE as a New America High School for being a model of successful school reform.

Becky DuFour Joins PLC at Work

Becky DuFour, a former elementary school teacher, coordinator of gifted and fine arts education, and elementary school principal in Franklin County Public Schools in Rocky Mount, Va., and Williamsburg-James City County Schools in Williamsburg, Va., heard DuFour speak at a workshop in 1999 and was inspired to bring the PLC at Work concept back to Boones Mill, Va. in the Franklin County district, where she was a principal. The district served many high-poverty students and was in the bottom 10 percent of the state in per-pupil expenditures. “We had a wonderful staff that worked hard,” says Becky Dufour, “but prior to the PLC process, few systems were in place to support either teacher collaboration or extra time and support for systematic intervention and enrichment for students.”

Under Becky’s direction, Boones Mill Elementary School began implementing the PLC at Work process at the beginning of the 2000-2001 school year. By the end of that year, says Becky, the school had experienced higher levels of student learning and a greater sense of efficacy among teachers. Attesting to the sustained growth in student achievement are the Governor’s Awards of Excellence that the school won six years in a row beginning in the 2000-2001 school year, and the Blue Ribbon award it won in 2004.

Today, Rick and Becky DuFour are business partners as well as husband and wife, having retired from public school education in 2002 to write, consult and conduct numerous institutes, workshops and summits across the country. The DuFours say that although it’s hard to quantify the impact of the PLC at Work model because their books, articles and presentations offer many avenues into the program, more than 200 U.S. schools have been recognized as models of the process as a result of significantly improved student achievement.

The Term ‘PLC’ Shifts Direction

The term “professional learning community” had been used by education researchers since the 1960s to describe a more collaborative and collegial approach to teaching than the traditional isolated, closed-classroom-door model. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the term began to be more specifically identified with practices such as establishing shared norms and beliefs, and solving problems collaboratively. Today, the term is widely used to describe a broad range of different programs and practices, including in-person and online communities where educators connect to share tips and best practices.

The PLC at Work model, say the DuFours, distinguishes itself from other PLCs primarily through the deep degree of efficacy in implementation it requires of individual teachers, who meet formally each week and follow a specific process to ensure success for each student. For each unit of instruction, teachers agree on the essential skills each student will learn, how much time they will devote to each, and what the assessment process will be for gathering evidence of student learning. Once they have evidence, they identify students who were not successful, discuss what may have caused the difficulties, and share strategies from teachers who successfully taught the unit. If the entire team finds that all their students were unsuccessful, they seek resources for learning how to teach the concepts better. The team also discusses strategies for enriching and extending learning for students who have demonstrated high proficiency.

Becky DuFour laughs with her audience at an event in Lincolnshire, Ill.Rick stresses the importance of the word “professional” in “Professional Learning Communities at Work.” “As with a lawyer or a doctor, it conjures someone required to do extensive training, with expectations to remain current, to be continuously learning, and to put the needs of the client above themselves,” he says.

Three Big Ideas

The DuFours’ PLC at Work model centers around three big ideas that are core to transforming education practices.

Big idea #1: Ensure that all students learn. Traditionally, students are taught and expected to learn, but with PLC at Work, the focus shifts from teaching to learning. Rather than leaving the treatment of struggling students up to individual teachers, who may deal with them in vastly different ways, the school implements a uniform policy for intervening with students.

Interventions, which may take the forms of peer mentoring, a teacher- or coach-guided study period, or an after-school tutoring program, are timely, with opportunities built into the regular school day. This is done so that traditional remediation practices, such as time- and resource-intensive remedial courses, or delayed actions, such as summer school or retention, need not be employed.

Big idea #2: Establish a culture of collaboration among staff. It goes against the grain in traditional education settings for teachers to open their classroom doors to share materials, ideas, strategies and results with each other, but this activity is at the core of PLC at Work.  

Big idea #3: Focus on results. In traditional classrooms, averages are often used to analyze student performance, and students not mastering skills are often left behind as a teacher proceeds to the next concept. With the PLC at Work model, data analysis focuses on the progress of each individual student, looking at specific percentage improvements and sharing strategies around how to maximize strengths and overcome weaknesses.

Schools implementing PLC at Work begin by establishing consensus on answers to three key questions: What do we want each student to learn? How will we know when each student has learned it? How will we respond when a student experiences difficulty in learning?

Empowerment and Nonnegotiables

The PLC at Work model also emphasizes the necessary role of leadership in schools for building consensus, clarifying purpose and vision, putting structures in place to support teacher collaboration, and assisting the learning process by helping teachers identify and overcome major obstacles to increasing student achievement. The roles and responsibilities of leadership shift from a single administrator to a collaborative educator team.

Says Rick DuFour, “In the past, every one of our teachers has been told what, when and how. Now they are empowered to decide for themselves what, when and how. But they also own the decisions and results—good, bad and ugly.”

A central tenet of PLC at Work is the concept of “loose and tight.” “Tight” defines the nondiscretionaries: daily tutoring, peer mentorship, homework help and other built-in interventions for students, and ongoing collaboration among teachers. The “loose” piece of the concept is the freedom each school has to determine how it will meet these mandatory requirements of daily student interventions and ongoing formalized collaboration time for teachers, perhaps through a revised bell schedule or an after-school or lunchtime program.

Leveling the Playing Field

Teachers from the Schaumburg Community Consolidated School District 54 in the Chicago suburbs  are providing small group instruction, intervention and enrichment opportunities to improve student achievement. A testament to the power and adaptability of the PLC at Work model for transforming schools is the dramatic and continued growth in districts that have adopted it across the country.

Sandra Thorstenson, superintendent of the Whittier Union High School District in Whittier, Calif., likes to say that “demographics do not determine destiny,” and she backs it up with statistics. With five comprehensive high schools, more than 13,000 students, an 80-percent-and-growing Hispanic population, and a large number of economically disadvantaged families, Thorstenson was faced with the challenges of increasing student achievement, making curriculum relevant, and promoting equity of opportunity for students when she first took office in 2000.

In 2003, Thorstenson began laying the groundwork to implement a PLC at Work model by having her whole staff read Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap: Whatever It Takes by the DuFours and two other co-authors, and by meeting with the school board, teachers, parents, administrators and union leaders to achieve consensus on going forward with the model. That year was the most challenging, she remembers, as teachers were not initially comfortable with sharing data and had to be reassured that it wasn’t about evaluation. “Trust is huge and essential,” she says.

In 2005, with an investment from the board of trustees, Thorstenson took three cohorts of principals and teacher-leaders to visit Stevenson High School—which she says was “a catapult for forward movement”—where they observed and spoke with teachers and students and saw the model firsthand.

Each WUHSD school designed and voted on a new bell schedule to integrate the daily required tutorial times and to accommodate the one-hour formal weekly collaborative sessions for teachers. Today, between 80 and 90 percent of students participate in daily tutorials, whether they are below in proficiency or are looking for enrichment through deeper knowledge in a subject area.

Success Despite Budget Cut

A young boy benefits from one-on-one instruction.Since WUHSD became a PLC at Work district in 2003, it has seen solid and sustained growth in student performance across all five schools, even with more than $17 million cut from the budget and an increasing number of economically disadvantaged students enrolled. WUHSD’s average score on California’s Academic Performance Index (API), which is calculated on a scale of 200 to 1,000 points, with 800 to 1,000 being the desired level of performance, has increased by more than 154 points over the last seven years and is now 777. In addition, three WUHSD schools this year received 10 out of 10 on the state’s Similar Schools Rank, with the other two ranking eight out of 10. There remains only a 6 percent difference between the highest and lowest performing students in the district, says Thorstenson, despite the inequality in income levels.

During the last few years, WUHSD has served as a showcase for visiting educators eager to learn more about how the district has improved academic achievement. In 2011, Thorstenson was selected as California’s National Superintendent of the Year by the Association of California School Administrators, becoming ACSA’s nominee for the 2012 American Association of School Administrators’ National Superintendent of the Year.

Thorstenson reports that as time has passed, the attitudes of teachers have changed. In their pursuit of excellence, they have become “very pure of heart,” she says. Perhaps as evidence of that, more than 80 percent of staff chose to attend summer professional development sessions this year, for which the district pays them through Title II funds.  

Shaking Up the Status Quo

In 2005, student achievement in Schaumburg Community Consolidated School District 54, in the suburbs of Chicago, had flatlined. The largest district in the state, Schaumburg CCSD 54 was undergoing a transformation, with diverse immigrant cultures bringing 89 new languages into schools and swelling the student population to 14,000 students from preK to eighth grade. Although teachers had been working together to share best practices, says Superintendent Ed Rafferty, efforts had not been student-focused enough.

In spring 2005, Rafferty heard the DuFours speak, and the idea of a long-standing collaborative culture resonated with him. He immediately began to implement a program of bold changes that would allow him to meet the requirements of PLC at Work.

Ken LaVigne was chosen one of California’s State Teachers of the Year for 2012 based on his work in a special intervention program at La Serna High School in the Whittier Union High School District.In a concerted effort to be inclusive, Rafferty formed a huge committee of parents, certified and classified staff, and administrators to get a collective commitment. The committee agreed that literacy interventions would be the primary focus of the 2005-2006 school year. “We had no systems in place for intervention except for English language learners and special education kids with individual education plans,” says Rafferty. “They were the only groups receiving intensive support.”

Rafferty’s strategy to creatively fund literacy interventions included revamping the central office by cutting the number of administrators for special programs, such as bilingual and special education, by 10. He also reduced the district’s assistant principal positions to half-time in the smaller schools, and he used freed-up funds to hire seven reading coaches who could support interventions in all of the district’s schools.

Among the greatest early challenges, says Rafferty, was confronting the PE, music and fine arts teachers who offered great resistance to changing the bus schedule, which for years had been set to accommodate their programs.

“It was hard for them to accept that literacy was a greater priority than their programs,” he says.

Rafferty made buy-in from all stakeholders a target goal, requiring all district staff to attend DuFour training, including central office personnel, board members, the union president, administrators and site teacher leaders. “I wanted the responsibility for student achievement to be shared by everybody,” he says.

Seven years after implementing PLC at Work, Schaumburg CCSD 54 has seen the collaborative process pay off in both student achievement and teacher dedication to the model. In 2005, Illinois Standard Achievement Test results for grades 3 through 8 showed a proficiency level of 76 percent in reading and 81 percent in math. In 2012, proficiency levels on the same test for the same grade levels soared to 91.5 percent in reading and 95.3 percent in math. The district went from being in the top 25 percent of the state to the top 9 percent. This increase in achievement has occurred in spite of the fact that the district is dealing with a high student growth rate and a growing population of economically disadvantaged families, a fact not lost on state administrators, who named Rafferty Illinois’ 2010 Superintendent of the Year.

Interventions for Accelerated Students

One of the largest and best-performing districts in the country, Fairfax County Public Schools in Fairfax County, Va., serves 175,000 students in 200 schools and has been a PLC at Work district for 10 years. Unlike in the other districts profiled here, most of the Fairfax County students attending intervention periods are advanced and looking for opportunities to pursue their individual interests rather than making up skill deficiencies, says Superintendent Peter Noonan. Interventions include opportunities to focus on STEM areas through such content as National Geographic materials and Jason Project software, which connect students to  “real world” science  explorations involving the scientific process of inquiry. Students can also work with peer mentors on creative writing.

La Vigne with Superintendent Sandy Thorstenson.The biggest impact of PLC at Work, says Noonan, has been in teachers’ increasingly accepting attitudes toward collaboration. A rise in math scores has been one result of this. On the Virginia Standards of Learning state test, sixth-grade students have increased proficiency by 16 percent since 2007. Sixth-graders scoring at the advanced level in math grew from 41 percent to 60 percent in the same period. And the percentage of students proficient in algebra 1 by the end of eighth grade increased from 44 to 64 percent during the same period.

Noonan advises districts to “just dig in and do it” when it comes to implementing PLC at Work. “Understand that over time you’ll just get better and better,” he says.

Eric Twadell, the current superintendent of Adlai Stevenson High School District 125, says the culture of collaboration is so deeply embedded in teacher practices that it’s no longer a subject of particular discussion. The district has operated as a Professional Learning Community at Work for 15 years, and sharing success stories with colleagues across the country has become a formalized process through hosted monthly site visits and a yearly mini-conference.

Twadell says that the district has over 50 different intervention programs for struggling students and those seeking enrichment, including mandatory tutoring, guided study, reading programs and mentorships by older students. “Teachers here learn at a higher rate, and students are the beneficiaries,” he says.

Head, Heart and Evidence

Nearly all the districts profiled here have made exponential growth in student achievement despite ongoing shifts in student populations, drastically reduced budgets, economically disadvantaged communities, and the obstacles that come with meeting the needs of large numbers of English language learners. Every superintendent who weighed in said that district teachers insist they can never go back to the traditional, autonomous and isolating approach to instruction.

“When we talk about the program, we make a conscious effort to appeal to the emotions, to remind educators why they got into the profession, and to read testimonials from teachers who found a revived faith in themselves and in the profession,” says Rick DuFour. “I wanted a process in place to support rigor for all kids, and to change the attitude of education from ‘You can succeed if you were born smart’ to ‘You can succeed if you work hard.’ And I think we’re collecting plenty of evidence to show that’s true.”

Susan McLester is a contributing writer to District Administration. She wrote the previous article in this series on Sally Reis and Joe Renzulli.