The PLC Mandate. . .

I’ve been writing a lot about professional learning communities lately, haven’t I?  I guess that’s because no single group of people mean more to me professionally than the colleagues that I work with on a regular basis at school.  They consistently leave me energized and willing to work harder.

That’s why I’m always blown away by the constant criticism that PLCs take from teachers.  In almost every conversation that I have with educators about professional learning communities, I hear nothing but sarcasm and scorn.  "PLCs," they’ll say, "We’re doing those.  What a waste of time!"

Their mockery has left me wondering whether PLCs will ever be a plausible reform strategy if they are left to the choice of teachers.  From the sounds of it, the majority of my peers would pitch the concept if they had the chance. 

That’s why something that my colleague Nancy Flanagan—who is the mind behind Teacher in a Strange Land—-said caught my attention this week.  She mentioned that the DuFours, who are widely recognized as experts in establishing PLCs, believe that the work of learning teams must be mandated in order to be implemented:

"Personally, I think DuFour says the work must be mandated because he’s had experience with letting folks choose. I also think compelling, charismatic administrators (as he must have been) have a far greater chance of getting required PLCs up and running effectively."

I think this conversation about choice or mandate in PLC implementation is pretty essential because so few people working in professional development positions at the district or state level understand that the true value in collaborative teams rests in the process rather than a defined product. 

Think about how school reform has always been done:  A program is identified by someone influential.  It is adopted for everyone by someone else influential.  Then the PD wheels start a’rollin.  Books are purchased, sessions are scheduled, documents are created—all with good intent:  To support teachers who will be working hard to make changes in their instructional practice. 

The same model holds true with PLCs:  PD providers–and those responsible for selecting PD for teachers—believe that they are helping teams and teachers when they provide massive amounts of structure for developing learning teams. 

By telling you what to do in your meetings, you don’t have to think that process through on your own.  By creating common assessments at the district level, teachers are saved from having to spend time doing it on their own.  By giving you specific tasks and templates, the "powers that be" are making your work easier.

And they’re missing the point completely!

You see, the real power in collaborative teaming rests in the conversations that teachers have when they are working to wrestle with these very issues—what should we be teaching?  How will we know if students have learned?  What does a good assessment look like?

The process of coming to resolution around these issues leads to incredible reflection and growth—which is the only real "product" that matters in a PLC.  Overemphasizing other products—like defined meeting structures/notes, specific tasks that teams must complete, specific tests that must be given—might result in a product that makes decision-makers happy, but the process—which is far more important—is lost. 

So what should those who are working to restructure schools at learning teams mandate?

DuFour’s central mandates are that all teams will meet regularly, develop 4 common assessments for the year and then look at the results of those assessments. 

That’s it!

And with teachers/teams/schools that are hesitant about professional learning teams, that’s all I’d ever require to begin with.  It’s approachable and will start the processes that will lead to increased student learning in any school. 

5 comments

  1. Paul

    As a school board member being asked to approve new teachers, classroom space, new schedule and a new uncredited class in the name of PLC, I am intrigued by the information shared on the blog. The simple message of the Dufours seems lost in the desire to create a PLC that exists by name only. It uses ACT as the evaluation tool and extra classroom time to teach students how to study, manners for the work place and possibly time in your junior and senior year to take an elective class.
    Any hints on where the school board decisions can guide what I know to be true “employees know the answers” to the problems?

  2. Lsquared

    I think the best professional development is the stuff created (in a PLC sort of way) by teachers themselves–but there is the problem that not everyone is enthusiastic about doing that (and if you’re not enthusiastic, you’re not going to do it well). What if there were PD choices and one of them was PLC’s: you can set up a PLC and report quarterly on your progress, or you can log so many hours on other PD activities? It doesn’t let you say “all of our teachers are in PLC groups”, but it does let the people who would do a good job of it do it, and it does give the others an alternative so you’re not assigning groups, and the less than enthusiastic aren’t dragging down their groups.

  3. Parry

    Bill, is there a middle ground between the “mandated” PLC meetings that you describe, and the complete laissez faire approach that you propose? In my experience, the efforts of professional learning teams (the process, as you say) can be helped by providing some level of structure and expectations.
    For example, I believe that all PLTs should be required to create formalized team norms, to create an agenda before each meeting and to distribute that agenda to all team members, and to document the work of meetings with formal minutes. In addition, I have found that structured work plan templates (e.g., identifying team goals, documenting data used to identify goals, outlining intervention and enrichment strategies) help to focus teams on productive work that is likely to lead to improved teaching.
    I agree with you that the real power of PLTs results from the quality of the conversations that occur in meetings (both formal and informal), and from the cross-fertilized professional learning that results from these conversations. I would argue, however, that a certain amount of structure—and yes, even mandated expectations—are necessary to ensure that those PLT conversations move in productive directions.

  4. Matt Bardoe

    Well, this is the thing always. And I think that one essential point of your post is that this is meant to facilitate “reform”. How long has education “reform” been taking place. How long is it planned to continue (answer: forever). Many teachers know this, and get to some point where they say, “This is the best that I know how to do it. It is not getting better from here.” or possibly “This is the best I can do right now, as I try to recover from cancer…” And really I can understand that. I can even respect it, a little. I am a believer in the constant improvement, constant exploration. But that is the minority stance in our profession. Mandated PLC’s won’t work. You point out lots of good reasons they won’t work. It doesn’t matter how little you ask them to do.
    I must be feeling cynical tonight.

  5. dayle timmons

    I also am constantly amazed at how negatively PLCs are seen by some of my peers. I am at a school that has functioning exciting PLCs and I am amazed at the work we do together. We have grappled with so many issues over the years and I think you are right – it is what has made us stronger. We give away any product that we develop for free but we try to convince those that ask that it’s the conversation that went into the product- not the product itself- that is where the true learning is. Most people just don’t get it. Now that I have been part of a PLC and had control over some of my choices for PD, I’ll never be able to go back. I just wish every educator could have a similar experience… dayle