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Professional Learning Communities in action | GUEST OPINION
In the Arlington School District, teachers work in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). These PLCs are made up of grade level teachers (such as teachers in a school who all teach third grade) or teachers who teach the same subject (such as teachers in the high school who teach Algebra 1).
In the PLC model teachers work together interdependently to inform their professional practice in order to improve learning for all students. Collaboration in the PLC model must be intentional and focused on four key questions regarding student learning:
1. What is it we want students to learn?
2. How will we know if they have learned it?
3. How will we respond when they don’t learn?
4. How will we respond when they already know it?
The benefits to teachers who work in PLCs are numerous. The research cites gains in student achievement, higher quality solutions to problems, increased confidence among all staff, teachers support one another’s strengths and accommodate weaknesses, ability to test new ideas, more support for new teachers, and an expanded pool of ideas, materials and method (Little 1990).
Finding time for teams to meet is critical for PLCs to flourish. Teams find time in many creative ways so that they can meet on a weekly basis with their PLCs. The time is usually found by teams meeting before or after school, or instead of holding a staff meeting. PLCs also need longer periods of time to meet that can’t be found within a weekly schedule. District inservice days provide the necessary continuity for teachers to expand their building PLC to include their colleagues in like grades/subjects from across the district. These opportunities allow teachers from across the district to identify what all students in the Arlington School District “must know and be able to do” no matter what school they attend. We refer to these standards as our “guaranteed and viable curriculum” which are those standards considered essential for all students to master to be successful at the next level of learning.
PLCs use a number of structured protocols to do their work. These protocols create a level of accountability within a team as well as between teams and their building principals. Protocols may include team norms (commitments team members make to one another about their meetings). They may also include the examination of student work or to reflect on a teacher’s pedagogy. Protocols can facilitate data analysis, allow teachers to track student progress over time, or provide communication and accountability with other colleagues and supervisors.
How do PLCs know if students are learning? PLCs use formative assessments to inform them on how their students are doing. Formative assessments are those assessments given to all students in a given grade or subject area to measure learning on specific learning targets. The research tells us the practice of PLCs using formative assessments leads both to higher levels of student achievement as well as provide for teacher professional development. “A focus on the use of formative assessments in support of learning, developed through teacher learning communities, promises not only the largest potential gains in student achievement, but also provides a model for teacher professional development that can be implemented effectively at scale (William & Thompson 2007).
PLCs in the Arlington School District have transformed how we work together. They have created a common language among educators about our core work, ensuring all students are learning at high levels, while providing a venue for teachers to learn from one another and improve their professional practice.
Diane Kirchner-Scott is the Executive Director of Teaching and Learning for Arlington Public Schools and can be reached at 360-618-6217 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.