A School Board Member Addresses PLCs

This story is Part One of a series concerning the Northfield School District’s controversial adoption of Professional Learning Communities, or PLCs. Professional Learning Communities, in which teachers meet outside of class to evaluate student learning through data, have met with significant disapproval from some parents and others in the school district. This series is meant to allow for greater transparency on the issue:  What are PLCs? What do they do? Why are many members of the community unhappy with their implementation? I will be providing responses to such questions from a number of individuals, including teachers, a district curriculum coordinator, a parent, an anti-PLC “activist,” and, this week, a school board member. Also please note that this topic has been widely posted about on local online forums, including the Northfield News website and Locally Grown Northfield. I encourage you to refer to these posts for more information. I also encourage readers to post their own thoughts, observations, and questions! 

 

A School Board Member Speaks

I spoke with school board clerk Ellen Iverson, who proved an eloquent spokesperson for those who support Professional Learning Communities. In the interest of transparency and full disclosure, I should note that Iverson is also a Northfield.org board member. Furthermore, Ms. Iverson noted that she had not yet been elected to the school board when the district initially began planning the implementation of PLCs. However, since her election to the school board, Iverson has been a strong supporter of the PLC method. Ms. Iverson began our interview with her general definition of PLCs, saying that “PLCs are a method for teachers to collaborate, but the ultimate goal is to improve student learning.” 

Iverson traced the history Professional Learning Communities in the district, noting that the early release/late start days started approximately three years ago. During these two-hour blocks, occurring every other month, the district began “piloting” PLC-style learning. The past January, Iverson said, “was when the proposal first started to do this on a weekly basis for one hour, rather than every other month for two hours.” Iverson said that having PLC time every other month was not a great enough frequency “to get traction.”

Iverson,  "not having been on the school board back then,” didn’t know exactly why the district started looking at PLCs. She did note that the idea of incorporating PLCs came at a time when there were various cuts in the district that led to larger class sizes. It was at this time, Iverson says, that the district “started thinking ‘how can we still be successful’ given larger class sizes?" Iverson said that PLCs are one way “to continue to provide better ways for students to learn,” in spite of larger student-to-teacher ratios.

Iverson also said that the implementation of Professional Learning Communities was part of a “national conversation,” and that federal mandates such as No Child Left Behind have “really changed how we teach, and what assessments we have to do.” It was in conjunction with this national dialogue that several school administrators attended a forum led by Richard DuFour, whose particular PLC model the district eventually adopted. 

 
Empirical Evidence
 
Iverson was adamant that there is “empirical evidence showing that it [PLCs] improve learning,” and she provided me with a printout of several detailed examples of Professional Learning Communities resulting in noticeable improvements.
 
Examples included the development of a new rubric for 5th grade classrooms at Sibley Elementary. The printout reads:
 
The 5th grade teachers at Sibley recognized during their PLC time that students needed clear expectations for writing assessments.  Through their PLC time teachers designed rubrics based on the district curriculum expectations... Students used these rubrics to guide their work and were evaluated using this same rubric. Student writing achievement has improved through this goal.
 
Another example stated:
 
The 2nd grade teachers at Sibley noticed the wide range of ability in math skills... Through our PLC time, we identified the essential skills, placed students into 3 leveled math groups, and added 1.5 hours of extra math time per week. Each month we identify the special math skill to address with enrichment, reinforcement and extra support.
 
Ms. Iverson, who is also the parent of both an 8th grader and a 5th grader in the district, said she herself has noticed definite changes based on PLC work. She noted that at a recent parent-teacher conference night, her son’s geography teacher was doing a wide variety of assessments and new activities, which the teacher explained were “all coming out of my PLC.”  Ms. Iverson also mentioned a friend who was impressed that her child’s teachers were now able to “tell her something specific" about her son using the information and data  they had.
 
For many students, Iverson suggested, PLCs might allow the development of teaching styles that more effectively address the needs of the individual student.  In one case, Iverson said, the PLC method helped teachers recognize that several students’ difficulties with biology had “less to do with the actual science” and more to do with the fact that these children were auditory, as opposed to visual learners. Professional Learning Communities, Iverson said, address more than just the fundamentals of reading and math, and instead, emphasize “whole child development,” even “motor skills,” and “pre-reading skills” particularly for younger children. The tests which are used as data in PLC evaluations, Iverson said, were just part of the curriculum: “Students don’t even think of it as a test. It’s embedded in their learning.”

 

“Student-Centered” Teaching

PLCs are equally beneficial for teachers, according to Iverson. She said the time set aside for PLCs is an opportunity for teachers to collaborate and learn from one another, “not in isolation, not in a vacuum.” Iverson noted that many parents have complained that teachers ought not to be working on things like PLCs during school hours. Yet Iverson said most parents are unaware that many teachers are already spending “a lot of time on their own” outside paid school hours. The PLC time, according to Iverson, is time set aside so that the teachers can collaborate after doing additional work on their own.
 
Prior to the implementation of PLCs, Iverson said, many teachers hadn’t learned the necessary skills to evaluate data based on student work. Now teachers in the district use a variety of data sets, some of which are based on standardized tests, and some of which are based on the teacher’s own tests and assessments, particularly for younger students, who don’t take many standardized tests. The school district also purchased software that allows teachers to incorporate their own “data and tests.” Using this software and the information acquired in PLCs, teachers can move towards what Iverson called “action research.” Action research involves evaluating data in order to best match the needs of the individual student, including challenging “those kids who are doing well.” Action research and collaboration, Iverson said, is “changing teachers’ practices to be student-centered.”

 

Greater Transparency and the Future of PLCs

Towards the end of our interview, I asked Ms. Iverson about the controversial online survey released by the school district shortly before the implementation of weekly PLC time. The school district released a survey which permitted only “close-ended responses.” The closed-ended format, Iverson thinks, was because the district wanted to provide a “way for people to respond anonymously. “ Those who had an additional response could email the district with their thoughts. The district administrators, Iverson said, had “really good intentions to get feedback, but the survey ended up turning people off... it made people really unhappy... the perception was that this was being shoved down people’s throats, but that wasn’t the intent.”

Iverson believes that a large part of the public dissatisfaction with the implementation of PLC time is attributable to a lack of transparency. She said she was surprised to find recently that many people still didn’t know what a Professional Learning Community was. “One of the big issues is that the district needs to be much more proactive” in letting parents know “how is it going to be measured? Why the weekly Wednesday late starts instead of a monthly late start?”  She says that in the near future, the school district will be providing newsletters and more information on their website.

Iverson says that providing empirical evidence may also be crucial in gaining public approval. One difficulty in providing empirical evidence of the PLCs’ success is that “the kids don’t take the MCAs [Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, standardized tests] until April or May,” although Iverson says she “wants to see some data earlier than that.” In the meantime, the district and parents will need to “rely on” individual teacher assessments as signifiers of improvement. She stated that “there are a variety of different ways to measure the success of PLCs, but the important thing is that there is a way to measure it.”

Although Iverson was glad that PLCs would provide an easier way to measure progress, and is likely to “improve test scores,” Iverson says she’s “more interested” in seeing “stronger connections across curriculum” and in how PLCs “impact our approach to learning.” Iverson believes that Professional Learning Communities will lead to “deeper learning and stronger connections” for students. She hopes to see students not only memorizing “math facts” but also understanding “key concepts.” “The dream,” Iverson concluded, would be having broader connections “across schools,” so that key concepts, particularly “reading and writing” skills and ways of thinking carry over from “elementary school to middle school to high school.”

 

Addendum: Four documents from the school district concerning PLCs are available here.  They are:

  1. Details of the 2009-10 School Calendar and Professional Learning Community Implementation. PDF.
  2. FAQs about PLCs (posted on the district website in the spring of 2009). PDF.
  3. Support for Professional Learning Communities in Northfield. PDF.
  4. The PLC Big Picture (adapted from the work of Richard DuFour, et al.).  Word Document.


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PLCs

Jane B McWilliams

Maia, Thanks for this comprehensive report. I look forward to future stories. You've filled in gaps created by my lack of holding onto information and by less in-depth reporting elsewhere.

Ellen's comment about the lack of transparency points out how hard it is to get the public's attention, in spite of the efforts of programs like this one. If you haven't already run across the Key Communicator Network the school district created last spring,  you may have missed two notices that office sent to people like me who are able to pass information on to others. I'll attach these so  you can see that the district in this medium at least, did a good job of explaining the PLC. Perhaps people like me dropped the ball in passing the info to others!

 

further info

Maia Rodriguez

 First of all, Jane, thank you for your comment.  I hope this article will prove informative for both proponents and opponents of PLCs.  I think greater transparency is pretty essential to reaching consensus on controversial issues. 

Also, for those who are interested, Ms. Iverson just sent me the name of the software which was purchased by the district for teachers' use.  It's called ViewPoint.  Check it out here

empirical evidence

Maia,

Thank you for your hard work.  You represented the interview with accuracy and thoroughness (and well written to boot).

In terms of empirical evidence, if readers are interested, the below journal article provides a nice literature review of empirical studies of professional learning communities and student learning:

Vicki Vescio, Dorene Ross, Alyson Adams, A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning, Teaching and Teacher Education, Volume 24, Issue 1, January 2008, Pages 80-91, ISSN 0742-051X, DOI: 10.1016/j.tate.2007.01.004.

Some older research but one of the authors is from the Advancement of Teaching and Learning department of the University of Minnesota :
Louis, Karen S. & Marks, Helen. Does Professional Community Affect the Classroom? Teacher’s Work and Student Experiences in Restructuring
School. American Journal of Education 106 (August 1998). 532-575.

Ellen

 

 

thanks for the extra info

Maia Rodriguez

 Ellen-

Thanks for so helpfully providing lots of info for interested individuals to peruse!

Oops!

Oops - I see that you already cited the two communications I got from the Key Communicator program. Sorry! 

As a someone who sent 4 kids through the Northfield school system and am grateful for the good things they got there, I am very glad that the district continues to invest in the professional enrichment of the teaching staff. Your articles and continued experience with the program will help develop support from people in the community who may be early critics. 

Jane B McWilliams

transparency

One aspect of the transparency problem involves making it easy for the public to find information about a program like PLC.  So where is the PLC page on the District's web site?  Where's a search box that would allow me to find the documents?

Maia and Jane, I notice that you don't link to those PLC documents on the District's site. You got them from someone and uploaded them here.  I'm not blaming you but it's really frustrating to not be able to find/link to important stuff like this. Sending around Word docs via email like the Key Communicator Network is a 1999-era strategy that does very little to get people talking, interacting to make sense of the content. It's the District's one-way, top-down method of communicating, like a classroom lecture where there's never an opportunity to discuss it.

Ellen, how can I easily find and link to what you and other school board members have written or said about the PLC's prior to Maia's excellent piece? This is another part of the transparency problem.

You had a blog to get elected but I see it's now gone.  Why? You write so well and being able to read your thinking about a problem would be so helpful and go a long way towards building trust with the community.

re: transparency

Maia Rodriguez

 Hi Griff-

 I agree with you on this one.  Overall, (despite Ellen's great interview) I have found it quite difficult to find online sources through the School District website about PLCs, and I also think it would be a trust-building activity to get that information online and easy to find!

Griff, District information

Griff,

District information on PLCs can be found on the Curriculum and Staff Development pages:

http://www2.nfld.k12.mn.us/education/components/scrapbook/default.php?sectiondetailid=30882&

I understand from Heather Ryden and Amy Moeller that the district will making this information easier to find with links from the main page.

I haven't ruled out blogging in the future -- just spending my hours toward board work in other ways at this time.

Ellen Iverson

New PLC page

Thanks, Ellen. I presume you prompted the creation of that PLC page? Google's Nov. 6 cache doesn't show it in the navigation sidebar.