PLCs: The Curriculum and Staff Development Department Speaks

In this series about PLCs, I’ve attempted to include responses from a variety of individuals, including parents, teachers, and school board members.  This article is based on an email correspondence from last term with Amy Moeller and Heather Ryden, Curriculum and Staff Development Coordinators for the school district.  Moeller and Ryden’s department oversees the district curriculum from kindergarten through high school, and is also responsible for researching and implementing new “staff development” programs, including PLCs.

How Are Teachers Benefiting?

I first asked Moeller and Ryden how PLC time is spent.  Like teacher Darrell Sawyer, Ryden and Moeller said that Professional Learning Communities are comprised of groups of teachers who teach similar content or age groups.  These groups analyze student data, “promptly identify student needs” and “make changes in their practice to better meet the needs of all students.  Moeller and Ryden also provided me with a set of five “critical questions of learning” that teachers are expected to ask one another in order for PLC time to be most effective.  The five questions appear below:

  1. What knowledge, skills, and dispositions do we expect our students to learn?
  2. How will we know our students have acquired these essential learnings?
  3. How will we respond, individually and collectively, when our students have difficulty learning?
  4. How will we enrich and extend the learning for students who are capable of moving further?
  5. How can we use the evidence of student learning to inform and improve our practice?

While middle school geography teacher Darrell Sawyer seemed to express mixed feelings about the use of PLC time, Moeller and Ryden wrote to me enthusiastically of the ways PLCs have been “immensely helpful to teachers and administrators as they work to meet the needs of all students.”

PLC time, according to Moeller and Ryden, has given teachers valuable new opportunities to collaborate, and said that while there is a historical precedent of teachers working “in isolation,” there is “compelling evidence that collaboration represents best practice in education.”  Furthermore, teachers have been introduced to new modes of analysis to address student needs, including creating “formative assessments” which are used to “inform instruction.”  Teachers under the PLC system are encouraged to seek out “best practice through professional reading, additional training, and collaboration with colleagues.”  PLCs, Moeller and Ryden believe, will result in the development of strategies to both aid students experiencing difficulties and to challenge students “who need to be stretched further.”  In doing so, they will be “developing and pursuing results-oriented goals that are specifically linked to school and district goals,” which teachers will work on “interdependently” and also be “mutually accountable” for achieving.  

Moeller and Ryden also emphasized use of the “Continuous Feedback Loop,” a theoretical model frequently employed in business in which participating individuals (in this case, teachers) evaluate data, develop new strategies in order to improve results, implement these new strategies, and then assess the results of new methods.  Based on these results, teachers can then modify existing methods or strategies to ensure a continually improving method.  These steps of continual analysis, readjustment, and development are labeled the “PLAN,” “DO,” “CHECK,” and “ACT” stages.  A brief summary of these steps, as written by Moeller and Ryden, appears below:

PLAN:  Design processes to improve results. 

DO:  Implement the plan and measure its performance.

CHECK:  Analyze, assess and report on the results.

ACT:  Decide what changes must be made to improve the process and adjust accordingly.

Teachers had also overall responded positively to the PLC process, Moeller wrote.  It has been at times an “arduous” process for teachers in which the “learning curve is steep, and teachers learn new concepts and embrace change at different rates.”  The teachers’ ability to work with and “embrace” the PLC model, Moeller wrote, is a “testament to their professionalism and dedication to doing what is best for students.”

Parents' Responses

As I did with teacher Darrell Sawyer, I asked Moeller and Ryden to comment on the responses they had received from parents in the school district.  Moeller and Ryden wrote that they had received “extremely positive responses from parents.”  However, they did acknowledge some parents’ concern about the loss of instructional time in order to make time for PLC meetings.  Moeller wrote, “while we understand parents are looking out for their children’s best interests and we respect and honor that, we truly believe that the benefits of PLC time will outweigh the loss of instructional time.”  Moeller and Ryden spoke of their “professional responsibility” to make changes which ensure “high levels of learning for all students,” but said they must “continue to listen to feedback from parents and address their concerns and make changes where necessary."

Best Method?

Although Moeller and Ryden were overwhelmingly enthusiastic for the possibilities of PLCs, I was curious to learn if they felt there might be other equally or more effective methods or student and teacher improvement.  Moeller and Ryden asserted that staff development programs are highly effective in enhancing student achievement, and that of these programs, “there is abundant evidence” that PLCs are the most effective.  While Moeller wrote that “one would be hard-pressed to find any evidence” suggesting that PLCs are less than effective, she acknowledged that “the PLC process is not linear; there is no step-by-step formula to follow.  We will never be ‘done’ implementing PLC concepts; rather, it is an on-going process and we will always be learning along the way and problem solving when we hit bumps in the road.”  Changing “the culture of a school” is a process which occurs incrementally, Moeller and Ryden wrote, and is one that “requires patience and perseverance.”

Finally, I asked Ryden and Moeller to reflect on whether PLCs, despite obstacles or some new challenges, have been an overall positive change for the school district.  Not only was their answer an unequivocal yes, but they seemed to feel that given the new challenges of education, Professional Learning Communities were a necessary and vital educational change, one that is “not a fad or a program,” but “a way of doing business, day in and day out.”  Moeller cited educational researcher and author Mike Schmoker, who has apparently asserted that “in the future, the absence of PLCs in schools will be an ‘embarassment.’”  Ultimately, Moeller wrote, “we know that we cannot keep doing what we’ve always done and expect better results. We live in an age of increased accountability and expectations, and we continue to welcome students with more and more diverse needs. We would be remiss if we didn’t take progressive and proactive steps to implement research-based strategies to fully support the children in our care.” Given the challenges of a new set of ideals in education, Moeller and Ryden believe that “the PLC process provides us with the means to address this new challenge.”