Thursday, July 17, 2014

Joy and Pain in PLC-land

Oh, if only we could easily sort all education ideas into perfectly embraceable and easily rejectable. But it's rarely that simple; we have to use the Power of Actual Thinking to separate the usable from the risible.

Last week I spent two and a half days in the arms of PLC with colleagues from my school. Our administration is looking longingly at taking the PLC plunge and had shipped us to Seattle for some training. This was a triple-win for me-- I've been interested in learning more about Professional Learning Communities, I've always wanted to see Seattle, and my daughter and son-in-law live there. So I extended my stay and added family time to my education.

For you, reader, I'm here to answer this question:

What is the PLC stuff about, and is it one more reformy poop sandwich, or can it be useful for supporters of public education?

Those of you who have gone swimming in the PLC pool are welcome to chime in in the comments. I'll providing first impressions, which include the impression that the PLC journey goes in many different directions depending on your local choices.

A first-rate show

We have all sat through PD cobbled together by amateur-hour road show groups, organizations that thought they had something to sell but were intent on selling it as cheaply as possible. That is not Solution Tree. Solution Tree bills themselves as a publishing company, but they've mastered the business of corporate-style training. If you've never been inside Seattle's conference center, here's a shot of the main room we met in.
There were about 1400 attendees. At something over $600 a pop, this was not a low-budget affair. The use of media and tech was flawless and slick, and the speakers were all as polished as the brass on Air Force 1.

The business is headed up by Richard and Rebecca DuFour (and that's a bit more Dick than Becky on that top line) with a cadre of "faculty" at the "institute" who have a visible pecking order. Everybody is on point, starts and ends on time (well, starts, anyway) and nobody is fumbling around like they're not sure what happens next. All of the "faculty" are available pretty much all the time; they aren't lounging around like they have nothing to do, but if you want to talk to them or ask a question, all you have to do is walk up to them and open your mouth.

Little Red Flags

Since my virtual bread and imaginary butter here in bloggistan is made keeping a close eye on language, I was naturally alert for signs of reforminess in the DuFours' world. They were not hard to spot. The institute was bookended by the moral imperative of making schools better in order to save students from poverty. I'm not a fan, personally, but as I've explained elsewhere, I don't need to be.

PLC's are also very big on the whole tight-loose thing so beloved by thinky tanks like Fordham, and DuFour goes back often to research by Marzana, a name that conjures up plenty of angst for some folks.

On the Other Hand

The PLC concept goes back to 1998, so obviously pre-Common Core, and they have not made many concession to the kool-ade of the month. There were a couple of break-out sessions that addressed some CCSS concerns, but mostly it was rarely mentioned. When reformster ideas were addressed, it was usually by Richard DuFour himself. While Becky DuFour has a sweetish Southern Sissy Spacek thing going on, Chicagolander Richard has an interesting edge of sass and snark happening, and while mostly he was somewhere between avuncular and direct, that sass occasionally breaks out. I'm pretty sure that he let loose many zingers that sailed right over the crowd (I don't think I got them because of superior intellect, but because of my New Hampshire background).

DuFour referred to CCSS as curriculum, and pointedly observed that pushing down paper lists from above has not worked and is not working now. In response to a question about meshing PLCs with centralized planning and scripted lessons, DuFour was very direct.

"You don't. A scripted school is not a PLC and never will be." Such centralized control "might give the illusion of consistency," but it costs you the real expertise of your teachers. He also expressed disapproval of "draconian" reforms that base teacher evaluations on test results, then use those evaluations to drive hiring, firing and pay decisions.

Not a Koolaid Party

You know the type of PD that is really, really creepy. This "institute" had moments of that. A working-way-too-hard emcee. A contest to write a song about PLC stuff. Ending the institute calling up any audience members who wished to to join in the electric slide to "Celebrate." (Honestly, how anybody can stand to do a dance that doesn't come in 8-beat increments is beyond me).

But mostly, it was cool, calm, and professional. The presenters in the big sessions seemed acutely aware that it was just sit-and-listen in the audience, so they managed pace and elements of the presentation well, and while there was definitely an emotional element to what they presented, I never had the sense that they were trying to evoke a wash of emotions to drown my brain. Nobody at any point reminded me of an evangelist. The general tone was "This is really important, and you need to get it right, but to do that you need to understand it well."

So what is the idea of a Professional Learning Community exactly?

Here come the grotesque oversimplifications.

PLCs appear to be the education grandchildren of business-world work groups, particularly the interdependent ones. A group of teachers get together regular to set SMART goals (which take us all the way back to Management By Objectives, which also spawned an educational offspring) and then collect data to determine if they're meeting the goals. "Collect data" in PLC-land means "give teacher-designed common formative performance-based assessments."

Once that data is gathered, the PLC members get crunching and determine which teachers seem to know the secret to teaching the targeted skill, and if they can bottle that for everybody else, or take the remedial group, or however they choose to manage their stragglers.

There are assumptions about which the PLC folks are "tight."

All children can learn at high levels.

All teachers must play. Collaboration by invitation is an automatic fail.

Focus must be on what students are learning, not what teachers are teaching.

Decisions must be based on local data, local decisions. No teaching out of the book.

Deja Vu All Over Again

If you are of a certain age (say, mine), you begin to suspect that Richard DuFour figured out how to synthesize many of the major education Next Big Things of the last thirty years. What makes it interesting is that it includes the parts that directly conflict with the current reformster movement. The DuFours are leading a large, successful educational movement that flies in the face of the push for centrally controlled, teacher-crushing corporate reform of the last decade-- and they're doing it right in plain sight.

Weaknesses? The Cultural Challenges of PLCs.

There are some aspects of the PLC approach that are either built-in bugs or vulnerabilities.

* Culture before structure. Solution Tree recognizes that successful implementation requires a particular culture in the school. Your school may or may not be able to pull that off.

* The Solution Tree folks are very careful to say that if Teacher A's students have mostly succeeded on the unit and Teacher B's students have not, we don't say Teacher B has failed, but that Teacher A just has the successful technique that Teacher B needs to borrow. While I can buy that to a limited extent, it runs the risk of reducing teachers to widgets. Many of my colleagues use techniques that I cannot because we are different human beings who establish different sorts of relationships with our students. We can certainly learn and share with each other, but teachers are not just interchangeable mannequins who can have different teacher clothes strapped on to change our effect.

* Every teacher empowerment team-committee-group-department work always comes down to the same thing-- administrative support. Will they provide the time and resources necessary (PLCs require a good chunk of in-school time regularly)? Will they have a pre-determined conclusion that the group is supposed to reach (in which case, we're wasting everyone's time)?

* Sharing the kids. The sessions returned repeatedly to the idea that teachers must not work in isolation, and that everybody shares responsibility for all the kids-- no more "my kids" and "your kids," but only "our kids." This puts PLCs on a collision course with current reformster trends, which say that "my kids" are "my kids" and also "the kids who will determine whether I get to keep my job." Will a teacher in a district facing evaluation-based layoffs be ready to help his next-door neighbors raise scores and thereby damage his own employment security? PLCs are all about collaboration, but reformsters think we all need more intra-teacher competition.

So, Good Idea or Not So Much

I like structures that are locally directed and teacher driven, and PLCs done right appear to be both. Lots of folks appear to be using the program with success. The Solution Tree folks say frankly that many schools are half-assing PLCs and kidding themselves, but the clear implication in those discussions ("that's their problem") is oddly encouraging.

It remains to be seen how this will play out in my own district, but if you are in a district that is considering PLCs, it's probably not necessary to put on your bomb suit and head for your bunker. You'll need to run what you hear through the filter of your own professional judgment (which you should always be doing anyway), but at a bare minimum, PLC materials are a challenge to think about what you do as a teacher and why you do it and how you could do it better.


7 comments:

  1. While working as a union rep, I saw many schools in which PLCs were top-down, management driven. I know some teachers in those schools got something positive out of the process, but many did not because it was perceived as just another "flavor of the month" soon to discarded in favor of something else.

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    1. Yes. It seems clear to me that the model only works if it's teacher-driven. The DuFours said as much themselves-- top-down doesn't work.

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  2. Ersatz reform has given us all plenty to hate and reason to be suspicious, but we must offer a workable alternative rather than just saying “no.” The incontrovertible fact is that some teachers, schools, and districts are not performing nearly as well as they should. Denial of that is a huge stumbling block to getting better.

    PLCs offer a way to continuously develop the professionalism of teachers, collaboratively and with mutual respect. If only YOUR students do poorly on an assessment you have helped to create for a shared grade and subject, then you have to ask yourself what you are doing wrong or the other teachers are doing right. That is a very good thing for all. Guidance and coaching from those who have better results is a great model for PD.

    Importantly, experience shows that this approach to continuous improvement really WORKS — and nothing is better for teacher morale than success. It also CANNOT work where foolish evaluation schemes pit teachers against one another, instead of fostering collaboration. So, this is truly anti-reformy.

    My district did this poorly the first time, when a lot of money was invested in paid time for PLC interaction — and was largely wasted because of inadequate training and attention given to creating new norms and school culture. Expectations were unclear, and there was little accountability to use that time wisely.

    Now, in our second iteration, we are too broke for that. Instead, much of the time formerly wasted on housekeeping in faculty meetings has been offloaded to memos, and the union agreed to some modest use of prep time, while the district pays for some modest release time for all-school, cross-grade meetings. Being treated like true professionals is refreshing to nearly all staff (and a few decided, instead, that it was time to retire).
    [And, yes, Seattle is LOVELY, as I found on my Educating Gates rally visit.]

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  4. ...or maybe Teacher B has the class with three new entrants or 6 ELL kids. Or had to teach in the trailer with no air conditioning. Or...well, fill in the blank.

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    1. Yes, the data crunching piece is another weak area in the model. But once again the critical difference between this model and most all others is that the accountability is local. In other words, Teachers A and B can look at each other in the PLC meeting and say, "Well, this difference here is explained by those particular students in Teacher B's class" and that's the end of it (given good administrators).

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