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Posted: April 23, 2011 7:09 p.m.

Mathews: Professional Learning Communities needed

If change were the criteria for judging school improvement, many school systems would be way down the road towards greater student learning. And, while "first order change" (an extension of the past consistent with existing knowledge and skills) is hardly the same as "second order change" (a break from the past requiring new knowledge and skills), both types are at work in Newton County School System as we seek continuous improvement.

One change we are seeking is that of support for Professional Learning Communities (PLCs).

PLCs consist of teams of teachers within a school who collaborate. They "test" their current lesson plans, instructional strategies, assessments, and student achievement results through ongoing discussions.

Our Board of Education has provided some time for these discussions through six additional early release days in the coming school year. Yet, there never seems to be enough time. It's like we've built the house without a front porch for these conversations.

But, why provide the additional time for teachers to "test" their work against current realities in their respective schools? The answer is to be found from breaking down the "buffer" that isolates teachers from checking their individual practices against those of their colleagues. As with our students, adults learn from each other.

The "buffer" is precisely what prevents us from getting to the tough work of improving student learning. It consists of non-interference, privacy and harmony, with every teacher an island and every island a lonely place.

Mike Schmoker says in ‘Results Now', "We have struck a strange bargain: If you sit through our workshops, we promise not to make any real claims on your time or practice. We'll allow you to work alone while assuming (wrongly) that our programs and training are having a positive impact on practice, despite the lack of team-based efforts to implement and adjust practice on the basis of assessment results." To correct this isolation, administrators and citizenry must take responsibility for the message this lack of feedback sends to teachers: that teaching, the soul of their chosen profession, doesn't matter much.

Professional Learning Communities accomplish the following adult understandings with respect to "effective schools" if done as the research intends:
- A shared mission, vision, values and goals
- Collaborative teams with a collaborative culture
- A collective inquiry to reflect consistently on what is and is not working
- A focus on action steps for improvement rather than good intentions
- Commitment to continuous improvement and assessing progress
- A focus on results recognizing that student success is measurable
- Staff members regularly ask and find answers to four key questions: (1) What do we expect students to learn? (2) How do we best engage them in that learning? (3) How do we know if they've learned what we expect? (4) How do we respond to those who didn't learn and enhance the learning of those who did?

So, what are some of the tools we must employ in order to make PLCs a potent and real tool for improving student learning? Among them are these: A time and place to meet; a protocol for meeting (e.g., back tracking from results to assessments to instructional strategies to lesson plans in light of the four key questions herein); an accountability piece for verifying the collaboration (e.g., team minutes); support and participation of the principal; a provision of leadership and research-based tools from the central office and board (e.g., actionable vision/mission/goals, lesson plan templates, benchmark assessments, mutual conversations about student learning).

Can we actually achieve greater student learning in our schools?

Not until we recognize that change can only really come about when there is a deliberate process of improvement. Such improvement is checked against clearly specified instructional goals (or key questions) by those who are doing the main work of the classroom.

Dr. Gary Mathews is superintendent of the Newton County School Sylstem. He can be reached at mathews.gary@newton.k12.ga.us.

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