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Professional Learning Communities and the Holy Roman Empire

I had a history teacher who loved to say that the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, Roman, nor an Empire. Catchy. As I learned majoring in history in undergraduate school, it's also wrong. In education we never let a catchy phrase be diminished by the fact that it's inaccurate.

I wonder if it is accurate to say that professional learning communities are neither professional, places where people learn, nor communities?

I am not sure how professional it is to have to mandate that a group of people meet formally to improve their practice. Also, I am not sure how professional it is to have the purposes for those meetings determined by people outside of the group. Without entering into a debate about whether public school teaching is a profession, I am wondering if there are other professional groups that have to record the proceedings of their meetings and that are told when to meet and for how long. Finally, I am not certain about how much time is spent in professional conversation. If the profession of those involved is teaching, that should be the main topic of the meeting. Instead it feels like the meetings I attend, or am told about by clients, are about achievement data and what band-aids can be applied to get the struggling student through the statewide test. In short, it feels like the PLC meetings I am aware of produce fabulous answers--to the wrong question.

In terms of learning, I am not sure it is possible to learn something you already know. If the meetings are intended to achieve consensus around a strategy that has already been selected, I am not sure if learning can be the outcome. Talking about what I have learned since my last meeting somehow seems esoteric and inappropriate for many of the meetings of the PLCs I have attended.

Community? I am not actually certain about that one. Mostly because I am not sure what community is supposed to mean. If by community we mean a group that owes responsibility to one another, maybe I have seen that. If we mean teachers that come together and share meaningful conversation around the practice of teaching, I've seen that. Funny thing is, though, I have never seen these things in the context of a formal PLC meeting.

Lately I have been posting a bunch of things that read like a laundry list of complaints. This is not one of them. Borrowing from the "rules" of Harrison Owen's Open Space Technology, whoever comes is the right people, what ever happens is the only thing that could have happened, and when its over its over.

Bottom line, I think professional learning communities are the silver bullet of educational transformation, I hope that teachers take whatever opportunity is available to meet with colleagues and build solid relationships, with teaching at the core.

Professional? Learning? Community? Who cares, just talk to one another.


The Most Common Mistake

My list of school improvement efforts (and eventual failures) is long, but distinguished. As a teacher I have served on every possible committee, including a committee established to determine whether we needed a committee. As an administrator I have led school improvement initiatives ranging from complete facilities renovation to implementation of block scheduling.

Like many of you, I have had successes and failures. When I consider all of the attempts, one thing that stood out among all of them was the search for success--we never went on one.

We anticipated success, we had a clearly defined vision of success (complete with benchmarks), and we waited for the successes to happen. But we never searched for success.

In school reform and improvement, success often happens when you are not expecting it and in ways that you have not identified. If you are not constantly looking for successes, you probably will miss them.

We were too busy to talk about what was going well--we needed to spend our time putting out the fires. It felt awkward to talk about things that were working--many of us felt as though we would lose our teacher's lounge privileges if colleagues heard us talking about how well things were going. Finally, I don't think we had the skills to identify success. We had tons of professional development about how to diagnose problems and craft responses to them. Never did any of us receive instruction about how to identify success.

I am in the professional development business (kind of) and I cannot think of a more difficult task than getting participants to attend a Success Locating Seminar.

The logic is pretty clear, we have time and energy to try to fix what is wrong, but talking about how to sustain what is really working is given a low priority.


The Five Most Important Questions to Ask a Teacher

Famous management author Peter Drucker wrote a book called The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization. In this book Drucker edits chapters by some of the most important management thinkers, including Jim Collins, Frances Hesselbein, and John Kotter. The result is a simple, yet extremely difficult set of questions that people can ask about their organizations. The questions are simply stated and direct. They are also very difficult to answer. Based upon the the book mentioned above, I have developed five questions that should be asked of any classroom teacher.

Question 1: What is your core business?

Of course, the obvious response would most likely be, TEACHING. Think about it for a minute. If you are reading this blog chances are that you have a close connection to the education profession. That said, really think about it. Can you define teaching? How a teacher defines their practice depends quite a bit on how they define teaching. Rick and Becky DuFour have written Whatever it Takes, a book about professional learning communities. In this book they have a section that they call "What Kind of School is This." They describe four different schools within a two-by-two matrix that places expectations and support on opposite axes. The result is four distinct views of school:

The Pontius Pilate School, where teachers present the subject and wash their hands of the outcome. If students want to learn, they will progress, if they don't it won't because the teacher didn't do their job.

The Charles Darwin School, where achievement is governed by innate ability. Those students who achieve are those that have the raw ability. Those who achieve at a lesser rate probably have reached the limits of their ability.

The Chicago Cubs Fan School, where teachers believe that everyone can learn, at least a little. This school operates on the notion that nurturing the students' self esteem is the most important work of the school.

The Henry Higgins School, where the staff believe that all students can achieve at high levels and the teachers are expected to cajole, push, support, and work side-by-side with the students.

While I don't contend that this is the only way to think about the core business of the classroom, it is a workable model from which to proceed. I maintain that teachers ought to be asked this question and that we ought to wait for an answer.

Question 2: What is it that you want your students to know and be able to do?

Once again, this is not a dumb question. Hopefully a teacher can go deeper than passage rates on standardized tests. Ideally teachers have a clear picture of what a successful student looks like. They would be able to describe work that is exemplary and would know exactly where any student's work falls on a continuum leading to exemplary quality.

When a teacher can clearly define what success means, they can also determine what students need to do in order to attain it.

Question 3: Who are your students?

Time and again, when I hear a teacher say, "That won't work with these kids." I am tempted to reply, "When you say these kids, what do you mean?" How well do teachers really know their students? Is it even possible to know your students? Think about it, not an easy question to answer.

Question 4: What are your results?

Standardized test results represent one important measure of student outcomes, but only one measure. My guess is that when a parent sends their child to school each day, they are thinking more than, "I hope my kid masters all of the grade level indicators today." Included in this question are things like:

  • Are the students better off today than they were in August?
  • Are they the kind of people I would like them to be?
  • Have I served them well?

Again, I am not completely convinced that every teacher must answer these questions. Looking back to my time in the classroom, I know I cannot answer all of them. I would feel a little bit better if I knew that my daughter's teacher asked those questions of herself often.

Question 5: What is your plan?

I am not sure that I have ever met a teacher that could answer all of the questions above. I don't think that a teacher's ability to answer them all even makes that teacher superior. I think that this question is key in that it requires reflection about the previous four questions. Based the answers to those questions, a course of action should present itself.


Skill or Will?

Being a lifelong possessor of minority opinions in my household, I have entered the fray many times on the topic of socialized medicine. This is not a blog about politics but I think that there are some interesting parallels between the discussion of universal healthcare and public education, specifically the goal of successfully educating ALL students.

I first began considering the possibility of ensuring that all Americans could have access to quality medical care regardless of their ability to pay for it when I was an undergraduate student in the mid-1980's. At that point the question was moot on several fronts. The main factor that made the debate purely academic was that I did not, at that time, believe that we could make the health care guarantee even if we wanted to. That is to say, even if we had the WILL to do it, we lacked the technical ability, or SKILL, to carry it out.

I confess ignorance in the realm of health care, but my sense is that we have progressed rapidly in our ability to share information quickly across great distances, store records and information in ways that are accessible anywhere in the world, and to communicate directly to people who in the past existed "off the grid." The point is, I don't think this question is academic anymore. We now have the SKILL, but lack the WILL.

Despite the claims of public school mission statements, we do not educate ALL children. In the past we seemed to have accepted the fact that there is a "margin of error" or "cost of doing business" that would always be present and would account for the fact that despite our best efforts, some students would fail.

Noted education consultant Carole Helstrom said that "the question is not WHETHER we can successfully educate all children, but rather how we feel about the fact that we haven't thus far."

Like health care, I believe that we have the SKILL to ensure 100% success in education, I think we lack the WILL.


Marching Bands or Soccer Teams?

In his book Strengthening the Heartbeat, Tom Sergiovanni draws a parallel between schools that function as marching bands and schools that function as soccer teams. He makes his comments in reference to thinking about schools as a community. In this post I am taking his ideas and applying them to something that most schools say they aspire to--professional learning communities.

Marching bands are judged by their ability to make uniform movements. In order to be a successful, a marching band must depend on every member doing what he/she is supposed to do, when they are supposed to do it. There can be no creativity. There is no option for "making decisions on the fly." Success is never measured by outstanding performances of individual members.

Soccer teams, on the other hand, are judged by their ability to achieve a common objective: scoring goals while at the same time preventing the opposing team from scoring goals. Winning soccer teams do this by depending on the fact that players, aware of the objective, will make individual decisions to further the team's chances. Soccer teams depend on individual members' ability to make independent decisions (pass the ball, keep the ball, shoot the ball).

I argue that schools are increasingly aiming toward functioning as marching bands. Common assessments serve as one piece of evidence for my assertion. If teachers are to give students across a grade level or subject one common instrument to measure mastery, it follows that common instruction will be the vehicle most likely to produce the desired results. I honestly have no problem with this, provided the assessments are created collaboratively and there is consensus around the fact that the assessment is a reliable and valid predictor of mastery.

Where I have a problem is that the marching band schools also sing the praises of professional learning communities. The goal of these groups is to consider results in light of practice and make the alterations necessary for continuous improvement. For me, this is where the system breaks down. To stick with the marching band example, the trombone section, is probably going to be discouraged from meeting as a professional learning community and deciding upon how to adjust their piece of the performance. While claiming to operate as professional learning communities, marching band schools work against those very principles by requiring compliance and judging success by uniform action, not individual greatness.

To me, this goes beyond being an issue of semantics. I truly believe that the success of public schools depends upon our ability to function as professional learning communities. Marching band schools do a disservice to that notion by stressing uniformity over individual practice, implementation over experimentation, and delivery of instruction over student outcomes.