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I’ve played at this teaching game for 11 years now. For more than a decade, something called Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) has dominated the way teachers interact with one another.

It works like this:

Once a week, school administration requires that a group of teachers (typically of the same department or “house”) meet for a set period of time and presumably discuss student performance and data in order to inform their instructional strategies.

Except it doesn’t work.

It REALLY goes like this:

School administrators require that a group of teachers meet either at the beginning or the end of a school day. While approximately an hour is scheduled, teachers saunter in and out, arriving late and/or leaving early. 25% of the PLC is bitching and moaning about everything that’s pissed them off since the last PLC meeting. Another 25% is devoted to housekeeping matters that the administration has forced them to talk about (testing locations, Back to School night protocols, etc.). Add 25% to departmental business (textbooks, upcoming conferences, etc.), and that leaves about 25% to possibly work with colleagues on common assessments.

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Let’s break this boondoggle down:

  • 1 hour isn’t enough time to take a satisfying shit and shower, let alone conduct the type of work that the administration (and the nation) demands of teachers. “Oh, but sir, what about all of those days off that districts reserve for professional development?” Those days are reserved for what the district deems to be important. Bring in a guest speaker! Spend 5 hours working on district committee work! Oh, but they’ll give the teachers 90 minutes at the end of the day to work in teams on PLC assessments, data, lesson planning, etc. Pardon. All the while, the district boasts that WE DO PROFESSIONAL LEARNING COMMUNITIES!! Uh, when? Throw a bunch of people in a room for an hour with huge objectives to solve student achievement woes, and what do you get? A bunch of pissed off people who realize they can’t solve anything in an hour and just want to leave.
  • Teachers are not created equal. They have different values. They have different styles. So when it comes time to actually establish something in common, you’d have more luck breeding a dog with a cat than producing fruitful discussions.
  • A common complaint among teachers is that they don’t have enough time for anything: lesson planning, grading, you name it. So to be mandated to collaborate means that teachers often resent having to meet — even with colleagues they like. Research shows that when leaders “mandate” collaboration, the quality of that collaboration goes down. Collaboration must be authentic and teacher-driven. How you do this within the confines of the school day and year is quite the conundrum.
  • Teachers look at data so much but don’t know what to do with it. PLCs were created primarily to transform the profession into a research-based practice that allows teachers to solve problems based on real data. Here’s the problem: The data teachers are looking at is meaningless. What good is it to look at ACT scores when the exam is created in a way so that students are not all supposed to achieve mastery? They are purposely supposed to be spread out over a scale of 1 to 36 — to separate the geniuses from the idiots. It’s a ranking tool. It is not something teachers can, or should, be teaching students to master — at least not during the school day. I’ve made quite a bit of money tutoring students on ACT strategies, but that’s been outside of my contract time and for the sole purpose of “beating a test” rather than teaching them any meaningful skills about college, career, or life. Teachers also look at attendance stats, tardies, numbers of D’s and F’s, PSAT, SAT, state assessments, formative assessments. Anyone in the business world knows that it takes months or more to unpack what data is suggesting. So when schools hand teachers a truckload of data, the task is so overwhelming that all they do is look at it and then move on with what they’re doing. Oh, and did I mention that they’re supposed to do this all in one hour a week?

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And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It doesn’t include the influence the community, politics, media, parents, and state budgets all have on setting the talking points for teacher PLCs.

I’ve worked in several schools, all of which employed the PLC model. None of those schools did it well, but not to the fault of teachers or department leaders. The system is so flawed structurally (time, purpose, parity among teachers, administrative goals) that the PLC model most likely will not work unless control of the PLC is turned over to teachers and not policy makers (something my dissertation proved to be true.)

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