How does the worst performing school in the district – one with high poverty rates, high student transfer rates, and the largest number of ESL learners – transform itself into a school which exceeds district, state, and national averages?
How did Westside Elementary School in Springville, Utah improve across the board, even pulling significant increases in language arts and math scores among those students with limited English proficiency?
The answer: great teachers, willing students, and Professional Learning Communities in education (PLCs). PLCs are structured teams of teachers who are working together to identify strengths and weaknesses and find solutions for issues in the classroom. Dr. Richard DuFour, author of Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work: New Insights for Improving Schools
• What is it that students need to learn?
• How will we know if students are learning?
• What will happen when students do not learn?
The minutia that eats up traditional meetings is not dealt with in Professional Learning Communities in education. Instead, teachers focus on these three questions and build solutions together. A report from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University found that PLCs increased content knowledge, boosted morale and job satisfaction, led to higher teacher retention, improvements that lead to decreased absenteeism, and bigger academic gains for students. The report concludes:
These Professional Learning Communities provide opportunities for adults across a school system to learn and think together about how to improve their practice in ways that lead to improved student achievement. This kind of collaboration is rarely found in more traditional types of professional development or in common staff meeting time.
Professional Learning Communities in education work best when they are teacher-driven and when teachers are given the time they need to meet with each other. With clear guidelines and sense of purpose, Professional Learning Communities improve the quality of instruction and directly impact student success.
PLCs also address another big issue in the teaching community: teacher attrition. According to a 2006 study by Strizek, Pittsonberger, Riordan, Lyter, and Orlofsky, an average of 1,000 teachers quit each school day, and an additional 1,000 move to different schools. One-third of new teachers leave during their first three years, and by five years, half have left the profession. Director of Communications for the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, Karen Abercrombie, feels a lot of this is due to the isolation teachers feel from their colleagues. She says, “That can be draining. They should feel supported and be able to bounce ideas off each other.” Professional Learning Communities in education give new teachers as well as veterans invaluable support.
Administrators at Westside Elementary credit PLCs and the wonderful work of the teachers with creating a positive environment for both staff and students. Says Principal Susan Huff, “There is a tangible positive feeling tone at our school. High expectations for students and staff are apparent. It is a great place for kids!”