Study identifies habits of highly effective professional learning communities

iStock_000001519996SmallWhat are the habits of highly effective professional learning communities (PLCs)? What do PLCs need to do to go beyond providing professional development for teachers and directly impact student learning?

Based on a 5-year study recently published in the American Educational Research Journal, effective PLCs have consistent meeting times, schoolwide instructional leadership and explicit protocols that focus their meeting time on students’ academic needs and how to meet them. The study found that principals need significant support focused on student academic needs to be effective in their roles as instructional leaders.

“Time for collaboration by itself, even when administratively supported, is unlikely to improve achievement unless additional conditions are in place that structure its use.

“The approach tested in this study rested on the prosaic observation that students’ academic needs and how to instructionally address them are seldom discussed in the settings common in American schools: grade-level, department, and faculty meetings,” the researchers write. “This study provides some evidence that providing teachers with structural opportunities and skills to more often and consistently focus on improving classroom instruction and student learning might produce significant achievement gains.”

A lack of focus on curriculum and instruction during meeting times is the likely reason that previous research has failed to establish a clear relationship between student achievement and teacher reports of collaboration, the researchers write.

First evidence of PLC impact

The 5-year study of 9 Title I elementary schools was conducted in a large urban district in Southern California. A group of 6 elementary schools served as the comparison group in this quasi-experimental study. Altogether, the 15 schools served nearly 14,000 students, 73% of whom were English Language Learners (ELLs). The 9 experimental schools were called the “Getting Results” schools in the study.

The researchers report that their study may be the first to show real evidence of PLCs’ impact on learning. After seeing little impact on student achievement in the first 2 years of the study, researchers made changes in the way they provided support to principals. Over the next 3 years, the researchers saw greater student achievement growth on state-mandated tests compared with the comparison schools.

Instructional Leadership Teams (ILTs) were formed at each school and consisted of at least one representative from each grade level, the principal and other appropriate school administrators, coaches or coordinators. The ILTs met monthly for about 2 hours and served the following functions:

  • Led the process of transforming academic standards into instructional goals
  • Identified assessments and indicators to assess goals
  • Evaluated schoolwide achievement and determined next action steps
  • Identified instructional challenges and provided assistance in professional development experiences or specialists
  • Aligned professional development with instructional challenges
  • Led, facilitated and planned weekly or bimonthly grade-level team meetings.
  • Grade-level meetings were held 2-3 times per month for approximately 45-50 minutes and were facilitated by the ILT’s grade-level representative. The goals of the meetings were to focus on continuing student academic needs identified by the principal and the school ILT, such as specific areas of literacy need identified by high-stakes, periodic and teacher assessments. The meetings took place during the school day with each grade-level meeting scheduled for a different day of the week. A physical education instructor was available for student supervision. During these meetings, the principal and the grade-level representative and team members were to:
  • collaborate to develop instruction to address student academic needs
  • check indicators of progress or revise instruction as necessary
  • choose another academic need once the first goal was met.

In the first 2 years of the study, building principals were trained to lead grade-level teams and ILTs. But researchers report that despite training efforts, principal instructional leadership resulted in minimal implementation or impact of any kind.

  • “Competing demands for their time and attention were typically cited as reasons for the lack of progress in implementation,” the researchers write. “Principals expressed uncertainty about the content or structure of ILT meetings and how they should lead or guide ILT representatives, who were in turn expected to lead their colleagues at grade-level team meetings.”Researchers became more involved in providing support to principals, according to the study. The support was focused more on sharing the progress of ILTs and grade-level teams and the strategies being used across schools. Project advisors met monthly with each principal to set school-specific goals, analyze and interpret achievement data and brief them on reform efforts across the schools.Principals also attended a 2.5-day summer institute and 1-day winter institute that provided selective training on issues that had arisen at individual schools. Principals were trained in the definition and theory of action for grade-level learning teams and in the use of a published manual of protocols for administrators and instructional leaders, the researchers write.The manual included the following steps for ILTs when addressing common student needs:
    • Identify specific common student needs
    • Formulate a clear objective and analyze related student work
    • Identify and adopt a promising instructional focus to address the need
    • Make necessary plans to try instructional focus into the classroom
    • Test the team’s instructional focus in the classroom
    • Analyze student work to see if the objec- tive is being met and evaluate the instruction
    • Reassess: Continue and repeat cycle or move to another area of need.

    In summary, researchers write, the ILTs at “Getting Results” schools placed more focus in meetings on student academics, systematic and joint planning, the purposeful use of assessment data and had agreements to implement and evaluate goal-directed instruction. Meetings were more focused on the relations between instruction and student outcomes and working on instructional improvements.

    At comparison schools, meetings were more loosely structured and dominated by governance issues. Meetings were also more likely to be canceled, curtailed or rescheduled at the last moment.

    “Increasing Achievement by Focusing Grade-Level Teams on Improving Classroom Learning: A Prospective, Quasi-Experimental Study of Title I Schools,” by William Saunders et al., American Educational Research Journal, December 2009, Volume 46, Number 4, pps. 1006-1033.


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