Professional Learning Communities – Focusing on the Greater Good

Professional Learning Communities  (PLCs) are commonly found in schools. I have encountered them in the various schools I’ve worked at or visited, but how many of these PLCs are truly effective? Reading Baccellieri (2010) brought to mind many ineffective practices I’ve seen and am currently experiencing in my own school.

“Concentrating on what matters most creates a professional learning community, not just a learning community” (Baccellieri, 2010, p. 18).

What I’ve experienced in my school is isolation. Baccellieri (2010) routinely mentions this isolation, this tendency to shut our door and do our own thing, as a detriment to the learning outcomes of students. Yet, this is what I work in. It may not be across all grade levels, but I wouldn’t know that because even at the grade level, we go to our hallway and teach our own way. The desire exists to become more collaborative, to have an effective progression of outcomes and expectations, and effort has been put forth to obtain this ideal, but it continuously ends in failure or lack of acceptance.

Fisher and Frey (2010) shared that teachers need to look at their core instruction if they want to see improvements in student data. Baccellieri (2010) states the same concept, but adds that we must also look at the school’s instructional practices as a whole, not just in our own classroom. The framework for improvement begins with investing time in data and teaching methods. Going back to Boudett, City, and Murname’s (2013) model, a cyclical approach to improving data must be taken, beginning with identifying areas for improvement and focus areas. Starting from the bottom up is a common thread with the researchers. Baccellieri (2010) lays out the process for establishing effective practices in using data and PLCs, including cross-grade level collaboration to identify benchmarks and creating “I Can” statements. Then, formative assessments can be created, assessed, and monitored in grade level meetings to identify areas of need and effective teaching practices. However, all of these practices involve opening our doors, coming out of our classrooms, and trusting each other.

Trust is a component that repeats itself throughout Baccellieri’s (2010) writing. Admittedly, I lack trust in my colleagues and even in myself. I don’t trust my colleagues to have the best practices because I’ve heard their approach to education (“I’ll do what I want, I have continuing contract!” or “I’m so ready to retire!”), and I don’t trust myself because I know I don’t have the perfect solution or answer. Our grade level meetings routinely turn into complaint sessions where I’m left sitting there feeling like I have better things to do that would actually benefit my students. If I could trust my colleagues, and if they could trust me, PLCs would be a beneficial component. But without trust, the meetings become complaint sessions, the data focus is negative, and teachers are left feeling defeated and even more isolated.

How can this change? Personally, I feel strong administrative leadership is key. Include with this: time, patience, and establishing trust. An understanding that change takes time, that nothing will be perfect immediately, and that mistakes will be made. What really resonated with me in Baccellieri’s (2010) writing was a constant understanding and acceptance of the pitfalls, setbacks, and struggles that came with creating a climate of change and data focused instruction. Can this happen in every school? Being the optimist, I think so. But big change takes time, patience, and trust. We need to trust ourselves to be the agents of change, to make the mistakes, and to have the answers.


Baccellieri, P. (2010). Professional learning communities: Using data in decision making to improve student learning. Huntington Beach, CA: Shell Education

Boudett, K. P., City, E. A., & Murname, R. J. (2013). Data Wise:  A stepbystep guide to using assessment results to improve teaching and learning. Cambridge, MA:  Harvard Education Press.

Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2010)Enhancing RTI: How to ensure success with effective classroom instruction and intervention. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


RtI – Action from Assessment

If assessment is the question, RtI is the answer. Assessment asks, “What does this student know, and what does this student lack?”  Response to intervention and instruction is the answer to that question.

Going back to Boudett and Murname (2013), classroom instruction must be analyzed to determine effectiveness. Tier 1 of the RtI system is classroom instruction. What can be done in the core instruction program so most, if not all, learners can be successful? Core instruction should be meeting 75-85% of learner needs (Fisher & Frey, 2010). If not, analysis of this level must be completed. I keep this in mind constantly as an indicator of my instruction and the need for reteaching of skills. If 80% of my class is not meeting expectations, the problem doesn’t lie with the learner, it lies with the teaching methods and materials I’ve used. I can monitor the “temperature” of my classroom through constant formative assessments so that I’m not running into a shocking low average on a summative assessment.

Tier 2 instruction is that extra bit of scaffolding for a small percentage of students who just don’t grasp the content through regular instruction. Tier 2 is a constantly evolving group in my classroom based on formative and summative assessment data. Some students need just that little bit of an extra boost, some students have larger gaps to fill. However, just like core instruction, if a student is stuck in tier 2 with no growth, the instructional methods must be analyzed and adjusted. Tier 2 is there to compliment the core instruction of tier 1. Unfortunately, I have witnessed teachers, coaches, and even administrators viewing tier 2 as a “catch all” location for low achievers. Students get stuck in the intervention process, never showing growth. Tier 3 is never addressed for these students, instead they continue to receive ineffective core instruction and ineffective intervention instruction. They’re not receiving additional help, they’re receiving the same poor instruction, just in larger amounts due to their intervention times.

Another caveat I’ve witnessed is the use of irrelevant assessment data to place intervention students. Just because a student was above a certain cut off on an assessment doesn’t mean they don’t need tier 2 interventions for some skills. This is where relevant and appropriate assessments should be used to place students in interventions (Fisher & Frey, 2010). In addition, high achievement interventions are rarely put in place or supported due to lack of time and resources. The hope is that teachers will scaffold their core instruction enough to help these higher learners grow. This is not addressing ALL needs.

Finally, intervention instructional methods must meet the needs of the learner. Too often, I see students placed into programs that are not addressing the areas of need for that student. It is an inappropriate learning prescription that gets the student nowhere. Instruction must be meaningful and provide authentic opportunities for reading and writing, not ‘skill and drill’ (Fisher & Frey, 2010).

RtI is a wonderful tool if used correctly. It provides the additional instructional time that some students need. Being placed in RtI is not an indication of inability or low learning levels; it is an opportunity to close a gap or build a bridge to success for each student.

Boudett, K. P., City, E. A., & Murname, R. J. (2013). Data Wise:  A stepbystep guide to using assessment results to improve teaching and learning. Cambridge, MA:  Harvard Education Press.

Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2010)Enhancing RTI: How to ensure success with effective classroom instruction and intervention. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.