According to one of the foremost advocates of using Professional Learning Communities (PLC) in school districts, Richard DuFour (2006), the PLC model is not a short-term or a one-time fix to a school district. If correctly implemented, PLCs totally and permanently transform a school’s culture. DuFour writes (2006): “We advocate… not a program, but ongoing, never-ending process specifically designed to change the very culture of schools and districts” (185). The members of a PLC-transformed school district engage in an on-going self-study designed to perpetually improve their practice. When a critical mass of the members in such an organization meet and collaborate over time, “shared knowledge and understanding about essential learning” is produced, Marzano’s (2003) “guaranteed and viable curriculum” (12) is created, and Reeves’ (2002) “power standards” transform the learning in district schools (33). The Center for Comprehensive School Reform (2010) claims that over time, effective PLCs alter the culture of the school by building teacher leadership capacity to empower reforms that increase student learning. A PLC district builds the capacity of staff members to work as part of a collective whole, and, according to Fullan (2005), the staff’s “ability… to act together to bring about positive change” becomes the engine for sustainable improvements (4). According to DuFour, the PLC-transformation process creates teams of confident teachers who are able to look boldly at educational problems as opportunities. Once districts have clarified their priorities and fostered PLC transformation,
…[educators are able to] assess the current reality of their situation, to work together, and to build continuous improvement into the very fabric of their collective work, [creating] conditions for the on-going learning and self-efficacy essential to solving whatever problems they confront (207).
Supported in their regular, on-going meetings to study and improve curriculum and instruction, PLC teams allow districts to confidently assure stakeholders of perpetual increases in student learning. And so far, the results of PLC transformation are good. According to Vescio, Ross, and Adams (2008), a number of English and American studies confirm that the PLC model results in a positive impact on teaching practice and student learning.
That is the Platonic ideal of a PLC district, something not realizable before five or more years of steady growth and implementation have occurred. But what if, two years into the PLC transformation, outside forces distract school district leaders from efforts to midwife the new culture into existence? What if support for individual PLC teams slackens or disappears before the transformation has been allowed to establish itself? What if district resources get focused not on “the fabric of their collective work” (PLCs), but on issues of management and budget? How can the difficult but necessary process of PLC transformation be sustained in such a district?
Such a less-than-ideal situation currently pertains in Community Unit School District 205, which, like almost every other school district in the state, has been distracted from its core missions for the last year and a half with the economic repercussions of what has been called the “Financial Crisis of 2007-10” (Wikipedia). The district began its PLC transformation in 2007-08 through pilot projects, then mandated PLC levels teams through the collective bargaining agreement of 2008. And despite some contentious scenes arising from the sense of bereavement, loss, and confusion that accompany system-wide change (Evans, 1996, p. 21), the program was on its way to examining and re-writing curriculum and assessments to better foster student learning in school year 2009-10. But in the last several months, because of a projected five million dollar shortfall in revenues from state dollars and local property taxes, district resources have been focused on an entirely different program of self-study than PLCs. The EEPRT (Elmhurst Educational Program Review Technique), which is designed to guide the school board in its inevitable budget cuts and program reductions so that the district can survive past 2011, has taken the focus off PLC transformation. In Steven Covey’s words (1994), the “main thing” is no longer the district’s “main thing” (39). Teachers from every school in the district have been told how important their involvement in the self-study is, outside consultants have been paid to facilitate its success, and individual universal teacher participation has been strongly encouraged by building administrators. In this way, many hours of time and effort are now spent looking at how the school board should manage its budgetary future. The EEPRT response to the district’s existential threat is understandable, and even, in its apparently democratic attempt at stakeholder buy-in, admirable. However, the cost to the district’s PLC implementation process has been high; district-level support for PLC teams has dried up in the budgetary panic, even supportive messages for PLCs have disappeared.
Although most of them are in the early phases of their development, still-establishing norms and just “getting on their feet,” the district’s PLCs are now being ignored and un-funded. Teams wonder whether their work is still considered vital, as they were assured in 2008 that it was, especially when another consequence of the budgetary pressures—increased class size—forces them to work harder to manage their daily responsibilities and to take their eyes off the “big picture” of systemic reform just to keep their classes going. DuFour would recognize the district’s reaction against further PLC support as typical of American educators. Public school administrators, he writes, are “very familiar with initiating change, but the idea of a process that continues forever is foreign to them” (186). Once initiated, such a culture-changing innovation demands support. Martin-Kniep (2008) concurs, writing that in order for PLCs to succeed, they need on-going support from administrators. “Sustained continuous time to work together” (89) is essential to PLC growth; without it, the reform cannot take hold. She specifically notes the responsibility of the supervisors in PLC development, saying that “it is important that the organization that houses or supports the community secures both the time and a space that is conducive to learning and collaborative work” (85). When hours and dollars are diverted to deal with the budgetary crisis, a far greater threat to the long-term viability of the district emerges: poor or un-responsive curriculum and instruction that stays in what DuFour calls “the thicket of precedent, the tangle of unquestioned assumptions, and the trap of comfortable complacency” (185). After all, once budget and program adjustments have been made, the value of the school district’s programs hold will still depend on the extent to which the PLC-transformation process has been allowed to take hold and flourish. Failing to follow through on its PLC initiative will also waste an opportunity to exploit teachers’ “sense of moral purpose” and its attendant intrinsic motivation that has been awakened by the PLCs’ start.
How to proceed with the district’s PLC transformation in a way that exacts no additional costs and that builds on momentum and practices already established becomes an urgent question. To this question the current author suggests a technological solution, namely mandating the use of Google Apps for Education (GAFE) for PLC team work. Fortuitously, if hesitantly, the district adopted GAFE for piloted use in 2010-11, mainly with an eye toward saving on site licenses for the Microsoft Office suite of applications. But by requiring that PLC team reports and archiving be done via GAFE, district administrators can salvage the good start they have made toward transforming the district into a PLC and further align their actions with their words, something DuFour recommends as indispensible to successful cultural transformation (193). Likewise, Marzano et al (2005) claims that “effective leaders will do everything in their power to protect the staff from other intrusions on their time and energy” as they foster the implementation of new reforms (quoted in DuFour, 2006, p. 193). Using GAFE will maximize staff members’ time and energy and embed the process of openly sharing knowledge that is an essential part of the PLC model.
In the model site that showcases the suggested GAFE solution (https://sites.google.com/a/elmhurst205.com/english-11-team-site/) , PLC members are able to find a record of their sharing (the minutes log), their current work (“In process” course materials), course targets and goals (“rubrics and forms”), and also a platform for developing new materials as the PLC team deems them necessary. Switching the PLC work to a GAFE site provides advantages in efficiency not achievable in their current configuration. Specifically, the PLC team using GAFE is able to more efficiently conduct the action research, discussions, and collaboration that are essential to the PLC model.
Consider a comparison of what is achievable with GAFE to what has been practical without them. Without GAFE, it has been possible for members of a team to work individually on a new lesson plan document. Once s/he were done with a draft of the document, the team-mate would send a digital copy of it to each team-mate, who could then make edits and comments on the document and send it back to the author, who would then individually incorporate changes into the document and repeat the process over again. Through several iterations, this might mean several days or weeks of time. Once the lesson plan is deemed acceptable by the entire team, it is stored on the district’s drive, which is only accessible through the school’s computers, when those computers are operating within the district’s network. When a team-member is not physically present in the district (when s/he is at home during after-work hours, say) and wishes to pull up the newest iteration of the lesson plan, s/he cannot do so. Likewise, if a team-mate has made changes to the lesson plan and wishes to get feedback on his/her work, s/he must wait until the changes are made and the document is sent and received as an email attachment to each other team-mate. To have a full-team discussion on the proposed changes, s/he must wait until the team physically convenes, which under the current PLC program happens once a week for 50 minutes. So that each of his/her team-mates has a copy on which to put proposed edits and comments, the PLC team member must currently print out a copy for each in advance (a not-insignificant burden on the paper budget), and hope that the rest of the team has time and opportunity to do so.
With GAFE, however, it is possible (through a “Google doc”) for all members of the team to edit and comment on the same document, whether in “real-time” (simultaneously/synchronously) or in “virtual time” (asynchronously). Comments on the document show up in different colors according to the author, and all edits are reviewable and recallable through GAFE’s revision history. Thus, the collaborative quality of the curricular document is present from the start—it is no longer a certain team-mate’s lesson plan, but from the beginning it is now the team’s document. This fulfills DuFour’s description of the PLC as fostering not independence but interdependence (189). Likewise, the time that is currently wasted in waiting for physical meetings of the team to discuss is obviated with GAFE. The lesson plan is available for discussion whenever members are—whether the discussants are at work or at home on their personal computers.
Another advantage of GAFE as the platform for PLC interactions is that it provides for a capturing of the group’s expertise over time, allowing the group more efficiency in making itself a community that lasts. For years to come, all of the group’s work can be found in one place, thus allowing stakeholders to conveniently find documents and the discussions and rationales that preceded them. Also in one place are all of the relevant work related to a given curriculum, which provides a much more efficient communication of the curriculum to new team members, when these come aboard.
Still another advantage that GAFE offers the school’s PLC initiative is to provide a space where all members of the community—that is, the entire district—can engage in the “deep discussion” that results in cultural change within a district (Foord, 2008, p. 11). Questions such as those proposed by Martin-Kniep (2008) need a forum that is always open—one that transcends limitations of time and space—so that all members can “buy-in” to the PLC model. GAFE documents will provide good places to pose and discuss questions such as those posed by Martin-Kniep:
What are my organization’s qualities, needs, and problems?
How will my work have a positive influence on my colleagues, teachers, students, and other members of the educational community? (83)
What does “good” curriculum and assessment look like?
How can we differentiate instruction in an equitable and fair way? (113)
How can we differentiate instruction in an equitable and fair way? (113)
Sharing of GAFE documents and sites is easy, which means that every stakeholder can take part in the “deep discussions” that distinguish effective PLCs—one’s that last.
A final no-cost technological solution to enhancing team efficacy would be the incorporation of an Edmodo site to engage students in pre-viewing and assessing various assessments and lessons as they are developed. As Martin-Kniep (2008) describes them, students are essential to the success of the PLC model in a school, since “they possess tremendous experience and expertise in the areas of teaching and learning… their experience as learners in schools are far more grounded in the reality of schools than are those of most adults” (85). The Edmodo site could be joined to the GAFE docs and sites in such a way that the input of students (through Edmodo polls and news feeds) could be readily incorporated into the discussion and planning of the adults.
If the school board chooses not to push forward with its PLC initiatives through the current proposal or some other means, it may regret doing so. For, despite the urgency of financial woes, there are larger, moral issues at stake having to do with the school board’s fulfilling of its promise to provide a high quality public education to all its students. Hence, failing to follow through with PLCs means that the board will have failed to carry out its core mission, and thus morally “failed.” The same sense of moral urgency that the current author feels prompted the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. more than forty years ago to speak to his fellow clergymen in pleading terms:
We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Now let us begin. The choice is ours, and though we may prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history (2001, p. 163).
By using technology today, we can build a stronger basis for the PLCs that will sustain our school district into the future.
Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement, The (2010). “Professional Learning Communities—an introduction.” Retrieved 10 October 2010 at http://www.centerforcsri.org/plc/
Community Unit School District 205. “EEPRT.” Retrieved online 10 October 2010 at http://www.elmhurst205.org/EEPRT
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“Financial Crisis of 2007-10.” Wikipedia article, retrieved online 9 October 2010 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Financial_crisis_of_2007%E2%80%932010
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Vescio, V., Ross, D., and Adams, A. (2008). A review on the research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning. Teaching and Teacher Education, vol. 24, issue 1, January, 2008.
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