Thursday, March 02, 2006


Fixing Northview

Getting Started: Reculturing Schools to Become Professional Learning Communities by Robert Eaker, Rick DuFour and Rebecca DuFour should really delete its secondary title since the concept of reculturing does not necessarily apply to all schools. The authors point out that schools should celebrate and build on their successes, and that some schools are closer to the Professional Learning Community (PLC) system than others. Thus, some schools will need only be tweaked. Northview High School is a school in need of tweaking as it has had many successes in improving student achievement.

Schools that adopt the PLC concept make:

"'learning' rather than 'teaching' the fundamental purpose of (the) school. (Schools) (f)ocus on the three key questions: What do we expect students to learn? How will we know what they have learned? And (sic) how will we respond when students don't learn?" (p. 111)

What will these PLCs look like? In reality, the English, Math and Foreign Language Departments at Northview are already functioning as PLCs in that they collaborate, have benchmarks, and give and analyze common tests. Additionally, each department discusses ways to improve student achievement. The great benefit of the seven-period system is that these departments will be able to meet on a more regular basis during the school day instead of trying to be creative with meeting times (such as during lunch). What will the PLCs do? Part of the answer is found in the preceding paragraph; however there is more. Common assessments are critical to measuring what the students have learned (what they should learn is defined by the California and district content standards). Deciding what to reteach and which students need more time and support are outcomes of these meetings. How to teach is left to the individual teachers, but they are encouraged to share ideas and materials.

At the high school level, PLCs are generally created for each department. It is critical that the PLCs be given adequate time to actively collaborate, and the proposed seven period schedule will allow Northview PLCs to do just that. With 10 preparation periods per week for each teacher, two will be designated as PLC time. Thus the leadership at the administration level is creatively addressing the age-old lament of "we don't have enough time!"

Unfortunately, Rick DuFour uses a poor analogy when trying to emphasize that learning is the focus instead of teaching. He writes:

"Most schools are content to allow learning to be the variable, while they hold time and support as constants. But not a learning community. (sic) Learning is the only constant in a professional learning community." (p. 37)

Later he writes:

"Despite the best efforts of teachers, every year in every school - including professional learning communities - there will be those students who simply do not 'get it.'" (p. 99)

DuFour contradicts himself in that in the first quote he argues that learning is a constant and that by tweaking the variables, schools will get a constant result. The second quote recognizes that the conclusion of the first quote is wrong.

This contradiction is not a reason to reject the system. A more realistic approach can be demonstrated through an analogy: If a worker who is paid by the hour wishes to make more money at his job, he can either work more hours and/or ask for (and get) a raise. In a similar way, if teachers decide that they want their students to learn more, then they can manipulate the variables. DuFour ignores the variables of parental involvement and personal student responsibility in his initial formula, and these two variables are not given much attention in his version of PLCs.

But, that does not mean that these variables cannot be given more attention in the Northview PLC system. DuFour and his co-authors recognize that the PLC system is not a cookie-cutter system in that all PLCs should look a certain way. In fact, DuFour states that the creation of effective PLC systems may very well be messy and difficult at first. Thus the recipe for success at Northview may not be the recipe for success at Covina. What recipe works best will be decided through consensus (but not unanimity) by the department PLCs.

PLCs will not have total control over the formula. The formula for success will have to include the content standards of the district and the state. Additionally, the district is requiring that more and more disciplines adopt a common assessment system that includes benchmarks and pacing guides. The PLC system will, however, give teachers a great deal of control and, maybe more importantly, a voice that is heard. The end result should produce a staff that is passionately motivated to come to work each day that will help the students learn more than they, both the teachers and the students, originally thought was possible.

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