Over the years I have worked to implement the principles of Professional Learning Communities in the schools where I have worked. Prior to being exposed to the formal practices outlined by Dr. Rick DuFour and others, I was initially focused on the basic concepts of working with teachers to build a collaborative school environment that put students at the center of our practice. I believe we were incredibly successful at creating a school where teachers were happy and students felt safe, but I was frustrated that we weren’t doing a better job of meeting the needs of individual students.

In the fall of 2008 I had the opportunity to become part of a two-year consortium of principals focused on leadership and the implementation of Professional Learning Communities. This was a small group of about thirty educators from five school districts working in conjunction with a local university and we would meet five or six times a year to focus on school improvement. I can distinctly remember the “aha” moment I had when reading On Common Ground: The Power of Professional Learning Communities. Much of our group discussions centered on the implementation of the concepts outlined in this book. It was exciting to have the time to interact with other principals and share our experiences. We also had the opportunity to meet with principals from previous cohorts and gain insights into the successes and challenges they were facing as they implemented PLCs in their schools. We also had the opportunity to be inspired by Dr. Rick DuFour and Becky DuFour when they came and spoke to all past and current cohorts.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the Professional Learning Communities at Work Institute in Salt Lake City and was impressed by the amazing number of educators present. It has been awhile since I was first introduced to PLCs, but in Bob Eaker’s closing comments he captured the essence of what I have found to be one of the greatest roadblocks to implementing PLCs in schools when he said “This work is hard as hell”. This statement could be applied to education in general as there is no doubt the work teachers do to support student learning is a daunting task. When a school gets serious about answering the four critical questions outlined by DuFour, I agree with Bob Eaker when he says that this work is hard as hell.

Four Critical Questions of a Professional Learning Community:

  • What do students need to know and be able to do?
  • How will we know when they have learned it?
  • What will we do when they haven’t learned it?
  • What will we do when they already know it?

My experience has been that schools are really great at starting to implement PLCs but often times plateau somewhere short of their original goal. Why is this? I think Bob Eaker pretty well sums it up but will elaborate on a few key elements of why this process is so difficult using my own personal experience. Time! Time seems to be the biggest issue schools must address if they hope to push beyond the inevitable plateaus of implementation. If our expectation is that teachers will collaborate to create common pacing guides and common formative assessments so as to monitor student performance and provide remediation for struggling students as well as providing enrichment and/or rigor for advanced students, then we must address the issue of “time”.

I have seen schools create early out or late start days while others have hired substitute teachers to provide time. I have seen teachers meeting during their lunch hours or prep time to address the issue of time. In my case, as an elementary school principal, I found that there just wasn’t enough time to accommodate our teacher’s needs. There were simply too many subjects, too many pacing guides and too many students needing intervention for the limited amount of time I could provide. My teachers became overwhelmed and frankly started to burnout.

This became a problem that just wouldn’t go away. On the one hand I believed we had the responsibility to answer those four questions for every child in our school. On the other hand my teachers were struggling, despite their best efforts, to keep their heads above water. Many were drowning. I was caught between throwing in the towel and going back to business as usual or continue to push as hard as we could and hope that eventually the work would become easier. In a very fortuitous conversation with a friend (he is a web developer and his wife is a teacher) one night I began describing my dilemma. I explained my expectations for teachers and the struggles they were having meeting those expectations. His wife echoed the frustrations felt by my teachers as her school was in the process of implementing PLCs as well. I explained that I expected teachers to create common pacing guides and common assessments based on the core standards and that they needed to monitor individual student performance relative to the core. The conversation went on for a while with the two educators patiently answering the non-educator’s questions and explaining the nuances of teaching.

  • Yes, both of our schools are implementing PLCs.
  • Yes, the teachers at her school and my school are creating common assessments.
  • Yes, there are other schools out there doing the same thing.
  • Yes, using the same core.
  • Yes, that does seem silly that we don’t share our assessments.
  • No, we don’t have a common way to track student progress.
  • No, some teachers use mastery and others use a mean score.
  • No, report cards just show the mean score and not student mastery.
  • I don’t know why we don’t communicate student progress to parents based on the core standards…no one has done it.

Following our interrogation by the web developer, the conversation naturally moved to a phase where he began to pose a myriad of what if questions:

  • What if teachers could share assessments tied to the core standards?
  • What if teachers could easily create pacing guides with the core standards already included?
  • What if you could track student performance relative to the standards to mastery?
  • What if you could print a report that would tell parents exactly what their child knows and doesn’t know based on the standards?
  • What if teachers from other schools could connect with each other and collaborate to share ideas and materials around a common core?
  • What if, you as a principal, could see your schools performance, in real time, all the way down to the individual student?

And so it went. As an educator I really had know idea what was possible. I was still impressed with the spreadsheets I had created to help teachers track student progress. My brain didn’t have the capacity to think of teachers sharing in a Global Professional Learning Community. My only exposure was to other schools that were struggling to accomplish the same things, using the same practices and none of us had the capacity to see that technology had evolved to the point that the “What if” questions were actually possible. It became clear that if we could take those “what if” questions and turn them into a reality, we could begin to better address the time issue.

“Thanks to MasteryConnect, educators can connect with colleagues throughout the nation to develop and share common assessments around the Common Core Curriculum. Educators can now extend their professional learning communities beyond their schools. This ready access to expanded expertise is exactly what we have been hoping would become available to educators.”—Dr. Rick DuFour

There is no doubt that “this work is hard as hell” but when you create a growing community of over 4,000 teachers from all fifty states working together to share over 2,000 core-focused assessments, provide them the ability to easily monitor student performance to mastery and with the single click of a mouse button share that information with parents, that work becomes a little easier.

Get the Common Core App Widget!

October 17th, 2011

Our Common Core app for iOS and Android have been downloaded tens of thousands of times! We recently made the Common Core app available as a widget in your free or premium account that appears in your browser attached to the right-hand center of the browser window.

Now we’re giving you the ability to have the Common Core app widget on your blog or website! Take a look at the app widget on the right side of your screen and try it out.

You can get the code to have this widget on your site too! Click Here to get it!

We’ve also made the app available for embedding (like embedding a YouTube video). You can easily embed the Common Core app in your blog or on a page. Check out the example below of how we’ve embedded the app in this post. Then Click Here to get the embed code!

You can tell everyone to get the widget at www.masteryconnect.com/widget.

In an upcoming post I am going to focus on the complex issues associated with the collection and use of data in our schools. For this post I would like to keep it simple and merely address the importance of using teacher created formative assessments. In his book Effective Supervision: Supporting the Art and Science of Teaching Robert Marzano states:

“Not all of the assessments described previously can be used to compute knowledge gain. Because state assessments and end-of-course assessments are administered once a year only, they do not lend themselves to gain scores. Although benchmark assessments are administered more than once per year, they are typically not numerous enough to pick up knowledge gain across short intervals of time. Common assessments, if numerous enough, are useful vehicles for knowledge gain. They can be designed around fairly specific topics, which allows them to be used to assess learning within a specific unit of instruction. Scales can also be used to address fairly specific topics. Finally, teacher-designed assessments can readily be used to measure knowledge gain.”

The statement that common assessments, if numerous enough, are useful vehicles for knowledge gain, seems simple enough…and it is…if there are numerous enough assessments. With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, publisher and teacher resources aligned to the standards are sparse at best. When it comes to common/teacher designed assessments, teachers are starting from scratch. Teachers seeking to create “numerous enough” assessments aligned to the common core really have their work cutout for themselves. Here is a little math word problem to help illustrate my point:

Standard: 4.OA.3 Operations and Algebraic Thinking

Mrs. Jones, a sixth grade teacher, is adopting the CCSS for math. She notices there are 29 specific standards. If she creates a pre-test, post-test and a third test to be used to reassess students needing remediation, how many total assessments will Mrs. Jones need to create? If each assessment takes Mrs. Jones 30 minutes to create, how many minutes/hours will Mrs. Jones spend creating the assessments? If Mrs. Jones makes $25.00 per hour and she knows she will not be compensated for the time she spends creating the assessments, Mrs. Jones will donate $ of her time to creating assessments.

An isolated teacher seeking to overcome the challenges of gaining access to “numerous enough” common assessments may find this fourth grade math problem a bit overwhelming. A team of three or four teachers may combine forces and seek to tackle Everest. Many teams will start the journey upward and from time to time a few may reach the summit. More often than not however, the challenges of creating “numerous enough” common assessments will prove to be too much for three or four teachers.

What would happen if those three or four teachers were able to share assessments with three or four teachers at a neighboring school? The task may look a little less daunting. What if those teachers were able to share with teachers throughout their district? The task may seem entirely possible.What if thousands of teachers from all 50 states and the District of Columbia worked together to create and share “numerous enough” common assessments? We would call that MasteryConnect.