In part 4 of the PLC Commitment to Learning series, I will be discussing the third level of the PLC CTL Pyramid: Common Work. This component of the PLC CTL framework addresses the first of the growth needs for any PLC or team. Common Work matters because it focuses on the day-to-day work carried out by the team while also developing the collective teacher efficacy present among team members.
Before jumping into a discussion of the “nuts and bolts” of what effective PLCs focus on and do on a regular basis, we need to spend some time discussing collective teacher efficacy and why it matters to student achievement. Collective teacher efficacy matters because Roger Goddard and his fellow researchers found that collective teacher efficacy is a better predictor of student achievement than socioeconomic status at the elementary level in both math and reading. Moreover, John Hattie’s Visible Learning research nowlists Collective Teacher Efficacy (CTE) as the top factor influencing student achievement. Hattie gives CTE a 1.57 effect size: three times more influential than a good phonics program (.54), socioeconomic status (.52), home environment (.52), and nearly four times more influential than school leadership (.39). This proves to be quite profound given that we now know the level of CTE on a campus is quite indicative of the academic success of the students attending that campus. This supports Marzano’s research that shows the most effective schools can produce results that nearly entirely overcome the backgrounds of the students who attend.
Common Work is important not so much because everyone is doing a lot of the same things, though as we will get to later that is a good thing, but because the commonality of the collaboration and endeavors of the team promote the very feelings of collective efficacy research says is crucial to student achievement. In her book Collective Efficacy, Jenni Donohoo identifies specific teaching behaviors and learning environments conducive to developing CTE. She urges her readers to put forth greater effort and persistence (especially towards struggling students), try research-based new teaching approaches, convey high standards and expectations, foster and promote learning autonomy, increase [collaborative] commitment, and pursue parental involvement. Combining these teacher behaviors with a structured agenda of focused, common work will allow PLCs to begin the growth process and ensure student achievement is pursued for all. The power of this combination moves teachers from an “if only” perspective to one of “can do” where a culture of effort creates ability!
The Common Work tier in the PLC CTL Pyramid can be broken up into two domains: what they focus on, what they do. Every effective PLC will have a consistent and narrow focus for the work they undertake throughout the year. Rick and Becky DuFour along with their Solution-Tree colleagues pioneered the work around professional learning communities (PLCs) and developed what they termed the “4 Corollary Questions”. These questions have been at the heart of PLC practices for nearly two decades. The four questions are:
- What do we want students to learn?
- How will we know if each student has learned it?
- How will we respond when some students don’t learn it?
- How will we respond when some students already know it?
These questions are fairly straightforward and serve to align the “focus” of any effective PLC work. I’ve often told teams that they should look at their agendas or stop and consider what their PLC has been working on and if that work cannot fit into any of those four questions it should not be part of a PLC meeting. The most effective teams remain focused on their goals and purposes and refuse to be sidetracked. Those teams know student success depends on it and so does their collective teacher efficacy!
Once a team has a clear focus for their work, they must shift to the topic of what they do. This is the fundamental collaborative practices of the team. When people think of “PLCs”, they usually have some sort of vision for what the PLC room looks like, what the tables might have on them, and what type of dialogue is taking place. Certainly those things are important and can serve as evidence for the effectiveness of a PLC. I argue that effective PLCs dive deeper. PLCs built around collective teacher efficacy and Common Work pursue what I call “The Essentials”. This tier of the pyramid hinges on the following routine efforts:
- Clarifying essential learning outcomes and the proficiency standards for each.
- Develop frequent, common formative assessments to measure student mastery of those outcomes.
- Work together, routinely, to analyze the results of the assessments.
- Develop strategies for improving student performance/learning.
Common Work moves beyond the mere establishment of operational guidelines or procedures. It moves beyond looking at team effectiveness as some arbitrary level of collaboration, cooperation, or camaraderie. It also goes deeper than delegating responsibilities and coordinating the dissemination of lesson plans or planning guides for an upcoming unit. Common Work moves beyond the “invitational” approach and creates the expectation that none of the important work of a PLC happens by chance. Common Work, as a driver for collective teacher efficacy, seeks to impact the professional practice of all teachers on a campus and to improve the academic performance of all students.
For leaders seeking to grow their PLCs and begin to clarify the common work being done on their campus, I suggest some specific strategies. All of these will support the growth of collective teacher efficacy while enabling a greater focus for the work each PLC carries out on a daily basis. Try these Common Work building blocks:
- Ensure the deficiency needs for your campus are met: Collaborative Professionalism, Consistent Response
- Set clear expectations for the essential focus and common work of each PLC
- Set challenging and measurable goals to help all educators achieve meaningful results
- Allow teacher leaders to influence the PLC process and make decisions on school-wide issues related to student achievment and intervention
- Create opportunities for teachers to learn more about each other’s work through classroom observations, recording lessons, sharing teaching practices at faculty meetings, and developing common assessments
- Be engaged as a leader and roll up your sleeves by being a part of the dialogue and work of your PLCs (Teachers want responsive, engaged leaders)
- Celebrate and recognize your effective PLCs and teacher leaders
Part 5 of this series will focus on the top growth need of a PLC, Culture of Confident Learners. Through the use of a defined learning progression and systematic strategies, this growth need allows the students and educators in the school system to thrive. Students shift from focusing on studying hard and pursuing a grade to understanding what success looks like and how they can use various performance data to understand how to do better each and every time. Teachers shift from focusing on covering material or standards to understanding the importance of collaboration with colleagues (and students) to best understand student learning needs. This tier align’s with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and is about self-actualization for both student and teachers.