Wednesday / May 29

PLC+ and The Promise of Equity

The Professional Learning Community movement, dating back to the 1970s if not before, has focused on students’ learning and the ways in which teams of educators can respond when students do not learn. Over time, adjustments have been made to the processes teams use to ensure that all students have access to high expectations and appropriate learning experiences.  Teams of educators regularly meet to discuss content learning expectations and to develop assessments of student learning. There have been a number of positive outcomes from these collaborative conversations, including increased focus on grade-level standards as well as the various ways that learning can be assessed. 

Unintended Consequences of PLC Efforts 

Unfortunately, many current PLC efforts have resulted in increased rosters of students requiring interventions of some type. In fact, response to intervention efforts have been directly tied to some PLC efforts. In other words, in some schools, when students do not learn what they are supposed to learn, the team quickly refers them for supplemental and intensive interventions. Over time, the rosters of students receiving these interventions grows.  At the same time, the system is overwhelmed and there are not the fiscal or human resources to meet all the needs that have been identified. 

To be sure, we have encountered students who need supplemental and intensive interventions.  

And we have encountered students who needed barriers removed for opportunities to learn.  When they are provided interventions but not barrier removal, they might learn the content that was expected but then experience the same failure in the next unit.  

Considering What Students Really Need 

What if, rather than interventions, some students really need to have the barriers to their learning removed?  Or, what if they need different opportunities to learn, or different ways to engage during instruction, or even different entry points into the lesson? What if teachers identified the possible barriers during the PLC? As mentioned, these barriers could be the level of rigor, the relevancy, and connections to the content.   

As an example, consider Alejandro. He failed to demonstrate mastery in multiplying fractions.  He could have easily been referred to the intervention services at his school, but luckily the team of teachers for his grade level regularly discuss barriers and opportunities before recommending interventions. Following some investigative work, they learned that Alejandro had experienced a recent traumatic event. To complicate things, in this classroom he could not see the door and thus did not have an escape route visible to him. The result was hypervigilance on his part. As his teacher noted, “it never really occurred to me that this could really be distracting for him. Now I just think that he must have been so distracted, always worried that something bad would happen and that he couldn’t get out.” The team re-arranged the learning environment and had a conversation with Alejandro about safe spaces at school.  They also referred him, with his mom’s permission, to the school counselorWithin weeks, Alejandro was back to performing as expected. 

Pinpointing Equity Gaps in Student Learning 

A second, and related, unintended consequence of current implementation models for professional learning communities focuses on equity. Currently, most groups of educators focus on the specific students who did, or did not, learn, and then they decide on appropriate responses student by student. We cannot achieve equity goals if teams of educators fail to explore trend data. By focusing on the fifth PLC+ question regarding who benefited and who did not benefit, teams look at trends in the data to determine if there are equity gaps in students’ learning. We recognize that this is hard and humbling. But it’s necessary as we consider the barriers in teaching and learning. Wmust acknowledge that equity lives in the daily decisions that educators, and groups of educators, make. When teams examine the trend data that results from their best efforts, ask themselves the hard question of who benefited and who did not benefit, and take action accordingly, they increase the probability that they will deliver on the promise of equity by ensuing that negative outcomes are reduced for all students. We recognize that there are a number of institutional and societal barriers that students face, especially for students of color, but we believe the teams of educators can address some of these issues when they learn to notice the differential impact that they have on groups of students. This is being culturally responsive to our data. 

For example, a group of life science teachers discussed the fact that the girls in their classes did much worse on the genetics unit than the boys. They noted that there were no gender differences in the previous unit on cellular structures. Rather than focus on each student individually and then refer them to intervention, this team noticed that girls did not perform well and they took responsibility to do something about it. Equity in the PLC process requires educators to be attentive, reflective, and responsive. 

Similarly, a group of sixthgrade teachers noted that the majority of English learners did not perform well when asked to write about the formation of democracy in Ancient GreeceAs one teacher noted, “When we have this many students struggling, we need to look at ourselves, the instruction, and the in-class supportsWe didn’t have the impact that we thought, so we need to do something different.” And so they did. They re-focused the unit and asked for help from the district resource teacher in considering ways that they could integrate language support into their classrooms. Their specific actions included developing daily language learning expectations, teaching targeted vocabulary, increasing the use of language frames, and increasing the number of visuals that they used in their modeling. Their responses are not the point, but rather the real point is that they noticed an equity gap and made a decision to do something about it. It might have been easier to send their students to the afterschool intervention “club.” Instead, these teachers took responsibility for the impact that they had on students and, through their PLC+ conversations, took action. As we have noted, equity-driven systems respond to the gaps that are identified.   

Upgrading PLCs to Ensure Equity 

Without a specific and targeted question on equity, PLCs may never get to the equity discussion. It’s easy to fill the collaborative team time with discussions about what students need to know, be able to do, and how educators will know if they learned it. Analyzing common formative assessment data takes time but, on its own, does not ensure that trends are identified and addressed in all students. It’s time to upgrade PLCs to ensure that equity is a primary value and expectation that is acted upon at all times.


About the Authors  


Written by

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. He is also the author of PLC+, The PLC+ Playbook, This is Balanced Literacy, The Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12, Teaching Literacy in the Visible Learning Classroom for Grades K-5 and Grades 6-12Visible Learning for Mathematics, Grades K-12The Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbook, and several other Corwin books. 

Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is Professor of Literacy in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. The recipient of the 2008 Early Career Achievement Award from the National Reading Conference, she is also a teacher-leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College and a credentialed special educator, reading specialist, and administrator in California. She has been a prominent Corwin author, publishing numerous books including PLC+The PLC+ PlaybookThis is Balanced LiteracyThe Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12Engagement by DesignRigorous Reading, Texas EditionThe Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbookand many more. 

To view Doug and Nancy’s books and services, please visit Fisher and Frey Professional Learning. 

Nicole Law, Ph.D., is a full-time Professional Learning Consultant with Corwin and works with teachers and leaders across the country. As a dynamic and passionate educator, Nicole focuses her work around developing strong teacher teams, leading for equity, implementing high-impact practices for all learners, and increasing engagement and achievement for English Learners. Prior to her role with Corwin, Nicole served as a Curriculum Coordinator in the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indianapolis, Indiana. 

Doug, Nancy, and Nicole’s new book, Comprehension, Grades K-12, will be publishing in September, 2020.

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