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Gauging Effectiveness

How to know whether your district’s PLCs are contributing to better student outcomes


Books by education experts and speakers at national professional conferences have inspired many school leaders to initiate professional learning communities. Sustaining them effectively to raise student achievement is another matter.

How can we know that the learning among staff in PLCs is moving us toward our desired results? Measuring effectiveness requires an ongoing process of aligning goals, documenting progress with evidence and coaching for continuous improvement.

Kitty Foord (left) and Jean Haar (right)

Based on our work with schools and districts, we have found two key assessment strategies help us gauge the impact on professional learning and student achievement. The first strategy tightly aligns student learning goals with professional learning goals, cultural learning goals and structural learning goals. The second strategy involves systematic coaching using evidence for continuous improvement.

We have observed these two key assessment strategies in action in 16 school districts involving 57 schools, elementary grades through high schools, ranging from large urban to small rural schools.

Strategy 1: Tight alignment of goals for student, professional, cultural and structural learning. Research by Kati Haycock at the Education Trust consistently indicates the most important school-based variable for better student achievement is the quality of the teacher. These changes require effective instruction, which requires ongoing professional learning.

PLCs can use a structure that groups teachers based on grade level or subject and provides directions to do “whatever it takes” to reach achievement goals. However, structures and ambitious goals alone do not produce the professional learning that increases student achievement. Aligning specific professional and cultural learning goals to desired student achievement goals focuses activities, assessments and coaching on professional growth that supports higher achievement.

Originally, schools with whom we worked did not align their professional and cultural learning goals to their student achievement goals. In time, they embraced this process as a means of documenting and monitoring how professional learning produces student learning.

For instance, nine school districts in Minnesota set out to improve student performance in middle school algebra by using PLCs. When they aligned their professional learning to this goal, they targeted specific, high-leverage strategies that all teachers would adopt. They also targeted collaborative practices to help them examine student work as a cultural goal for their PLCs.

Student achievement increased in algebra, based on the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress. The participants attributed the gains to their collaborative, aligned learning. They became teacher leaders who eagerly promoted the skills of collaboration as essential for an effective professional learning community. Once districts have developed their student achievement SMART goals (specific, measurable, accountable, realistic and time-limited), we encourage the adoption of three additional goals to gauge the effectiveness of PLCs. The additions align goals for professional learning, goals for effective cultures that support professional learning and structures that support professional learning with student achievement goals.

Goal alignment produces a systematic way to assess PLC practices, not just student achievement. When all the goals are aligned, it becomes obvious whether a school or district is able to measure professional growth or cultural environments that support teacher learning.

One school district in Minnesota realized it did not have a common means to measure and discuss professional growth although the leadership wanted to assess the impact of specific practices on student learning. The following year the district adopted Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching to measure professional growth. This tool now collects evidence on teacher implementation of common core assessments, and district staff members use common language and benchmarks to measure continuous progress on assessment practices aimed at improving student achievement.

If achievement increases, how do we know it was from the PLC structure? If we don’t experience student growth, how will we change the professional learning culture or structure to improve? The alignment process helps us identify where sufficient evidence of progress exists and where more proof is needed. Evidence of effective professional learning documents progress while waiting for student achievement to respond to more effective teaching.

Strategy 2: Systematic coaching using evidence. The second strategy for assessing the effectiveness of PLCs is systematically coaching for continuous improvement using evidence. The crucial element is the systematic coaching for improvement.

Research by Milbrey McLaughlin and Joan Talbert found schools that exhibited positive PLC characteristics also produced high levels of student achievement. Educators in these schools answered questions about student learning, teaching and professional learning differently than those in traditional schools. Coaching leaders ask challenging questions to help teachers examine and modify their attitudes about students, teaching and professional learning to improve student learning.

Effective coaching involves systematic development and use of questions that solicit evidence, thinking and reflection needed for continuous improvement. Questions that administrators should ask about student growth include: How can we assess how much gain was achieved on student growth targets? How might we use data that move beyond achievement and demographic data to perceptions and school processes? Sometimes we add questions about professional growth: Are there effective measures of professional growth aligned to professional SMART goals? How are resources aligned to professional development and does that translate into classroom practices?

In assessing the effectiveness of PLCs, ask about the following critical areas: What evidence exists of clear purposes, core values, norms and commitment to common academic, structural and social goals in PLCs? What evidence demonstrates shared resources and clear roles and responsibilities toward interdependent PLC goals? What evidence exists that leaders assess, teach and coach improvements in interpersonal and group processing skills in PLCs? What formative and summative evidence is monitored and used for coaching individual and group growth for teachers? What evidence exists for distributed leadership and execution of policies, practices and infrastructures that are aligned to sustain PLCs?

Effective PLCs are complex, and districts that produced increases in student achievment sought evidence to monitor and coach PLC elements including student growth, professional growth, commitment, inter-dependence, interpersonal and group dynamics, individual and group accountability, and sustainability.

The questions we ask and the ways in which we ask them matter. Ineffective questions can lead to fear and resistance or to coaching for professional growth and behavioral change. If the questions remain trusting, open and reflective, teachers can tackle the challenges that may surface. Principles and practices for developing and using effective coaching questions are discussed in Cognitive Coaching: A Foundation for Renaissance Schools by Arthur L. Costa and Robert J. Garmston.

In addition to the type of questions, districts that coach for professional growth need to agree upon standards for professional performance and design their coaching questions to solicit evidence and reflection on standards.

Because many districts base teacher evaluation systems on Framework for Teaching by Danielson, we developed coaching questions that align to that system. For example, we ask, “How do you go about deciding which types of assessments are needed to match the learning goals of the lesson?” When leaders frame the question in this manner, they will be better prepared to improve how a teacher uses evaluation strategies that are aligned with the goals of a lesson. They are prepared to coach alignment of evaluation strategies with evidence.

One rural Minnesota school district with a teacher evaluation system firmly in place defined evidence they would use to assess professional expertise. Administrators shared profiles of teachers and evidence from classroom walk-throughs to clarify expectations and determine how to coach for improvements. And in a process similar to medical rounds, the superintendent systematically scheduled walk-throughs with each principal to share the coaching questions they might use to improve teacher learning. Uniform expectations for performance and the evidence needed for professional stand-ards in their evaluation system led to contractual changes that permitted 15 teachers to earn national board certification — a clear indication of remarkable professional growth.

Alignment Counts
Professional growth is not reserved for teachers. District leaders might use a similar process to assess the professional growth of building-level leaders. Using the “Professional Standards for the Superintendency” developed by John R. Hoyle for AASA, an administrator could examine organizational management skills by asking, “How do you go about deciding which type of data and assessments are needed to evaluate professional learning in PLCs?” The district administrator will be better equipped to improve how principals define processes for gathering, analyzing and using data to inform decision making. The leader coaches with evidence.

In a small, rural Minnesota district, administrators established their own PLC. They used a protocol to examine minutes from administrative team meetings to better align their work to district strategic goals. Their openness to coaching permitted them to ask questions of one another that produced safe, critical analysis for increased focus and time spent on strategic goals.

Student outcome data alone do not improve achievement. When we align professional growth, cultures and structures, we identify essential evidence that produces student gains. With this evidence, we can systematically coach for professional, cultural and structural changes using effective questions that engage teachers and leaders in continuous improvement.

PLCs are effective when they produce changes in expectations and behavior in teachers and administrators. When we measure and coach for improvements in PLCs, the outcome will be improved student achievement.

Kathleen Foord is an associate professor of education at Minnesota State University, Mankato. E-mail: Jean Haar is the interim dean at the College of Education at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

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