We have been in the standards movement for the past several years.  We have gone through numerous revisions, numerous changes, numerous deletions, mainly in the name of alignment to standardized tests.  Although I have some dismay about standardized tests driving the standards movement, I do believe in  standards based education.  There should be standards that guide our work.  Students should have equity in their education regardless of teacher and or geographic area.  The question becomes..how do we ensure that standards are taught and that students have learned them?  What are the key components to ensure that students are receiving a high quality education?

This post has been inspired by a recent book I have been reading titled, “Designing Powerful Professional Development For Teachers and Principals” by Dennis Sparks.  Several quotes have really resonated with my thinking.  This quote in particular refers to the need to have a Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum.  Although I truly believe  in the power of having a tightly aligned curriculum K-12, it is important that we stay away from what Sparks deems “Project Mentality.”  This happens when a system isolates parts for special attention while ignoring or putting to the side its connection to the system as a whole.  “Instituting new curriculum without simultaneously considering changes in instruction, assessment and other parts of the system is likely to lead, at best, to a partial implementation of the new curriculum” (Sparks 36).  In this type of thinking, mandating that standards be taught is not going to have a quality chance of success if it does not address the traditional structures that remain.  Therefore, we must think of how this is all interconnected in our work.  Connectedness comes from high quality consistent job embedded professional development connected to our standards.

When teachers think of professional development, many times they feel as if they have experienced a series of disconnected events.  They sit and listen to a presenter or facilitator tell them why what they are presenting is important and give them some resources.  Teachers then leave and may or may not implement what they just learned.    There is no urgency, no accountability…just a massive amount of courtesy and wasted time. Many times they see no connection at all to their work and bide the time in order to get to their grading and planning.  If it is mandated it lasts as long as the energy and focus of the mandate.  This is not the fault of any system, team, or person.  It has been a mode of professional development we have been given throughout conferences, workshops, and consultants offering the latest and greatest in school reform. It has been the status quo in the educational system for far too long.  It is time we change this mindset.    We must change this through an intense study of what true authentic professional development consists of and how we can create it within our system.

Professional Learning can happen in so many different ways.  We have our once a month in-services that are common practice in many districts.  Yet, if these monthly events do not have a strong consistent connection to the day-to-day opportunities that teachers have to learn, they are merely events.  In-services can allow teachers to bring to the table their best work, their best thinking, their best lessons and dialogue over why these were effective.  They can attend sessions that are connected month to month on the essential principles to learning.  They should be allowed in these sessions to bring their experience and knowledge to the table and be able to dialogue over implementation.  Rather than passively receiving information as if they are blank slates, they are allowed to make connections of new knowledge to existing knowledge.  (Sounds like good teaching)  It should be grounded in inquiry, collaboration, and linked to the teacher’s desire to improve student achievement.  Subject matter and teaching methods are connected at the hip and are not isolated.  We need to get smarter on how we utilize this time. Yet, once a month in-services are far from enough to impact teaching and learning and will not have any significant impact on a system unless it is accompanied with embedded on the job learning during the school day.  This is coupled with opportunities outside the school day to increase and enhance learning if applicable.  I believe the most authentic form of professional development we can engage in is with the Professional Learning Community approach.

I have been researching, implementing, and experimenting with the idea of Professional Learning Communities as a viable mode of authentic professional development for about 5 years now.  I have relied heavily on the work of Richard and Rebecca DuFour as well as many other educational theorists such as Doug Reeves, Robert Marzano, and Mike Schmoker.  Simply put, Professional Learning Communities consist of teams of teachers “whose members work interdependently to achieve common goals linked to the purpose of learning of all.” (DuFour 3)  It is action oriented rather than intention driven.  These teams develop a goal, plan assessment and instruction, implement consistently, and then evaluate their results to ensure that all students are learning.  The main goal of a Professional Learning Community is Learning.  Teaching drives but Learning is the destination.  If we consistently and narrowly focus only on instruction and rarely if ever on learning then we are blindly throwing darts with our student’s futures.

The research emphatically states that the foundation of a highly functional PLC is that it is grounded in a SMART goal.     What the SMART goal does is provide a compelling vision for a team of teachers to work towards.  It is based in authentic data that is classroom based and real.  It guides the work, centers it on student learning using instructional design and quality assessment.  Although common planning is critical, if there is no vision to what we want the planning to specifically address and it is never measured to see is impact on student learning, then it ends with planning.  What becomes the norm is that planning is enough and we hope that students learn what we are teaching before moving on to the next set of standards.  The SMART Goal must compel educators to look at their work through a critical lens and actively measure what works and what does not so we may replicate best practice and ensure that students learn.

According to Cedar Rapid Schools, who I feel has expanded quite nicely on the acronym, they define SMART goals as:   S – specific, significant, stretching M – measurable, meaningful, motivational A – agreed upon, attainable, achievable, acceptable, action-oriented R – realistic, relevant, reasonable, rewarding, results-oriented T – time-based, timely, tangible, trackable.  These types of goals can be set with students as well as PLCs.  It can be turned into an us (teachers and students) against the curriculum.

I feel in our initial implementation of SMART goals, we were too narrow, to rigid, not flexible, and did not drive our learning.  This is not to the fault of the practitioners.  We fell from our use of this tool as the basis of our learning and used the PLC as a survival tool.  We used it to survive new standards, new curriculum, changing expectations.  It became a Professional Planning Community.  Do not get me wrong.  There was and is a lot of learning going on in this mode.  Teachers are creating syllabuses, common assessments, common lessons, common questions, and common pacing.  Teaching is becoming less and less isolated. Yet,  this is only a piece of the power of PLCs.   It is time now that we take it one step further and revisit the PLC SMART goal as the measure of our effectiveness.

What does this look like?  I keep going back to What if:

  1. Teachers came together and identified a certain amount of essays or writings they wanted students to complete. (say in the 10th Grade)
  2. Teachers then created a high quality rubric together focusing explicitly on the skill they are wanting to address.  (Say sentence structure and conventions is a perceived weakness.)
  3. The next step would be to create an initial assessment of writing in order to identify where their students are at in regards to the highest area of the rubric and subsequent assessments to continue to measure growth
  4. Teachers would then analyze what percent of students were able to reach proficiency on this rubric and how many students did not.  (Example:  30% of our students were able to show proficient use of sentence structures and conventions)  I say use because these need to be taught and assessed in the context of writing, not isolated from it.
  5. A SMART goal is now created based on the results of this assessment setting a high goal that is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time based.  ( We want 80% of our student to show proficiency on our assessment of sentence structures and conventions.)
  6. The PLC then creates highly engaging, highly effective, research based lessons that address these areas specifically.  Here they can share the load, each taking an approach, then critiquing these lessons to improve upon them.
  7. They create a timeline of the lessons they are going to teach and when they are going to assess.
  8. Teachers now come together to collectively analyze the results of the assessments and measure progress towards the SMART Goal.
  9. Here the cycle continues to repeat until SMART Goal is met or the creation of a new SMART goal is created.

DuFour puts forth the following questions consistently in his work.  I believe they deserve a mention here.

  1. What do we want students to know?
  2. How do we know when they learned it?
  3. What do we do when they didn’t learn it?
  4. What do we do when they have learned it?

In my district, I feel we have gotten complacent with our Professional Learning Communities.  We have abandoned the SMART GOAL and have allowed this critical piece of staff development to fall with loose frameworks.  Our focus has become getting through standards, focusing only on instruction, and very little focus on authentic learning.  We must allow ourselves the opportunity to let SMART GOALS create a compelling vision of learning.   Although these blanket statements have exceptions in our systems, the status quo falls underneath this umbrella.

Standards are not enough.  I believe the chance of a Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum dramatically increases with the  diligent implementation of Professional Learning Communities.