May 16, 2019

By Michael Harris

Professional learning communities (PLCs) have become popular in K–12 schools and districts due to:

  • Their emphasis on collaboration
  • Their focus on using data to drive decisions and actions
  • Their ability to discover insights that improve both instruction and student learning outcomes

While PLCs have a lot of value to offer, districts often encounter a number of logistical and procedural challenges in their PLC structure and culture.

In this blog, I’ll discuss the four benefits of PLC meetings, along with four common struggles districts face with PLC meetings. I’ll also offer tangible solutions to overcome these challenges.

What is a PLC meeting?

As noted above, a PLC is a professional learning community. Using a collaborative approach, small groups of educators meet regularly to discuss:

  • Professional development
  • Expertise and insights from teaching experiences
  • Collective problem-solving

Inquiry and reflection are the foundation of every PLC meeting, with educators asking questions such as:

  • How certain strategies impact students’ learning
  • What skills gaps are still present
  • What should be done differently in the future

PLC meetings promote continued professional development as educators review student data, discuss teaching practices, and offer feedback.

PLC meetings require intentional effort or they won’t produce the desired outcomes.

happy student taking notes

4 reasons why PLC meetings are important

PLC meetings are focused on each student’s learning. When the PLC framework is applied properly, educators are encouraged to embrace high levels of learning for all students as the foundation of the organization and the responsibility of those in it.

PLC meetings allow educators to make a collective commitment to work together to clarify…

  • What each student needs to learn
  • How to monitor this learning; and
  • When intervention is needed

…to ensure all students receive the necessary time and support to overcome struggles—and to also extend and enrich learning for students who are already meeting targets.

Let’s take a deeper look at each of the benefits of regular and effective PLC meetings.

#1: PLC meetings directly improve teaching and learning

PLC meetings encourage brainstorming and idea sharing among educators to help improve learning and drive student achievement. Through good communication, educators can uncover what is working in the classroom and what is not working.

Learning communities enhance teacher reflection through the sharing of data across classes and grade levels, allowing educators to take ownership of each student’s education.

#2: PLC meetings foster strong relationships between educators

Through weekly meetings, bonds are formed that help create a team of leaders within the school or district. With defined roles based on the strengths of all members, trust and mutual respect allow opinions to be shared freely.

Strong relationships among educators, especially in the PLC, form the foundation for continued learning success.

#3: PLC meetings allow educators to focus on new research and emerging classroom technology

Collaboration within a district and beyond provides ongoing opportunities for educators to learn from each other. Social media platforms allow teachers worldwide to create a community of practice that goes well beyond their own classrooms.

A variety of communication channels and tools are available for educators to share ideas and best practices, join chat groups or video calls, and collaborate in the moment.

Ongoing professional development is at the heart of PLC meetings by informing teachers about emerging research and new tools and technology for their classrooms.

Teachers are also given the opportunity to see what other schools, cities, states, and countries are doing in their classrooms and whether or not it’s working.

#4: PLC meetings help teachers reflect on ideas

When learning from other PLC members, educators can reflect on ways to improve teaching and adjust practices. Value and purpose are added when educators from varying backgrounds come together to brainstorm and share their experience.

PLCs put a focus on the questions related to learning so that educators can create strategies and resources that promote student achievement.

Student success must always be the focus of PLC meetings.

Insights to drive student learning

Discover how Renaissance solutions provide data and insights to support more effective instruction.

4 PLC meeting struggles–and how to solve them

When done right, a PLC meeting has all educators working collaboratively toward the continuous improvement of student achievement. However, to get the most out of PLC meetings, educators must overcome the following struggles:

#1: Unclear purpose

First, many districts struggle with effectively communicating the PLC’s purpose and the goal(s) of individual meetings. PLCs can serve so many purposes that we can’t assume everyone inherently understands each meeting’s goal.

In fact, Richard DuFour, a pioneer of the PLC framework, remarked that “the term has been used so ubiquitously that it is in danger of losing all meaning.” If there is ambiguity or confusion about why your PLC is meeting, it makes it very difficult to achieve the meeting’s goal(s).

Solution for effective PLC meetings: Identify your “why”

As a foundational—but sometimes overlooked—step, it’s critical that districts clearly state their “why” behind institutionalizing PLCs. What is the goal or mission?

Ensure your team is aware of the guiding questions that should be a part of the PLC. DuFour suggests the following questions:

  1. What do students need to learn?
  2. How will we know when each student has learned it?
  3. How will we respond when a student either has or has not learned it?

#2: Data literacy

Hand in hand with understanding the PLC’s purpose is understanding data’s role in the PLC’s work. The confusion here might exist at a few different levels:

  • Why data? Here, PLC members are unsure how data connects to the goal of the PLC in general (e.g., We haven’t used data in the past, so why should we now?)
  • What data? There may also be confusion about which data is needed for the PLC’s purpose—or, a lack of deep knowledge around those data sources (e.g., What should we be looking at or looking for?)
  • When? Finally, there may be confusion around balanced assessment systems and the importance of regularly looking at different data at different points in the school year (e.g., Why do we need to do this so often?)

Typically, these types of questions indicate a need to enhance or support data literacy within the team.

parent teacher conference

Solution for effective PLC meetings: Address the why, what, & when of data

Try making a point of deliberately addressing these points during PLC meetings, and provide an opportunity and safe environment for PLC members to ask questions. In fact, you might even dedicate a meeting to answering these questions, so members can take ownership of the process.

Here are some strategies to consider:

Understanding “The Why”: Have your teams work in small groups to fill in the following question: “We need data at our PLC meetings so we can _____________.” The benefit here is that your PLC members are empowered to explore the reasons for themselves. They will begin to understand the extent to which they have access to the data they need, so that they can analyze it and ultimately take action.

Understanding “The What”: As a starting place, check out our Comprehensive Assessment System webpage for a discussion of the different types of student data available. Common assessment blueprints, curriculum maps, and other vendor-provided assessment resources are also helpful for developing deep knowledge about specific data sources.

Understanding “The When”: Looking at data beyond seasonal screening results can be a paradigm shift in and of itself for some districts. Work together to identify how often pertinent data is available and what kinds of questions this data can and cannot answer.

#3: Lack of norms and documentation

A hallmark of highly effective PLC meetings is that they have an established set of norms and effective documentation practices. Key topics and action steps are documented so they can be revisited during future discussions as necessary. 

But many PLCs meet, review data, and share insights without documenting what they’ve discussed or the next steps that the members have agreed upon.

This can result in a lack of evidence or rationale for decisions and an inability to quickly recall salient points—which creates inefficiencies and, ultimately, ineffective practices.

Solution for effective PLC meetings: Know your “how”

At the beginning of the school year, establish group norms that support productive work and are focused on growth. Examples might include:

  1. We respect the work of our colleagues and students.
  2. We start and end every meeting on time.
  3. We always make decisions based on multiple measures.
  4. We follow a data protocol.

Throughout the year, be sure that your PLC meetings always have an agenda. Articulating the goals and tasks for a meeting helps ensure that the highest priority topics are addressed first and also keeps the meeting on track.

Without creating (and sticking to) an agenda, meetings can feel disorganized and are prone to be taken over by conversations that should be taken offline or addressed later. Be sure to record action items and review task assignments before ending the meeting.

Finally, be sure that your agenda is realistic for what can be accomplished. If you try to pack too much information or too many tasks into a single meeting, it can cause frustration and a feeling that the work “never gets done.”

Some PLCs choose to schedule out their meeting focuses. For example, they might review student data in three meetings per month, and then allocate a fourth meeting to professional development.

Others find it helpful to meet more frequently for a shorter period of time. That way, tasks can be broken up over several meetings without delaying progress, and the struggle of finding large blocks of time in multiple busy schedules is alleviated.

#4: Lack of easily accessible, accurate data

Having access to the right data is a critical component of a PLC’s ability to review data with integrity and fidelity. Unfortunately, many teams struggle to access and bring the right data to the right meeting.

This is often a result of data silos and disparate systems. For those who do bring data to the table, it has often been pulled from a system at some point in the past and is out of date before the meeting even begins.

Furthermore, the data is often not interactive or lacks drill-down functionality that allows teachers to dig deeper into the data quickly.

Solution for effective PLC meetings: Have the right data at your fingertips

Many districts are using data dashboards to help drive decisions and understand important data. PLCs have a similar need to integrate and visualize data to drive decisions. Depending on the PLC, this might include:

  • Student-level data such as academics, attendance, and social-emotional behavior
  • Assessment blueprints for locally developed common assessments
  • Intervention information
  • Portfolios or examples of student work

Renaissance offers a unique solution for MTSS collaboration and management called eduCLIMBER, which is designed to help educators access the right information at the right time–and to answer essential questions about their students’ progress and needs.

Some final thoughts on effective PLC meetings

As the PLC framework continues to gain traction, and as students’ learning needs become increasingly urgent, school and district leaders must empower their teachers with the right tools, procedures, and data for the task.

It’s important to adopt a consistent framework for your PLC meetings that is grounded in student-centered purpose, fueled by meaningful data, and anchored in norms that promote growth and productivity.

If you’d like to learn more about how eduCLIMBER or other Renaissance solutions will support your educators in making effective, data-driven decisions, connect with an expert today.

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