07 September 2008

Jumping the Shark: PLCs

If you're new to the term "Jumping the Shark," it is defined by JumptheShark.com as "...a moment. A defining moment when you know that your favorite television program has reached its peak. That instant that you know from now on...it's all downhill. Some call it the climax. We call it 'Jumping the Shark.' From that moment on, the program will simply never be the same." Why the weird term? For you youngsters out there, "The aforementioned expression refers to the telltale sign of the demise of Happy Days, our favorite example, when Fonzie actually 'jumped the shark.' The rest is history."

There are several ways a program can show that demonstrate that it has run its course, many of which happen after the public is fatigued of hearing/reading/talking about the show---overexposure making the producers think they need something "fresh."

I got to wondering about whether or not this happens in education after reading Polski3's post about PLCs. If you haven't heard of PLCs, the acronym (we do luvs us some acronyms in education) stands for Professional Learning Communities. According to SEDL, PLCs are groups of "teachers in a school and its administrators continuously seek and share learning and then act on what they learn. The goal of their actions is to enhance their effectiveness as professionals so that students benefit." (As an aside, anyone who can find a single place on the SEDL website where they explain what their acronym stands for should get a big shiny gold star. It's apparently a State secret or something.)

There's nothing wrong with the PLC concept---in fact, there's a whole lotta right with it. Teachers talking about student learning and instruction? Downright awesome. But it is perilously close to jumping the shark when mass implementation occurs without the necessary structures in place. It becomes another one of those things that schools say they do, but---to borrow another perilously poised on waterskis term---don't "implement with fidelity." (RtI, anyone?) We toss out the idea of PLCs to teachers without working through issues of time for meetings, protocols for discussions, and coaching on which changes to instruction will move more kids forward. We assume that every teacher already has the skills and desire to make PLCs work. Worse yet, we think that PLCs will be a one-size-fits-all mode of staff development that will best serve all teachers. We do this because there is some good research coming out about the effectiveness of PLCs. Admins and teacher leaders go to conferences and drink the kool-aid. Some teams of teachers will thrive, others will implode due to personality conflicts, lack of administrative support, or other reasons.

It doesn't take a long time to find the grizzled veterans in a school---the ones who don't buy into anything new presented to them because they either believe "This, too, shall pass." as have hundreds of other initiatives over the years or because "Everything old is new again.": they've seen and done it before, only with a differently named package. Either way, they can smell a shark a mile away. Are there ways to prevent this? Education doesn't have a very good track record of starting something and then leaving it in place long enough to really determine if its working. With PLCs, you're talking about a significant change in the way many schools do business. Are we going to take care with how we do this...or are we just going to let it go and wait until the next feeding frenzy?


ms-teacher said...

We have implemented PLC's. We were given a lot of information on our two buy-back (optional staff development days) prior to the start of school. The problem with that is we always have a handful of teachers who never come to the buy-back days. These are the same teachers who are not involved on the leadership team, where we discuss in length the concept of PLC's.

We have teachers who know nothing about PLC's, but are expected to implement it. Our admin keeps plowing on through without any realization that he is preaching to the choir. Those of us who continue to be actively involved in our school believe that PLC's have the possibility of working. Those who are not actively involved probably would see it as "just another fad."

Lightly Seasoned said...

BTDT. I love the idea in theory, but in the three years since we implemented PLCs, what we've mostly accomplished is figuring out how to do them. I think we were all shocked at the way they created deep divisions in the department -- suddenly we were spending time together regularly (something teachers rarely do) and put in a position to disagree.

In general my district does PD pretty well (we even received an award for it last year), but this was one case in which we could have used more support -- coaching would have gone a long way, I suspect. We spent too much time treating them like mini staff meetings.

Maybe we can be effective this year. Just in time to jump the shark!

The Science Goddess said...

Ms. Teacher: I think your observation on "choir" vs. "uninvolved" is correct. Perhaps the admin is just going after the low-hanging fruit on the staff, but at some point (just as in a classroom), they have to involve everyone. Makes me wonder if they'll try to get there...and what the union will say about that.

Lightly Seasoned: Your comment reminds me of something a friend told me the other evening. He was talking about the PLC (we didn't call it that, but that was what it was) I helped his department start about 4 years ago. He said that they're just now grooving. There is a lot of drama that groups seem to have to go through the first year or so...and no detouring around that in order to get solid.

I hope y'all can avoid Fonzie's fate!

Michaele Sommerville said...

My new district has "board adopted" PLC's as THE mode of operations district wide. The school board (all three members of it), the administration at central office, the principals and the schools "will" all operate as PLC's. Several of my interview questions when I applied for the job were about PLC's. The newly hired teachers (whether we're new to teaching or just new to this district) all have to attend "new teacher training" to include learning about PLC's in addition to regular professional development, all year long. We have been told we'll be the fresh faces, the new blood, introducing PLC's to each of our buildings.

Resistance? Oh yes. Teachers who have been around the block a time or two see PLC's as the newest "program" or "product" they have had dropped in their laps. Teachers who aren't fans of collegial groups, whose only participation in committees or staff meetings is to rattle off complaint after complaint...they refuse to dialogue productively with anyone about anything. When we are to create common assessments, and identify areas of need, teachers who can fill that need, etc... we aren't able to team teach, shift students, or take time to learn how our colleagues are succeeding so that we can try to translate that into our own classrooms. PLC's require 100% participation, 100% of the time. I haven't worked at a school yet that has been able to pull that one off.

The Science Goddess said...

Which gets into another can of worms: Should we/Can we mandate a certain type of professional development?

If we expect that teachers differentiate instruction for their students...shouldn't we expect that PD options should be differentiated for teachers?

Lightly Seasoned said...

I'm glad to know that we're at a normal stage in the process. I suspect other departments blow them off -- we're just such earnest little English teachers.

I'm also involved in a district-wide differentiation/responsive teaching PLC. While, like everyone else, I have my preferred way of doing things, I am a grown up professional and can adapt to what I have to do. Learning preferences are most effective for learning new material -- let's be honest, none of this is really new (unless you did one of those bootcamp teaching programs). And we've all been at this education gig long enough to have achieved the flexibility that is one goal of diff. instruction.

andbrooke said...

Thanks for the post and the comments. We're in our second year of PLCs at my school and it's been a bumpy ride. Our faculty has always gotten along very well, and we spend a lot of time together outside of school. The implementation of PLCs, however, has created some tension in my department. Now it's not enough to live and let live, you have to arrive at consensus.

I want PLCs to work. IF they can be collaborative work times instead of extra meetings. IF we can bring our gradebooks and safely discuss why Johnny is failing my class but not yours. IF we are grown up enough to say once in a while, "We really don't need to meet this week, let's each do our homework and e-mail it to each other." IF they can be times when I'm happy to talk to my coworkers (whom I already like) instead of times when I'm ticking off items on an agenda.

I feel like our administration doesn't know these ifs exist, much less how to address them. They provide a lot of structure, but not a lot of guidance or modeling.

So. . . I feel like it's up to me. I (and other willing teachers) need to take this top-down directive and make it work from the ground up.

Will that mean ignoring some of what the principal tells us to do? Yep. Will it mean repackaging some of the things the principal tells us to do so it sounds more less like an order and more like a good idea? Probably.

Any wisdom from those further down the path is welcome.

Ed Darrell said...

It can certainly look a lot like Professional Wheel Spinning when imposed on a group, rather than introduced and allowed to take root.

Plus, it can resemble nothing so much as propaganda if it's top-down in the flow of information.

But I suspect that, as we learned from the Hawthorne studies, the very act of doing something produces good effects, and that may be enough to justify the use of PLCs. Any good effect is better than no effect at all.

Jenna said...

I am so excited to have the terms "implemented with fidelity" defined! We've been wondering what the hell it meant... but didn't really have time to bother. We're still looking up acronyms on the intervention matrix

The Science Goddess said...

Hey, I'm glad to help...but if that's exciting, then you need to get out more. :)

I might be in your neck of the woods/state in the near future. Maybe we should finally get together for a visit.