TLC for School PLCs
Dennis Pierce
November 29, 2017

School improvement is both a technical and a social process. Superior technique alone is insufficient to bring about improvement. Teachers, like doctors and other practice-based professionals, are most willing to try something new when someone they trust recommends it. In Mishawaka, Indiana, teachers are excited about a new effort under way to create a “culture of excellence” by identifying and replicating promising practices across their schools—led by them.

In many school systems, even common-sense improvements fail to catch on because teachers perceive these reforms as being forced on them from above. Officials from the School City of Mishawaka, a district with about 5,000 students, didn’t want this to happen. Beginning this year, the district has rolled out professional learning communities in each school, focused on a simply defined goal: to improve student learning by finding, celebrating, and duplicating the success that exists throughout every building. What’s more, these PLCs are being led by the teachers themselves, following a model known as the Supporting Teacher Effectiveness Project or STEP.

Designed as a catalyst for change and improvement in schools, STEP was developed by Insight Education Group in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Kitamba, American Institutes for Research, and other key organizations to develop an approach to help teachers solve problems through discovering, testing, and sharing better practices.

Beginning in 2013, STEP was developed in collaboration with educators in Long Beach Unified School District in California and refined with additional implementations in Boston Public Schools and Aspire Public Schools in 2015.

The STEP model applies the concept of “positive deviance,” an asset-based, problem-solving, and community-driven approach that enables the community of teachers to discover successful behaviors and strategies from within and develop a plan of action to promote adoption across their schools. STEP leads teachers to discern when changes lead to improvement and when they do not. As a result, the process influences positive changes in culture, mindset, and relationships among teachers, students, and school communities—and these high-yield strategies ultimately yield impact on student learning.

An Achilles heel of teacher-led initiatives is placing an expectation upon teachers but not providing appropriate supports to meet these expectations. To effectively equip them and to ensure productive dialogue during collaboration, the model includes four key ingredients:

  1. Effective facilitation
  2. Data and assessment literacy
  3. Content and contextual knowledge
  4. Leadership and culture

Critical to the success of this model is a distributed leadership approach that assumes everyone has something to contribute. This means that principals and other building leaders have to be willing to step back and let change happen from the ground up—while still providing the support that is needed for this to occur.

To prepare for this shift, Mishawaka held a two-day summer “boot camp” within the district. The principals at each school identified faculty who exhibited a growth mindset, were eager to learn, and would be influential in their buildings. All Mishawaka principals and teacher leaders attended the boot camp to immerse themselves in the STEP process.

‘Peers Leading Peers’

Professional learning communities have tremendous potential to improve teaching. In PLCs, teachers can work with one another to discover and create new practices to help their students succeed. They can develop trust among colleagues who support their efforts to improve. However, it isn’t guaranteed that this happens. Most school system administrators who have had experience with PLCs know that they differ widely in their ability to transform teaching practice. Often, they only help individual teachers improve and with very few that help schools themselves improve.

In Mishawaka, PLCs are facilitated entirely by teacher leaders, or as Director of Student Learning and Innovation Sarah Hickle described the process, “peers leading peers.” The principals take part in the PLCs within their buildings, but “they are learning right along with their staff,” she noted.

In the elementary and middle schools, these communities include teams of teachers across all grade levels and content areas. In the high schools, there are content-specific PLCs that span all grade levels. To encourage participation, the district has established what it calls “late-start Wednesdays” to set aside dedicated time for the PLCs to meet each week.

Hickle helped establish PLCs in another district prior to arriving in Mishawaka. She said the PLCs she’s involved with in Mishawaka are quite different, and she’s excited about their potential to transform instruction. Rather than focusing on problems in the school, through STEP, teachers focus on what is working and what is producing significant student learning.  Then through action research, those practices are studied to see if they can be replicated to help more students. 

Ensuring that both principals and teacher leaders receive training, and letting teachers assume ownership of the process, “has definitely increased the buy-in to these efforts,” she said. “Already I have seen such a collective power from the teacher leaders in leading these changes within their buildings. They are supporting their peers in new and exciting ways. They are driving changes in the district and feel they have a voice in the decision-making process.”

When teachers and school leaders get together to discuss improvement, often the focus is on what staff aren’t doing well. This can have a demoralizing effect on educators, Hickle said. By looking for bright spots and then trying to apply them school-wide, teachers feel energized to succeed.

Principals Are Pivotal

Although Mishawaka teachers are being empowered as leaders, principals and other administrators still play a pivotal role in fostering an environment of trust and support that allows the PLCs to flourish. “The training this summer helped me realize the importance of preparing people to be better listeners during collaboration,” said Mike Fisher, principal of John Young Middle School. “It also gave us great tools to help teachers come to a consensus about what we value and where we want to go.”

The aim is to equip principals throughout the district with a common language about instruction. Dan Towner, principal of Beiger Elementary School, said he anticipates “significant growth” using the STEP model as a framework for the school’s PLCs.

“Lasting change best comes from those most impacted,” he explained. “A top-down approach will often result in temporary compliance. However, change that is generated and enacted upon by classroom teachers is most likely to be enduring.”

Dennis Pierce is a freelance writer who has been covering ed tech for more than 20 years.