August 19, 2019
Are you monitoring the PLC work in your schools?

Many schools have incorporated time in the school day for Professional Learning Committee work. As I visit schools, I have observed that many PLCs do not work effectively and in my opinion are not discussing on the correct work. Most PLCs spend most of their time talking about the curriculum, not the instruction that drives the curriculum. An excellent teacher can teach any curriculum. The key is to develop excellent teachers.

I believe the five most important functions of PLC work are the following:

  1. Ensure that all students have a guaranteed curriculum that does not depend on what teacher the student has.
  2. Teachers should be collaborating on common lesson plans by subject and/or grade level.
  3. Teachers should be designing formative and summative assessments as a PLC team.
  4. Teachers need to grade important summative assessments as a team.
  5. Teachers need to review student summative results and adjust instruction based on the strategies that teachers who had the highest summative results used.

Last month, Marc Tucker wrote an article in Educational Leadership titled “ Let Teachers Work and Learn in Teams – Like Professionals .” Tucker refers to many PLCs as “…teachers to talk about whatever’s on their minds while everything else in the school goes on much as it has in the past.” Tucker writes that “High-performing jurisdictions like Shanghai in China, many Canadian provinces, and Singapore have transformed the workplace for teachers, changing it from an industrial-era workplace in which teachers are often treated like unskilled laborers into a place that feels like the kind of environments in which doctors, attorneys, architects, and engineers work (Callahan, 1964; Darling-Hammond et al., 2017).”

Tucker recommends some interesting ideas to increase teacher professionalism. He advises that teachers spend more time in teams and less time teaching. Educators need to think about the workday differently than we presently do. Teaching less is seen by many, both administrators and teachers, as a practice that has teachers working less hard. This is not true in the professional model. Teachers spend time together talking and practicing about the teaching.

You might ask how districts can afford for teachers to teach less. Tucker responds with examples from other countries in which class size is much larger as an example of how professional conversations can lead to higher student achievement. Another aspect of cutting costs in this model is the use of fewer school administrators because the teachers themselves are leading the learning.

This concept of professionalism is tied to another concept that public education has been studying due to ESSA and EBM and other data-driven decisions. Each conversation by teachers with teachers is about how student achievement will increase due to the new strategy or teaching method being debated. This concept reinforces the strategies around data-driven decision making which are the following:

  1. What does the research tell us about our new idea?
  2. What are goals of our discussions stated in data-driven decision way? (SMART goals, for example)
  3. What do we expect to happen if we implement this new goal?
  4. Measuring if what we expected to happen actually happened.
  5. Making adjustments based on the data collected for step 4.

An example of how this professionalism works in the teaching profession is the following. Teachers get together to do common lesson planning. Individual members of the team are responsible for researching different aspects of the lesson. The team gets together and determines the pedagogy for the lesson. One member of the team teaches the lesson with the other teachers in the room to critique the lesson. The team then meets to determine changes or modifications to the lesson. Finally, all the teachers teach the lesson.

In schools such as are highlighted in this article, teachers are in each other’s classrooms on a regular basis to learn from each other. Tucker explains that schools that operate in this fashion are seen as “learning organizations.”

Quality Frameworks for Illinois School Districts

August is a particularly busy time for school administrators and you probably are not paying much attention to the Illinois ESSA Plan for Accountability. However, IASA recorded a podcast episode with Dr. Julie Schmidt, Kildeer Countryside CCSD #96 Superintendent, on the topic of “Quality Frameworks.” You can listen to the podcast here .

Dr. Schmidt was a member of the IASA-lead Vision 20/20 team and she served on the Illinois Balanced Accountability Measure (IBAM) committee. Dr. Schmidt volunteered to pilot the Quality Frameworks in her school district during the 2017-18 school year. Even though Kildeer School District has used a Professional Learning Community approach to school, district and classroom improvement for 18 years, Dr. Schmidt voiced her support of all school districts using the Quality Frameworks for school and district improvement purposes.

By listening to the podcast, you will learn the following steps the administrative and teacher teams insisted on to back up all decisions on the Frameworks with actual data that supports their conclusions. The Quality Frameworks contain “purpose setting questions” for each of the seven standards. For example, for Standard 1, Continuous Improvement, the purpose setting questions are the following:

  1. How do we embody collaborative problem solving?
  2. How do we effectively plan for continuous improvement?
  3. What evidence do we have supporting a continuous improvement model in our district?
  4. How do we analyze student learning to determine our plan?

Dr. Schmidt recommended starting with these purpose setting questions for each standard. Your first step is to find artifacts and evidence to support your rating of the standard. The second step is to determine where your school or district functions on this standard, a type of self-assessment. The third step is to set goals based on the results of the rating on the Quality Framework rubric related to the standard being examined.

For example, in Kildeer, the leadership team decided goals needed to be set for Standard 3, Shared Leadership, and Standard 6, Family and Community Engagement. The team developed the goals and eventually presented the goals to the school board for approval. The result of self-assessing on each standard led to actionable goals toward which the district will take steps to improve over the next school year.

In the context of the movement in Illinois accountability from strictly using student proficiency (now only 20%) for accountability to using student growth (now 50%), this will offer schools and districts a great chance to tell their own story concerning the academic growth of its students. This seems to be a much better way to judge student academic progress. Students will need to grow a year in a year or, put another way, each student will need to grow more than the median growth of all students who started at the same previous year assessment score.

Peer Mentoring

In my thirteen years at IASA supporting new superintendents, I have discovered one important fact. Those new superintendents who ask questions, have an informal or formal mentor, seek peer relationships within their region and continue professional relationships with administrators they respect and look up to, continue to be the most successful first-year superintendents.

It is very important to establish a peer-to-peer relationship with at least one other school superintendent and, hopefully, with several other superintendents. For teachers we call this Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). Administrators need PLCs also. Participate in your local IASA Region meetings and make connections with area superintendents. Hopefully you have formalized a relationship with a “mentor” for your first year and, if not, perhaps you can contact past administrators you have worked with or know. It’s important to have someone with experience whom you can bounce ideas off or gather information from when making critical decisions. Remember, IASA provides a mentor to first-year superintendents at no cost. 

The most important point of this discussion is to ask multiple people questions about the same topic so that you can gather as much information as possible before making important decisions or recommendations. Reaching out to others for advice and support increases the lifeblood for success as a school superintendent.

Tell Your Public about the Positive Things Happening in Your District

We often only hear the negative things happening in K-12 public education. It is your role and the role of your staff to get the positive news communicated to your community. A great way to communicate is via social media and your district website. Have you thought about using Twitter or Facebook to communicate with your community? Some districts are using audio and/or video podcasting. Talk with your administrators and find out what the schools are doing now and discuss these new media.

Crisis Planning

There have been many instances of students bringing guns or weapons into schools over the last several years. I would advise you (as you are new to the district) to review your school crisis plans. Each of your schools should have a school crisis plan on how to handle situations that endanger student and staff safety. We are entrusted to keep the children of the community safe at school. If an unfortunate incident should occur in one of your schools, your goal is to keep everybody safe.

After you have reviewed the crisis plan, I would suggest that you convene a meeting with your local law enforcement, fire department and other emergency response personnel to get their recommendations on how to handle various emergencies. Representatives from these agencies are the experts in your community and they understand your community. Other school administrators, resource officers (if you have any) and representatives from the teacher and support staff associations should also be included in these discussions.

A common theme I’ve noticed when reading newspaper accounts of safety incidents is that some parents have been critical that the administration at the school did not notify them of the threat to safety, but the school knew how to tell the public when they were dismissing school due to heat or canceling school due to adverse winter weather.

In my opinion, the reason this becomes such a big problem so quickly is because of the availability of cell phones and popularity of social media. Even though most schools do not allow students to carry cell phones while in school, we all know that many students still do. As soon as an incident occurs, students start calling parents. Thus, it is difficult for administrators to try to deal with the critical crisis at hand and also deal with parent notification.

Some districts have purchased calling services that can instantly apprise all parents of an issue, whether that is closing school due to adverse weather, notification of a crisis, or information about an upcoming parent-teacher conference day. As a former superintendent, I can tell you that I would want to make sure I notified parents as soon as possible. A call-out system seems like a good solution, if your district can afford the expense. If you cannot afford a calling system try to get a grant to pay for the hardware. At the least, you should have personnel available to call the news media—including radio and television stations—to get your message out the same way you would for inclement weather. I have found it good practice to have a secretary trained to do this because administrators are usually busy with the crisis at hand.

Again, it is important first to ensure the safety of your students and staff. If an unfortunate incident should happen in your school district, you will eventually be facing the media and explaining what you did to keep students and staff safe. The more prepared you are in this regard, the better the school district will look in the eyes of the parents and the public.

Tip of the Week

Paul Houston (past AASA Executive Director) and Doug Eadie have published The Board-Savvy Superintendent . In the book they state, “The old-time passive-reactive school board that merely responds to finished staff work cannot provide the leadership that the times demand: in making truly strategic decisions, in selecting key district innovation targets, in monitoring district educational and administrative performance, and in building district ties to the wider community.”

The point they are making is that the old adage of the Board making policy and the Superintendent managing the school district is not an accurate depiction of today’s board-superintendent relationships. I totally agree with these writers. In all my years as a superintendent, I never served a school board that wanted to devote itself entirely to policy and left the leadership and management of the school district up to the administration. The board members I served with were professional people who were intelligent, active community members. They were concerned about the education of all students. They had great leadership and management ideas that we were able to learn from and implement.

In your role as a new superintendent, use the talents of your school board members to maximize the educational opportunities you can give to your students. The relationship between the Board and the Superintendent is not distinct. The relationship is constantly changing and superintendents need to adapt to the needs of the Board and the community. Involve your board and your community in determining the mission, vision and goals of their schools.
For more information, please contact:

Dr. Richard Voltz
Associate Director
Professional Development/Induction-Mentoring
2648 Beechler Court
Springfield, IL 62703
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