Using data in Professional Learning Communities


This morning I attended a full morning sessions on a framework for coherence in school reform.  The presenters are all from New Jersey, where the framework is an agreed upon common practice called the Connected Action Roadmap (CAR). The presenters are Vicky Duff, Donna McInerney, and Patrica Wright.

The sessions starts with a Think-Pair-Share on why change does not work.  Then the presenters bring us back in and summarize their thinking as initiative fatigue, including:

  • Too much change
  • Flavor of the month
  • Little “buy-in” (I’d call this one lack of a compelling case for change)
  • Lack of leadership understanding or knowledge of how to support it

They move through many common elements of an early presentation including learning outcomes, essential questions (there are a lot of them – four) and some expectations and norms.  Because I have led a lot of professional learning, I often watch the structures of a professional learning structure from outside to think about how they are functioning.  I like the process used with the norms, which asks us to consider which one each of us as individuals most needs to consider.

After all the initial conversation wraps, we do a four corners activity about our assumptions.  This type of activity is a strong formative assessment activity in the classroom or a teacher learning workshop.  In this case, it helped me see what is common and different in Canadian and American thinking about professional learning groups.  I got really uncomfortable when we started talking about a need for high fidelity implementation of standards with identical lesson goals and instructional strategies.  I do think is is important for us all to teach provincial curriculum, but not in exactly the same way.  I can’t imagine how individual teacher’s strengths and differentiation for students would occur when everyone does the same thing each time. Many of the other common barriers raised by the process did resonate, like not understanding purpose, lack of individual responsibility, have data but not making changes based on it, etc.  I do keep noticing that everyone else is talking about buy-in, when I am talking about providing a compelling why.

Dufours’ common questions for PLC are discussed next, and I still like them as great questions for departments or PLCs:

  • What do we want our students to know?
  • What strategies do students need in order to master the learning goals?
  • What instructional activities will help teach students the strategies they need?
  • How do we know when they know it?
  • What do we do it they don’t know or already know?
  • How can we best address these questions in order to build knowledge ad skills effectively and consistently  across grade levels in the content area/across content areas?

The group notes that when PLCs are focused on these areas, they are very effective is supporting teacher and student learning.

The presenters next spend a while explaining how student learning improvement is the central goal, and PLCs, Curriculum, effective instruction, and formative/summative assessment serve that goal. When they move into the role of the administrator in the climate and monitoring, I get concerned. I am with the presenter when she says monitoring everyone’s lesson plans is not good, but I am not sure monitoring everyone’s unit plans (her alternative) is much better.  I am reminded again that as a facilitator, I may run into opposing assumptions and need to address them for someone to move on. I can see that given their model, unit plans are great data about what elements of unit planning are well understood.

Some time later we come back to ten (I condensed to nine) PLC conversations that I like, and do a cross-pollination activity between the questions and a unit planning template. I have transformed it to Saskatchewan curriculum language here:

  1. Unpack the outcomes in simple, student friendly language
  2. Cluster outcomes and indicators into units
  3. Create essential questions
  4. Create summative assessments including rubrics, examples and non-examples
  5. Design pre-assessments
  6. Design learning experiences, including instructional activities that are best given the outcomes, and formative assessments.  Check to be sure you are not using your preferred instructional strategies over and over.
  7. Analyze formative assessment as you teach the unit to plan differentiation and responsive instruction
  8. Analyze summative assessment data to refine unit and choose targets for more professional learning
  9. Discuss grading and strive for consistency.

I notice the process is much more focused on planning and instructing that our current TLG or CIT work, with a strong emphasis on curriculum. It would require a variety of teachers teaching the same curriculum in order for it to work.

The facilitator share access to their online moodle, used to support their PLC process for teachers and leaders.  If you’d like to explore the topics or see an example of blended staff development, create an account.

Perhaps the most useful elements of the day were about how to use pre-assessments to plan and common formative assessments to discuss. We tried several activities practice looking at data then considering what to do next in planning and instruction.  We used some common rules that helped to guide the process.


  1. Be honest about what the data are saying about your current reality.
  2. No blaming.
  3. Focus on what the data says and does not say about the progress of each student.
  4. Recognize it is not about you, it is about what you can do next to improve success. The data is not a reflection on your teaching because it is influenced by many factors and it is formative. However, the action you take is a reflection of your dedication and professionalism.

Next steps you control:

  1. Reflect on how instruction could be changed.
  2. Share best practices for what to do when things don’t go well.
  3. Review your assessments to ensure they are measuring outcomes
  4. What will you do next for students who were not proficient?
  5. Consider revisions to your unit.

We looked through sample data sets together to make plans for next steps in instruction. The data helped explicitly describe who we needed to differentiate for and about what, and when it was important to reteach and how. This workshop was a good model for strong facilitation and modeled process for using data I’ll definitely use in my work in the future. I also like how we cycled back and directly addressed each of issues we identified initially.

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