Michael Williamson
Dec 21, 2016

A principal in Reading, Massachusetts asked her teachers to give up one hour every six weeks in order to meet and share their student data. During this time, the teachers came together, asked questions, shared their practices, and collaborated on ways that they could improve student learning.

Seven years later, Cathy Giles’ teachers now ask for a full day devoted to meeting as a group and analyzing student data. They have experienced firsthand how powerful working as a professional learning community is. These collaborative team meetings have helped them to improve not only their own professional practice, but also to profoundly impact the student achievement in their classrooms.

The goal of these meetings is to identify at-risk students, assign them to tiers based on calibrated data (it is important that the school team first set qualifiers, so that the assignment of students to tiers is not subjective). Once the students have been grouped according to need, the educators then move on to the imperative question, “what can we offer them?” At this point in the process, research-based intervention plans are created and customized to fit each student’s individual needs. It is essential that the teachers feel comfortable administering these interventions in their classrooms, and so they work together to ensure that they have the methods and tools to do so.

At Cathy’s school, a typical data meeting progresses somewhat like this: first, everything is related back to the school’s mission and goals. This is where the importance of establishing a school improvement plan with clear and measurable goals comes in. Relating actions back to the school’s goals sends the message that the data is essential, and helps to reinforce the shared vision for the school.

Next, different data points are pulled in. The data that Cathy’s school uses in their meetings started with guided reading, state standardized test scores, and special education information and has grown to include writing, math, and social/emotional district determined measures. The data is pulled into excel spreadsheets, which are then imported to BaselineEdge, the software tool the school uses to delve more deeply into the data and track students’ progress.

Finally, students are placed on an improvement plan and progress-monitored over a designated amount of time. During the team meetings, teachers share updates, swap strategies, ask questions, and leave re-energized and inspired.

The practice of schools holding purposeful, data-driven meetings is becoming increasingly popular. In an Alabama elementary school, educators in data meetings use color-coded sticky notes to represent students who are struggling in specific areas, like math, reading, and behavior, or experiencing social, emotional, or attendance issues.1

These notes are updated, moved around, and finally removed completely as interventions are put in place and students begin to experience success. The effective use of data is critical to the final removing of the sticky notes, as strong data can pinpoint exactly where and why a student is struggling and what actions would most benefit them. These meetings are held monthly, and educators spend time each week looking over their data.1


Read more about how one Alabama school uses data to drive success:http://blog.al.com/live/2012/05/school_testing_mobile_county.html.

While the way professional learning communities and data teams are set up and run varies district to district and even school to school, the foundation of these meetings should be similar.

According to educator, author, and consultant Richard DuFour, a professional learning community should focus more on student learning than on the teaching practice, foster educators working collaboratively, and promote accountability for results.2

DuFour suggests that participants in a professional learning community focus on three essential questions:

1) What do we want each student to learn?

2) How will we know when each student has learned it?

3) How will we respond when a student experiences difficulty learning?

The third question carries a unique importance: the effort and ability to answer this question is what distinguishes a learning community from a standard meeting.

DuFord goes on to state that three overarching concepts will result in a successful PLC meeting: ensuring that students learn, having structures in place that foster a culture of collaboration, and finally a focus on results.2

2DuFour, Richard. "What Is a "Professional Learning Community"?" Educational Leadership (2004): n. pag. Print.


Setting Up Your PLC

Kim Bailey of Solution Tree offers six essential characteristics of a PLC (adapted from Learning by Doing)3:

1. Shared mission, vision, values, goals. Educators in a PLC benefit from clarity regarding their shared purpose, a common understanding of the school they are trying to create, collective communities to help move the school in the desired direction, and specific, measurable, attainable, results‐oriented, and time‐bound (SMART) goals to mark their progress.

2. Collaborative teams focused on learning. In a PLC, educators work together interdependently in collaborative teams to achieve common goals for which they are mutually accountable. The structure of the school is aligned to ensure teams are provided the time and support essential to adult learning.  “Collaboration is a systematic process in which we work together, interdependently, to analyze and impact professional practice in order to improve our individual and collective results.”

3. Collective inquiry. Teams in a PLC relentlessly question the status quo, seek new methods of teaching and learning, test the methods, and then reflect on the results. Building shared knowledge of both current reality and best practice is an essential part of each team’s decision‐making process.

4. Action orientation and experimentation. Members of a PLC constantly turn their learning and insights into action. They recognize the importance of engagement and experience in learning and in testing new ideas. They learn by doing.

5. Commitment to Continuous improvement. Not content with the status quo, members of a PLC constantly seek better ways to achieve mutual goals and accomplish their fundamental purpose of learning for all.  All teams engage in an ongoing cycle of:

  • Gathering evidence of current levels of student learning
  • Developing strategies and ideas to build on strengths and address weaknesses in that
  • learning
  • Implementing the strategies and ideas
  • Analyzing the impact of the changes to discover what was effective and what was not
  • Applying the new knowledge in the next cycle of continuous improvement

6. Results orientation. Educators in a PLC assess their efforts on the basis of tangible results. They are hungry for evidence of student learning and use that evidence to inform and improve their practice.  “The success of the PLC concept depends not on the merits of the concept itself, but on the most important element in the improvement of any school - the commitment and persistence of the educators within it.” - Richard DuFour


Click here for more information on setting up your professional learning community, including worksheets and examples.




Topics: Teaching & Learning