Collaborative learning earns teachers praise


  • Aug 12: Clayton, DeKalb, Fayette and Fulton counties
  • Forsyth County, Marietta city started Aug. 1
  • Cherokee, Henry and Rockdale counties started Aug. 5
  • Atlanta city, Buford city, Cobb, Douglas and Gwinnett counties started Aug. 7
  • Decatur city, Paulding County started Aug. 1

Surprised teachers got the red carpet treatment as they paraded into Northwestern Middle School and were surrounded by cheering parents and the marching band’s booming drums.

It isn’t every day that teachers receive such recognition, but these flattered educators won their hero’s welcome last week after their school was honored as a national model for successful teaching.

The teachers improved academic results after implementing a process called Professional Learning Communities, which emphasizes collaboration. Basically, teachers share information on students’ weaknesses and strengths, brainstorm how to improve lessons and provide each child with any extra help needed.

Northwestern Middle in Alpharetta was named a Model PLC School last month by professional development company Solution Tree through its website, All Things PLC. It’s the only school in Georgia and one of fewer than 200 nationally that have qualified for the designation by improving academic results and implementing PLC practices.

“It absolutely works,” said Principal Jasmine Kullar. “Teachers for so many years have worked in isolation. It’s no longer about teaching the kids on your roster. It’s about helping all the kids.”

PLCs have become an increasing education reform trend since they were introduced in the late 1990s, but most schools that have tried them haven’t embraced the concept as much as Northwestern Middle.

Here’s how PLCs work at Northwestern Middle, which has about 1,300 students and 100 teachers:

Each grade level’s teachers in a certain subject — seventh-grade math teachers for example — meet at least once a week during their planning periods to review student academic performance. They exchange student test scores and decide which teaching strategies are and aren’t working. They learn from each other and plan how to reach struggling students.

The idea wasn’t popular when Kullar first introduced it after she took leadership of the school in 2011. Teachers resisted the idea that they’d have to give the same tests so that student performance would be measurable, and they worried about being assessed by their peers.

“Everybody was fearful of being judged and that the administration was going to use the data to say it’s a teacher’s fault when a student doesn’t meet an objective,” said eighth-grade language arts teacher Christie Street.

Street was one of those distrustful teachers, but she changed her mind after seeing that PLCs helped her become a better teacher by learning from her co-workers. Now, she wears a T-shirt saying, “I love PLC.”

Northwestern Middle’s students performed well academically before PLCs were introduced, but the new teaching method helped the school further improve, Kullar said. The percentages of students passing or exceeding the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test have consistently increased, according to data collected on the All Things PLC website.

Many schools across the country have implemented PLCs to some extent, but teacher quality will only improve if educators buy into data-driven information sharing, said Jacob Mishook, a senior research associate for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

“The teachers need to feel that they can be critical friends to one another, that they can be candid and there’s not going to be a lot of pointing fingers,” Mishook said. “When PLCs are done well, you see a culture change with more discussion and strategies to improve student performance. When PLCs are done badly, it’s like any other reform done badly.”

A key element needed for PLCs to work is for schools to align planning periods so that all the teachers in the same grade level and subject can meet once a week. At these meetings, which last about an hour and a half at Northwestern Middle, the teachers review lesson plans, discuss teaching ideas and analyze students’ test results.

At Northwestern, Kullar moved classrooms so that teachers handling the same subjects were close to each other and could have informal hallway meetings throughout the day.

Although tests were made uniform, that doesn’t mean all teachers have to instruct the same material in the same way, said Deana Skimel, who teaches eighth-grade social studies.

“The big fear everyone has when you start talking about PLCs is they think it’s going to be cookie-cutter teaching,” she said.

But once teachers realized they can learn from each other, they opened up to different teaching methods, said sixth-grade science teacher Regina Karow. For example, she learned from her PLC group how to better use technology in class.

“It’s not about us anymore. It’s about the child’s learning. That comes first,” Karow said.

Another obstacle is the time and effort required to evaluate each student’s needs. Northwestern’s teachers acknowledge it was difficult at first, but the PLC paid off when teachers learned to shared the load, said eighth-grade language arts teacher Ann Gambill.

“You really don’t have more work to do. The PLC works for you,” she said.

Every school in Fulton County and most in the Atlanta area have created some version of a learning community to provide teachers more professional development, said Lydia Conway, executive director of professional learning for Fulton County Schools. But Northwestern Middle has gone a step further than other schools in how it examines student data and makes changes to instruction, she said.