Designing Inquiry-Based PLCs to Differentiate Instruction and Drive School-Wide Improvement

Designing Inquiry-Based PLCs to Differentiate Instruction and Drive School-Wide Improvement first appeared on Compass Learning’s Navigator Blog on December 17, 2013.
In my role at Compass Learning, I have the opportunity to work with customers all around the world who are using data to differentiate instruction. Earlier this month at the AdvancED – Latin America Conference 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia, I shared with attendees some of the best practices we’re seeing leading educators employ to accomplish a school-wide focus on using data to differentiate instruction and achieve greater learning outcomes. This blog is a synopsis of my presentation.
Richard DuFour, leading authority on professional learning communities (PLCs), says, “People use (the term PLC) to describe every imaginable combination of individuals with an interest in education – a grade-level teaching team, a school committee, a high school department, an entire school district, a state department of education, a national professional organization, and so on.”
More simply put, a PLC is a team of teachers and administrators taking responsibility for student outcomes. The core attribute of a PLC is the shift from a teaching mindset, to a learning mindset, with a commitment not simply to ensure that students are taught, but to ensure they actually learn. This simple shift – from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning – has profound implications for schools.
Schools that establish inquiry-based PLCs for the specific purpose of looking at student data to inform curriculum, instruction, and intervention are having the most success.

Prior to joining Compass Learning, I served as a district administrator in New York City, where I directed the city’s assessments. While there, I was involved in the development of the city’s framework for PLCs, which we termed “Inquiry Teams.” Inquiry teams are PLCs that engage explicitly in a data-informed cycle of action research intended to engage the whole school in broadening the school’s “sphere of success” for all students.
The inquiry process is a modification of the Deming quality improvement process of Plan, Do, Check, Act, but one that starts with analyzing data to identify areas of needed improvement.
Step 1: Analyze data to identify focus group
Members of the inquiry team look broadly at their school performance data to identify a school-wide focus group – students who are falling outside the school’s sphere of success.
Choose this group by reflecting on your school’s strengths and weaknesses, such as:

  • Too few students achieving reading proficiency by 4th grade
  • Underserving high-talented kids who could be more successful in AP classes
  • Students who are failing Algebra I

Step 2: Analyze data to identify learning targets
The inquiry team analyzes data to identify the specific learning challenges that are preventing success for those students.
Step 3: Design change strategy and set goals
The team designs an instructional improvement strategy and sets improvement goals. Here’s where collaborative review and discussion of learning expectations among teachers is so powerful, as they discuss what it means for students to master these skills and calibrate their lessons and assessments to common levels of rigor.
Of course, the challenging step in the process is addressing the “now what?” What do we do now that we know these students need to master specific foundational skills that have been holding them back? The diagnosis is only as helpful as the prescription. And identifying appropriate instructional resources, developing targeted lesson plans, finding time for a teacher to teach those lessons in addition to his or her regular lessons, and assess student mastery of those targeted skills is all supremely difficult. Here’s where technologies that curate, align, and recommend good instructional resources based on assessment data can make a seemingly impossible task more manageable.
Step 4: Teach, learn, assess!
In the spirit of collaborative commitment to these students’ success, another critical piece of the inquiry process is to commit to improving practice. Typically it’s not only that we’re not teaching foundational knowledge and skills, it’s that we’re not teaching them effectively or at the right time.
So, inquiry teams commit to observing one another’s lessons, providing feedback, and revising their lessons and practice. They look at early indicators and interim data to see if their strategy is working. And they convene regularly to discuss and make course corrections.
Step 5: Reflect
In this final step, the goal is to reflect on what worked and didn’t work with the instructional improvement strategy, and refine it for future use. The team reflects on outcomes, refines the strategy for future use, and reflects on the larger school-wide conditions that produced the learning challenges in the first place.
It’s this broader view that directs the inquiry process toward more than simply addressing the needs of selected students. Inquiry teams commit to analyzing and addressing the conditions that kept those students outside the school’s sphere of success in the first place.
Broader change strategies might include things like restarting your vertical team work, or revising PD to ensure that critical skills are being addressed in greater depth across grades as students progress. This reflection on broader conditions and change strategies results in a spiraling continuous improvement cycle, as we consider how to propagate and institutionalize our changes to achieve broader impact across the school.
Best Practices of Successful Inquiry-Based PLCs
Here are some best practices I’ve seen for effective inquiry-centered PLCs:

  • Student centered – They start with the question of whether all students are learning what they need to know, and if not, why. They measure their success by student outcomes – are we making a difference in student success?
  • Intentional – They set out to identify and provide timely, proactive interventions for students that fall outside the school’s sphere of success. School leaders create time and support structures for teachers (and students and parents) to analyze data, design instructional improvement strategies, and reflect on outcomes. They reflect on and modify practice based on whether they are achieving results.
  • Collaborative – They create structures that overcome isolated classrooms and help educators, students, and families work together for success. Their members are committed to and empowered to foster continuous improvement of the school as a whole, including their own performance and the conditions that limit success.

Outcomes of Successful Inquiry-Based PLCs
When done right, PLCs:

  • Develop a culture of collaboration
  • Encourage a culture of inquiry and continuous, evidence-based improvement of student learning
  • Cultivate assessment and data literacy
  • Achieve greater success for more students

These impacts on the overall health of the school as a learning organization make inquiry-based PLCs a strong lever for sustained improvement and student success.

For more on PLCs see:

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