School context factor:
Data-focused professional learning communities
“A collaborative culture will not be created by chance, or even by invitation…you must embed collaborative processes into the routine practices of the school.”
DuFour, Dufour, Eaker, Many, & Matttos, 2016
A professional learning community (PLC) is defined as “a group of educators that meets regularly, shares expertise, and works collaboratively to improve teaching skills and the academic performance of students” (Glossary of Education Reform, 2014). A data-focused PLC is a group of educators who use data as the foundation for sharing expertise and working collaboratively to improve instructional skills and students’ academic achievement.
Some people balk when they see the phrase ‘data-driven,’ especially when it’s attached to teaching. Data-driven sounds aggressive, clinical, the exact opposite of the tone most school cultures seek to establish. And yet, ‘data-driven’ as an adjective sends a strong message about a school’s focus on student learning. The research is clear: when data drives the way school communities make decisions—about curriculum, instruction, and relationships within and around the classroom—people arrive at their destinations. Data can drive schools in the right direction.
We acknowledge this intention behind the phrase ‘data-driven.’ However, to stay true to a broader set of factors
that contribute to effective PLC work, namely teacher agency, dedicated time, and a supportive community (Gonzalez, 2016), we will use the term ‘data-focused’ to ensure that our recommendations are inclusive of both data-informed thinking and planning and other effective PLC design factors.
For beginning teachers, early involvement in data-focused teams is a potent school context factor for supporting their instructional effectiveness. In a research review conducted by Darling-Hammond and Richardson (2009), the authors cite several studies that suggest “collective work in trusting environments provides a basis for inquiry and reflection, allowing teachers to raise issues, take risks, and address dilemmas in their own practice” (p. 48). The most logical place for beginning teachers to encounter a data-focused culture is in a professional learning community when the members of the group are allowed to and know how to engage in “an ongoing process in which educators work collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve” (Dufour, Dufour, Eaker, & Many, 2006).