Monday, April 27, 2009

PLC - Extensions to Education Central Office - Comparison to JiT Quality Circles

Prior Background

Starting in the early 1980's, US manufacturers implemented Just-in-Time (JiT) and Six Sigma data-driven strategies. One of methods employed was named Quality Circles. Professional Learning Communities, PLC's, can be considered variations of Quality Circles. Analogously to a Quality Circle, a PLC focuses a school on identifying problems and responding to (student) needs quickly by using data and teams. Furthermore, the twin overarching goals of JiT are reducing cost and increasing responsiveness by eliminating waste - waste of time, waste of effort, and the waste of resources and materials. In short, distractions and disruptions kill profit and responsiveness. The overarching goal for schools is student learning. All activities that detract from this goal are waste.

It should be realized that Quality Circles have a exceptionally high failure rate in business. They need a sustained level of support and guidance. PLC's are no different.

Lack of Real Support is a Reason for Failure

While most Quality Circles fail because the teams don't function well; others fail because they need real support, in the change of administrative functions, from superiors. Real Support can be unpleasant. Consider a manager getting a request from a Quality Circle: "Your policy is stupid... Do it this way... Now!" Consider pilots, graduates of military academies, listening to poorly educated soldiers: "you missed again" or "you just targeted us, you @#$@##@$@." Support means many things, including a change in methods by the boss. Letting Quality Circles die can be pleasant!

As long as PLC's don't ask the central or district office for bureaucratic change, PLC's can be very popular with central offices. This can be seen by the paucity of research and boilerplate statements on what district offices do in increasing student learning. District offices can easily forget that their role in increasing student learning must include eliminating their waste: waste of time, waste of money, and waste of focus on bureaucratic impulses.

Typical PLC-Generated Concerns for a District Office
  • Instead of tracking cuts in attendance; track and act on absences; since an absence is an absence (lost time) to student learning.
  • The same course number used for two different classes violates the most basic data organization rules. A year long class with the same course number where each semsester is graded independently confuses everyone in remedial course assignments, credit issuance, and transcript analysis.
  • Combining district data-analysis software with mandatory test-design software may actually inhibit collecting local data. Integrated databases are a priority, but its the responses to the questions, that require analysis and tight integration. Flexibility in question design (not just multiple-choice) and the student front-end are separate concerns that are about ease-of-use. Neglecting these limits data collection.
  • Separating a district SIS from an external grade book, when both are frequently integrated, is the denial of necessary database integration. The structure of PLC's and the routines of RTI coexist poorly with a whimsical district-centered approach to student data.
  • Keeping outdated student software, such as six-year-old web browsers, as standard inhibits technology implementations. Stating that this is for security, when the district office uses newer software, creates distrust and signifies that PLC is merely a sideshow at the district level.
  • Standardizing textbooks across the district for all skill levels and expecting differentiated instruction to compensate is actually a non-PLC focus. Standardization within a school or school zone takes priority. District driven standardization is a distraction from the main goal of student learning. Student learning for all does not mean the same modified teaching for all. The stereotypical assembly line became obsolete 50 years ago. It serves poorly as a metaphor for education today. Claiming that a court settlement forces this is not true and lessons respect for the district.

2008's Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work dedicates 40 of its 519 pages to the role of a district. Key points include:
  • Remove competing programs and requirements.
  • Do not leave school improvement to the schools alone.
  • Install systems to ensure priorities are addressed in schools.
  • Focus on improvement, not on rankings.
However, there is no mention of how the district should be manage itself. This lack of requiring self-reflection in organizations contradicts the need for continuous self-reflection in the schools and the teaching staff.

  • It's important for district personnel to be seen as working intelligently toward the goal of student learning, not going through bureaucratic motions. This isn't just for PLC morale, but for enhanced student learning.
  • From a PLC perspective, the units of interest are the individual child, the school, and for vertical articulation, the school zone. Surprisingly, other school zones in a district really are no different than school zones in other districts. Districts are legacy agencies, LEA's-only, in a world of state standards and state money.
  • Districts need to be lean and mean. Delays in providing services, due to only internal district issues, are truly unacceptable. Any district usage of funds denies funds needed for student learning; unless spent carefully. Expending money on schools is the default.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Living By Chemistry - Key Curriculum Press - Ninth or Tenth Grade Chemistry for Everyone


The University of California/Lawrence Hall of Science/NSF ESI-9730634 generated curriculum Living by Chemistry, with Dr. Angelica M. Stacey as the lead writer raises inquiry-based, high school Chemistry to an incredibly accessible level. It simply allows more students with different backgrounds time to practice being a scientist while learning standards. Obviously, it can be adopted as an alternative text at many schools, but its greatest impact could be felt by convincing many students to take Chemistry in ninth or tenth grade, and, possibly, reducing the number of dropouts.

ACT research clearly shows that taking Physics, Chemistry, and Biology in high school correlates well with graduating college. Leon Lederman has convincingly argued that a sequence beginning with Physics First works best. However, with Biology being the 10th grade NCLB test in California, a sequence of Chemistry - Biology could serve students and that state adequately. From an opportunity-cost standpoint, the current practice of ordinary students taking ninth grade Earth Science or Integrated Science does not correlate with college graduation. In effect, ninth grade non-core science requires that students complete four years of science. Yeah, that happens. Bluntly, students in non-core ninth or tenth grade courses do not graduate college from a statistical basis. However, the core science alternative is beset with problems; since many students have weak backgrounds that preclude success using conventional Chemistry texts. Living by Chemistry offers light, engaging paperbacks with numerous experiments to drive students into classes. It helps solves the rigor/engagement problem.


Keeping students in school with interesting academics and supporting teachers with easy-to-use materials are the purposes behind the Living in Chemistry curriculum. Typical students and science teachers can thrive on the small texts, detailed teacher guides, and exercise kits. More interestingly, practicing Chemistry is real and different from other courses. It gives students a flavor of real academic work. It's risk entices. More students in Chemistry may correlate with the holy grail of increased rigor concommitant with a higher graduation rate.


Designate one teacher to offer one to two sections of Chemistry with ninth graders having priority. Make sure texts are approved for full year piloting or satisfy whatever rules are necessary. Try not to issue a new course number - Chemistry standards are Chemistry standards. The next Chemistry class to students would be AP Chemistry anyway.

Debug the course over the year. If successful, add additional sections as more teachers and classrooms become capable of teaching the course. In California, an Earth Science teacher has to pass on Chemistry CSET, but this isn't about eliminating Earth Science, but increasing the number of students taking the core science courses. Remember, ninth grade Biology was rendered obsolete with the advent of molecular Biology 50 years ago. It's time to change. The world has. Taking Chemistry before Biology enriches the curriculum for all.