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Opinion: Solution Tree: Neither a Solution, Nor a Tree

A Newport-Mesa Unified staff development specialist for 14 years gives her opinion about PLC's and Solution Tree.

Note: This week, Sandy has a discussion with educator Jan Fisher.

Sandy: I bow to your wisdom regarding professional learning communities (PLCs) and Solution Tree as you were a classroom teacher for 15 years, and Newport-Mesa Unified staff development specialist for 14 years. You have written articles for various educational journals, and a book published by ASCD, “Key Elements of Classroom Management” (published in English, Chinese, and Arabic).

Jan: Thanks, Sandy.  Before we start, I want to emphasize that my responses here are not a criticism of Newport-Mesa or the specific situation currently in the district. Regarding the recent training in Las Vegas, I don't know enough about the district's plan, implementation or assessment of student achievement resulting from PLCs  to give an opinion one way or the other.  I do know, however, that during the time I was in Newport, both as a teacher and a staff development specialist, this district had a deep belief in the continuous and ongoing learning of teachers and committed whatever resources were necessary to maintain a quality program.

At that time, there would have been both a start-up and implementation plan for any initiative like PLCs. More importantly, there would have been clear plans for monitoring implementation and for assessing the results based on increased student achievement. I would hope all of that is in place for this PLC initiative, but I have no information about that. Because of that, my comments today will be based on generic principles of good staff development, not on the specific situation here in Newport. 

Sandy: I have titled this article Solution Tree; Neither a Solution, Nor a Tree. Do think that title is applicable?

Jan: I think that the company sees the tree as a good analogy for the idea that learning has different components (branches), but must come from a core of beliefs (trunk). The problem is that many schools jump on the bandwagon of school renewal and adopt only one part of it ... one branch and attempt to implement it. PLC’s are one branch of school renewal.

Sandy: Most of the teachers I’ve talked to, some administrators, and perhaps even some trustees don’t completely understand PLC’s. Can you make it simple for us?

Jan: In the school renewal process, PLC’s are one kind of support for teachers. If the school is organized around small teams of teachers working together to study teaching and learning, to plan with good assessments,  to coach each other and to develop curriculum then that is the goal. The key is that PLC’s are SUPPORT for other curricular and instructional initiatives. They are NOT by themselves the “Solution”

Sandy: Solution Tree is very expensive, and not just the company at $609 per person, but the recent trip to Caesars Palace in “Clark County” cost $53,000. Do you think that this kind of training is worth that kind of money?

Jan: Let me say right now, that the consultants are the best in the business, but having said that, if there is one thing we know, it’s that one–shot staff development has no impact. The history of this kind of staff development shows dismal results.

The idea that a few teachers will attend a conference and come back and teach others has been almost entirely unsuccessful. No one returning after a single conference on a subject has the expertise to even implement it, let alone teach it to others.

A much better plan would have been for the consultants to be here working with the school sites on an ongoing basis for a year or so. It would have been less expensive as we have two presenters who currently work for NMUSD now.

Sandy: Jan, considering the number of programs instigated by NMUSD throughout the years you have been her, which have basically started off well, but within a few years and sometimes months, have faded off, or ended abruptly. What do you think is the reason?

Jan: There are two reasons.  The first is a change in leadership. New administrators have their own priorities they want to implement. To ask them to devote time and energy to the priorities of a former administrator is not only unfair, it won’t work. 

The second is a lack of understanding about the amount of effort and resources that must be put into maintaining a program.

People tend to think that once a new initiative is launched and implemented, we can move right on to something new and the old will just continue on in full force. It will not happen. If we want initiatives to continue, we must leave the leadership who began it and who was committed to it stay, and we must provide both effort and resource to maintaining programs already in place.

Sandy: What do you think of the subtle and not-so-subtle criticism of teachers now?

Jan: Grossly unfair!  We all want to have someone to blame when one of our beloved institutions is not performing like it should, but this is not the fault of the teachers, the administrators, the parents or the superintendent.  It is a massive system failure and, until, that failure is corrected, nothing will change.

Sandy: Thanks Jan ….

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