How to create a Professional Learning Community for AP® Teachers
If there is one thing the past couple of years has shown about K-12 education, it’s that administrators and teachers, more than ever, depend on each other to help their students thrive. Without a strong community to support, problem-solve, and collaborate, educators would not be able to do what is required of them each day. Teaching AP® courses is a tough job that depends on an openness to the wisdom and strategies of like-minded educators, and that’s where AP professional learning communities–or PLCs–come in.
What is an AP Professional Learning Community (PLC)?
Traditionally speaking, any PLC is a group of educators who work together–usually in a recurring meeting–to share knowledge and discuss strategies for student academic success. Every school has its own way of approaching these meetings with the AP teacher community, and there is no “one right way” to conduct one. At the very least, most schools will have regular meetings with educators who teach the same content level and/or content area (eg: all campus AP teachers, or specifically just AP math teachers). Nonetheless, professional learning communities as a whole usually center around these important factors:
They use student data to drive the conversation
A 2019 poll of teachers by the Data Quality Campaign (DQC) found that 86% of educators believe data is important for effective instruction. The report, itself, said it best:
Everyone works together so that all students can benefit
One of the differences between creating a professional learning community and attending a professional development session is that all educators involved bring their knowledge and skills to the table so that students can benefit. A PLC meeting is about everyone coming together to make sure no students fall through the cracks and all of them can make academic progress.
They focus on all aspects of student success within the learning process
When AP teacher communities come together to discuss how to help their students make strong connections to course concepts, they need to look at the whole picture, rather than just one part of it. In PLCs, teachers often discuss a variety of relevant information, such as:
- Learning standard percentages from exit tickets, quizzes, and formal assessments
- Desired outcomes and what a student’s mastery of a learning objective would look like
- What students are expected to know about a topic prior to the current unit
- What higher-level concepts the current unit is driving students toward
- Unit vocabulary
- Common misconceptions
- Situational troubleshooting
“Personalized learning means shaping instruction to meet students’ individual needs. While there are many ways it can look in practice, personalized learning requires school and district leaders, teachers, students, and parents to use data to support all students on their path to success.”
Benefits of AP Professional Learning Communities
There are a lot of things that go into running an effective AP PLC meeting, but why have them in the first place? Dr. Lindsey Vorndran earned her Doctorate of Education with a dissertation on what the AP teacher community can do to improve their students’ exam scores. As an AP teacher for over ten years, she believes that “if you have a well-run PLC, teachers will feel more confident in their instruction. If an administrator sets a clear purpose for the PLC and everyone is working toward real goals, instructional practices will become stronger and will result in better AP exam scores.”
This is no surprise, as professional learning communities offer a unique opportunity for teachers to share information with each other. They can share ideas, patterns they’ve noticed in student work, lesson reflections, new information from professional development, etc… In short, PLCs give teachers a way to connect with team members while directly improving their approaches to AP instruction and learning.
What makes a PLC effective?
Most educators have heard the phrase “data-driven instruction” more times than they can remember. More often than not, it is thrown around professional development settings and various meetings with very little clarification on what it actually means. PLCs are effective because they put that phrase into action. Professional learning communities are the very embodiment of data-driven instruction.
When AP educators meet with a clear goal in mind and a clear plan for their time together, they don’t just discuss their data and ideas, they use them. If their goal for the PLC meeting is to review AP unit testing data, they will look at scoring percentages and discuss anything noteworthy–topics with low scores that possibly need to be retaught or addressed in small groups, scores that are much higher in one teacher’s class than they are in others, etc. They will identify instructional strengths and weaknesses, unpack the content, and evaluate common misconceptions. They will hold each other accountable and celebrate each other’s successes. Most importantly, they will then take what they’ve discovered from the data and use it to differentiate their instruction moving forward. This data-centered process of professionals troubleshooting together can make the difference between whether or not students are able to succeed in class and on their AP exams.
How are professional learning communities created?
Most districts require regular PLC meetings for teachers that are led by an administrator or instructional coach. These are the types we’ve discussed so far, which typically include educators who teach on the same content team (usually by content area or content level). They can, however, also look like the following:
Campus-level vertical teams for broad subject areas across multiple content/grade levels
- The purpose of vertical teams–or vertical alignment–is for educators across multiple content/grade levels who teach within the same broad subject area (language arts, math, etc.) to discuss the progression of learning standards and expectations within that general content area.
- Vertical Teams do not always meet as frequently as standard PLCs, and are often created by campus administrators who want to give their teachers an opportunity to share information–possibly during a particular faculty meeting–across course/grade levels. Freshman and sophomore pre-AP math teachers may meet with junior and senior-level AP math teachers, pre-AP English teachers may meet with AP Language and AP Literature teachers, etc. Meeting across multiple course levels is less about discussing specific student samples and scores, and is more about allowing teachers to see how broad learning concepts build throughout the entirety of a student’s high school journey.
- The purpose of district-level committees, or cadres, is similar to that of campus-level groups, but discusses standards and ideas on a larger scale. These groups may work on curriculum resources for all teachers in the district in a certain subject area, review district assessments to make sure they are compliant with required standards, or may develop a plan to support teachers with professional development.
- District-level committees are usually created by district-level administrators who want to offer leadership positions to teachers and empower them to have a voice in district discussions. Sometimes admission to these committees is done on an application basis, and other times teachers are appointed by their principals or through a district lottery.
Administrator PLCs/principal meetings
- Administrator PLCs, or principal meetings, are also district-level groups consisting of principals and/or assistant principals from multiple schools. These groups focus on much the same as traditional campus PLCs–assessing school data, strategies to drive academic growth, etc. Just like teachers, principals share ideas and hold each other accountable for academic goals.
- Administrator PLCs are usually led by district-level administrators and include school leaders from a specific area or district zone.
Anyone who’s ever attended a school faculty meeting will understand the phrase, “This could have been an email.” No one enjoys feeling like their time has been wasted, especially when they have very little time to waste. This is why it’s important to make every PLC count. If teachers and administrators who are part of a PLC understand the specific purpose and goal behind the meeting, they will naturally “buy into” the idea of having them in the first place.
According to Dr. Vorndran, PLC meetings can play an important role in driving AP instruction. “PLCs can be valuable, depending on the purpose. For this to be the case, administrators must set a purpose for the meetings with specific goals in mind. Having PLC meetings just for compliance’s sake will leave teachers feeling like they are a waste of time.”
If the key to having educators “buy into” the necessity of PLCs is having a clear purpose and goals, then what does the implementation of this look like?
Creating a Plan
PLC meetings vary from district to district–or even campus to campus–but the most effective ones always include a specific agenda. Although these agendas may differ, many include the following information:
These are usually agreed upon by PLC members at the beginning of the year. They include basic expectations of group members in order to help the meeting remain productive and respectful.
These are the essential outcomes desired by the PLC as a result of the meeting.
These are the roles assigned to PLC attendees to keep the group on track, on time, and on topic. Roles may vary, but often include a timekeeper and a scribe.
Itemized PLC plan
This is the order of the meeting and everything that will be covered in the discussion.
Goals for the next PLC
These are the actions PLC group members will agree to take as a result of the meeting. This includes a plan for what they will need to have prepared for the next session.
Clearly, data is integral for the success of an AP professional learning community. That being said, what does successfully using data look like? Dr. Vorndran suggests focusing on student performance data from specific AP course standards. “Bring data to the PLC, compare it to student samples, and sort those samples into groups–‘exceeds expectations,’ ‘meets expectations,’ and ‘expectations not met.’”
According to Dr. Vorndran, the group can then discuss concept mastery percentages, answer choice percentages, and misconceptions observed in student samples. “College Board® provides assessment data for teachers once a year, and that’s always helpful when getting an idea about instruction adjustments for the upcoming school year. Teaching and learning tools, however, such as those offered through UWorld, offer consistent data that can be used throughout the school year in PLC meetings. This is what you can take to the group and say, ‘This is what I see. What are your approaches to this data?’”
Tips to consider when planning a Professional Learning Community (PLC)
Creating a professional learning community may be data-driven, but there are other ways administrators can promote productivity within a PLC.
Be Broad & Inclusive
There’s no doubt about it–a lot of data-driven work goes into AP education. That being said, administrators and teachers can successfully help students thrive when they learn to lean on each other through strong collaboration. Creating a professional learning community is a great way to do just that.
Learn more about how we support teachers in preparing students for college readiness success by providing exceptional AP content and insightful data with our Learning Tools for AP Courses.