Unpacking PLCs: What evidence do we have about professional learning communities and how can we produce more?

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Improving teaching quality to ensure that all children in school obtain the skills and knowledge they are meant to acquire has become a key objective internationally. Together with the growing recognition of the need to improve teaching, there is also a realization that the isolation teachers often face is not conducive to collaborative learning and improved teaching practices. In developing countries, many teachers, particularly those in rural areas teaching in multi-grade classrooms, often feel isolated and disconnected from their peers.

Developing countries have recently resorted to alternative models of teacher professional development, such as professional learning communities, or PLCs, to improve teaching quality and promote an approach to teacher development that is both social and contextual. PLCs have become so popular that many education systems in developing countries, as well as education development programs, include a PLC component as part of an overall professional development plan. PLCs enable teachers to cope with isolation, strengthening solidarity, camaraderie and teachers’ self-confidence as professionals. Although PLCs are in vogue and have been recently implemented in many Latin American and African countries, the concept of PLC originated in and has been applied and studied more widely in the context of developed countries, mainly the United States and United Kingdom.

In this post, we further define PLCs and review existing evidence on the effect of PLCs. We then outline FHI 360-funded research that we have initiated to study PLCs in three low- and middle-income countries: Equatorial Guinea, Ghana and Nigeria.

What can we learn from fidelity of implementation monitoring models within early grade reading programs?

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Early grade reading programs have become a focus of significant investment in the international development community in recent years. These interventions often include similar components: the development of mother-tongue teaching and learning materials including structured teacher guides and pupil books; teacher professional development including in-service training, ongoing coaching, and professional learning communities; and community engagement around reading. The theory of change posits that, in combination, these components will lead to improved reading skills for pupils. However, this involves a certain leap of faith, because we don’t usually know what teachers do in their classrooms when the door is closed.

We believe the effectiveness of early grade reading programs requires a clear understanding of the extent to which these programs are implemented according to design at the classroom level. In other words, it requires a clear understanding of the fidelity of implementation (FOI) of the programs, to enable identification of gaps in programming and of steps to improve implementation. Currently, FOI monitoring is central to many early grade reading programs around the world, including smaller pilot programs, mid-sized interventions and programs at scale. The data is viewed as highly useful because it is so actionable – in fact, our experience has shown that governments are often very interested in integrating classroom-level FOI data into their own monitoring systems.

From designing our own FHI 360 FOI monitoring systems, it became clear that there are a number of different models with wide-ranging cost and sustainability implications. In this post, we provide an overview of FOI, describe the FOI monitoring models from two of our own early grade reading projects in Ghana and Nigeria, and outline a research study that aims to see what we could learn from them.