Grouping students for successful learning in a PLC

Had another interesting email land in my inbox this week.  Tom—a principal of an elementary school working to restructure as a professional learning community—asked:

This upcoming school year, I would like my teams to start leveling their students (high, medium, low) and team-teach by ability level.  What do you think of this idea as it pertains to PLCs? 

Have you had any experience with leveling?  If so, what do you do with those teachers who want to ONLY teach their own students?

I think it’s helpful for any leader of a PLC to remember the critical questions that Rick and Becky DuFour believe should guide the work of any educator interested in student learning:

  1. What is it that we want students to be able to know and to do?  What outcomes are the most essential for student success?
  2. How will we know when our students have mastered these collectively identified essential outcomes?
  3. How are we going to monitor progress towards those essential outcomes over time?
  4. What are we going to do as a school when students don’t master those essential outcomes—or when they’ve mastered those essential outcomes and need opportunities for deeper study?

What that means is that leveling in a traditional sense—dividing entire grade levels of students into high, medium and low groups early in a school year—is an ineffective practice.

You see, student mastery is too unpredictable for stagnant, level groups.  Kids who master content in some areas quickly and easily will struggle in others.


To respond to this intellectual diversity in their student populations, the most effective PLCs are constantly monitoring and responding to student performance indicators over an entire school year.

While they may create leveled groups of students at times, those leveled groups are determined by progress made against specific performance indicators and are flexible in composition.

An example:  If a team of second grade teachers has determined that writing a complete sentence is an essential outcome for their students, they might begin their work by defining exactly what they want to see in their students’ sentences.

Then, they’d develop a shared rubric and a set of student exemplars that could help both teachers and students to understand what mastery looked like in action.

Finally—after spending time teaching students about the characteristics of complete sentences—they’d collect a work sample from every child and use their shared rubric to assess student progress.

After analyzing the results of the data that they’d collected, the team might decide that there were a group of students who needed extra help with sentence writing.

Only then would they consider leveling their students.

Together, they might plan a period of time during the next week when teachers particularly skilled at teaching students to write good sentences could work with small groups of kids in need of remediation and/or enrichment.

Leveling in this case is based on an identified strength or weakness in progress towards mastering a specific objective.

Students who continue to struggle even after the first attempt at remediation might continue to receive small group instruction.  Students who demonstrate mastery after an intervention, however, would move out of the intervention cycle.

Some teams schedule regular weekly or bi-weekly intervention times when this kind of regrouping and intervention can occur.  Other teams wait until they’ve finished a common assessment to intervene.

Does this make sense?

Tom’s second question—what do you do about teachers who only want to teach their students—is a bit trickier.

I’ll tackle it in a second post sometime next week!