September 20, 2020

By Ed Sweet and Martin Yan

The popularity of PLCs–professional learning communities–in education has grown in recent years, and it’s easy to see why. Educators nationwide are working to reestablish connections and relationships with their students to help them get back on track with learning.

To do that, implementing PLCs and maximizing instruction and collaboration within PLCs is crucial. But in spite of their blossoming popularity, many PLCs find themselves foundering as they struggle to deliver on the promise of improved student outcomes.

Why? And what can be done to ensure the success of PLCs in education?

Whether you’re faced with a PLC that needs a little TLC or you’re forming a new PLC and want to do it right, we can help. In this blog, we’ll take a look at PLCs, what they should look like, how they can provide support, and best practices for implementing PLCs in your school or district.

What does PLC mean?

The term PLC refers to a professional learning community. As it is traditionally defined, a PLC is:

“An ongoing process in which educators work collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve” (DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, 2002).

While the term professional learning community has been around since the 1960s, the concept’s popularity arguably began to blossom in 1998 with the publication of Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement by Richard DuFour and Robert Eaker.

According to All Things PLC, a collaborative resource for educators and administrators who are committed to enhancing student achievement, this breakout book was the first to explain how and why educators working collaboratively with a focus on learning can increase student performance.

Since the book’s release, DuFour and Eaker, along with Rebecca DuFour, have continued to popularize the idea of PLCs across the US.

What is the purpose of a PLC?

A PLC in education serves two main purposes:

  1. To improve the skills and knowledge of educators through collaborative study, expertise exchange, and professional dialogue.
  2. To improve the educational aspirations, achievement, and success of students through stronger leadership and teaching.

A PLC operates with the motivation that when educators receive continuous learning, it will, in turn, positively impact student learning. In other words, a professional learning community can be a place for both communal growth and knowledge sharing. Educators can work together to understand the data they’ve gathered and help one another to make better decisions around the needs of their students.

While many PLCs are successful, others are struggling to serve the purpose they were created to deliver. Let’s explore this point.

What does a PLC look like in a school?

There is no one right model for PLCs in schools. PLCs are best exemplified as an attitude of shared leadership and team effort, trust and cooperation, open and honest discourse—and even debate, if and when necessary.

An effective PLC is not limited to one grade level or a school hierarchy. Rather, it embraces a continual feedback loop between students, teachers, building and system administrators, school board officials, facilitators, and community members.

A few examples of what a PLC in education might look like include:

  • A group of 2nd-grade teachers collaborating to develop, implement, analyze, and modify their lesson plans to strengthen teaching and learning.
  • A district’s social studies teachers meeting to create a curriculum that is consistent from teacher to teacher and building to building.
  • A group of computer science instructors collaborating to determine the best software applications to purchase for the coming year.
  • A group of support staff, including custodians, cafeteria workers, and security personnel, meeting to examine how their work impacts the culture and climate of their school and how it affects the overall student performance.
  • A team of administrators coming together to support one another in the most effective ways to implement state standards.

A professional learning community is a “bottom-up” approach that includes everyone, rather than a “trickle-down” system in which administrators rule with perceived omniscience. For this reason, the schools that are able to most effectively implement PLCs are those that make sure that all personnel understand exactly how their role specifically contributes to the shared goal of student achievement.

What makes a good PLC in education?

Now that we have established a PLC definition and explained what it might look like in a school or district, it’s time to discuss the components of effective PLCs in education. For a professional learning community to be successful, it must be:

  1. Focused on whole child success and learning
  2. Data-driven
  3. Collaborative
  4. Goal-focused

4 key elements of successful PLCs in education

In the following sections, we explore each of these elements in more detail.

#1: They focus on student learning and whole child success

The focus of a PLC in schools should be the process of developing the “knowledge of practice” around the issue of student learning. During this time in our world, it is more important than ever to collect qualitative socio-emotional and behavioral (SEB) data to understand the impact of the COVID-19 disruptions on students.

#2: They’re data-driven

PLCs are a dedicated time for school and district personnel to come together as peers to look at and discuss data as it relates to students and teaching practices. These teams of individuals work together to interpret assessment and other whole child data to align instructional and intervention supports.

#3: They’re collaborative

Another focus of a PLC should be to “work together in hopes of growing together.” Whether it is sharing instructional practices or establishing norms, every professional learning community meeting should be a safe place for collective, productive teamwork.

#4: They’re goal-focused

A successful professional learning community is focused on creating and reaching clearly defined goals. As you’re creating or restructuring a PLC, ask yourself:

  • What goals do we hope to achieve?
  • What type of team do we need to bring together to accomplish those goals?
  • What kind of timeline is necessary to reach the goals?
  • How often does the team need to meet to check in and follow up on this goal?
  • What skills might need to be developed in the team members and students to pursue the goals?

Data to drive student learning

Discover assessment and analytics solutions from Renaissance that power effective PLCs.

3 ways PLCs in education can support educators this year

As we noted earlier, the COVID-19 disruptions present unique challenges in every district. Here are three ways an effective PLC can help you and your colleagues to address these challenges.

#1: Encouraging each other in accelerating learning

As educators work to close student learning gaps, PLCs can continue to be a valuable resource. Communicating regularly about where your students are struggling or succeeding and sharing strategies with each other helps everyone ensure all students are learning and growing.

#2: Monitoring the equity of learning

The members of PLCs work as a team to carefully review data about students who have historically experienced inequities, especially those who were also disproportionately impacted by things like school closures. Equitable work is collaborative work, and a professional learning community is a great place to ground those practices.

#3: Developing assessment literacy

Educators need high-quality assessment practices more than ever, but many do not feel totally comfortable using the data to inform instruction. But often, that discomfort increases as our assessment literacy increases. By working in a supportive PLC, we are able to grow together and continually enhance what we know about assessments and data and the best ways to implement them to support our students.

4 best practices for implementing an effective PLC

While the specific activities and goals of a professional learning community may vary from school to school or district to district, keep these four PLC best practices in mind as you work to build or enhance your PLC.

Best practice #1: Use norms to manage human dynamics

Any time you bring a group of people together, personalities can impede your progress. One person may dominate discussions and effectively “take over” the group. The ability to trust may become an issue if team members aren’t willing to admit their mistakes, or if they refuse to share their successful methods with others. Dynamics can also shift as people move in and out of the group.

Successful teams within PLCs operate with—and regularly revisit—norms that define how team members should do things, such as:

  • Communicate
  • Make decisions
  • Respectfully disagree with each other

To keep communication open and the PLC process running smoothly, these norms should be written down and agreed to by every member of a PLC team.

Best practice #2: Let data drive your work

A key factor in most struggling PLCs is a lack of data that can be used to drive discussions and inform objective decision-making within the group. At the minimum, a professional learning community needs to operate by using two forms of data:

  1. A robust data platform that provides insights into academic growth and other whole child data at the student, classroom, school, and district levels.
  2. Insights into teacher performance and overall school climate.

Without good data that is easy to access through comprehensive reporting capabilities, PLC team meetings can quickly devolve into gripe sessions that divert attention from the work at hand. With good data, professional learning community teams can accomplish great things.

Best practice #3: Create common assessments to drive faster results

Some of the most critical data points a PLC can analyze are results from common assessments. With data from common formative assessments, professional learning community team members can gain clear visibility into how students in any grade level are performing from classroom to classroom and from school to school across the district.

This can and should lead to important discussions about what teaching methods and strategies are making the biggest impacts. These conversations can range from general teaching style (e.g., lectures vs. hands-on activities) to very specific information about how teachers phrase particular concepts.

Discussions about successful teaching methods and strategies are especially important for first-year teachers and experienced teachers who switch grade levels.

Of course, it’s important to frame these conversations without hurting anyone’s feelings. If a PLC team is following norms and is committed to real collaboration, discussions about teacher effectiveness can be conducted in the spirit of wanting to support all teachers as they learn, grow, and succeed together.

Best practice #4: Take an inquiry stance for continuous improvement

While data is necessary for student and teacher success, educators must reflect on the data and take action if they hope to get any kind of meaningful results. In the K–12 educational context, engaged inquiry keeps educators focused on key challenges and makes positive, innovative change more likely.

Educators can use the Inquiry Cycle to provide more equitable outcomes for all students. This conceptual framework outlines five steps for successful reflection and action:

  1. Assess your current reality: Collect good data and determine what it is really telling you.
  2. Understand root causes: Investigate the reasons why your data looks the way it does.
  3. Adopt a theory of improvement: What strategies and tactics can be implemented to improve student outcomes?
  4. Set measurable goals: Develop concrete metrics and targets, including specific learning outcomes for each student, based on your theories.
  5. Plan for action: Identify who is responsible for achieving goals, how they will do it, and by what date.

Learn how Renaissance’s data-driven approach can put your PLC on the path to success

PLCs in education can dramatically improve student outcomes and make teaching more rewarding for educators. By collecting and analyzing good data, you can minimize the distractions of human group dynamics and put your time and energy exactly where it belongs—toward helping all students succeed.

To learn how Renaissance can support your PLC needs, reach out today.

Share this post