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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Ask Ellen: Collaboration Is at the Heart of PLCs

Professional learning communities enhance knowledge and teamwork.
By Ellen Moir
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Dear Ellen,

It seems as if everybody in education is talking about professional learning communities. How do you define "PLC," and how important do you think PLCs are to the future of education?


Dear Delia,

It does seem that the phrase "professional learning community" is on every educator's lips these days. Fortunately, this is one educational trend that has tremendous merit. Our challenge is to implement PLCs in a meaningful, rigorous way, and to ensure that they become deeply rooted in our school cultures. Trusting teachers' professional judgment is at the heart of professional learning communities.

In 1997, Shirley Hord and her colleagues at the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory published a study that outlined the characteristics common to effective teacher PLCs. A precondition for the implementation of effective communities is capacity building; teachers need some basic training in PLC processes and protocols, and they need regular time to participate in PLC activities.

Credit: Bart Nagel

Effective PLCs are characterized by shared leadership; principals may participate in teacher PLCs, but teachers run the show. Also, PLCs focus on student learning in concrete terms; They are more likely to be analyzing student work than reading academic articles. PLCs also concentrate on specific issues of daily teaching practice.

Finally, and most importantly, Hord found that effective PLCs are characterized by "visitation and review of each teacher's classroom behaviors, and results by peers, with feedback directed at individual and community improvement." The bottom line: In effective PLCs, every professional shares his or her results and opens his or her classroom to peers.

A lot of schools claim to be implementing PLCs but never quite achieve the level of deprivatization of professional practice Hord describes. These are the schools that will look back on PLCs a few years from now as another educational fad that came and went. On the other hand, schools that are pushing through the discomfort that comes with sharing individual results and practice are experiencing important shifts in school culture and student outcomes that will endure.

The organization that I direct has helped schools build PLCs for teachers and school leaders in a variety of settings. In the process, we have been documenting case studies of schools and school districts that have used PLCs as the foundation of major school-improvement efforts.

In Springfield, Illinois, grade level and/or subject-matter teams are meeting daily to plan and evaluate lessons, review student work and formative assessment results, and share individual feedback based on regular peer visitations. In Oak Grove, California, every teacher and administrator analyzes and takes responsibility for instruction by deeply understanding the program and progress of "focal students" -- three to five at-risk pupils -- in a system designed to make the school-improvement process more concrete and specific.

Here, "Deprivatization of practice" is a mantra, as everyone, from the superintendent to the newest teacher to the head of maintenance, is expected to be forthcoming in sharing results and in soliciting feedback and advice. Districts like Springfield and Oak Grove are producing encouraging results and are transforming district and school cultures.

Delia, I applaud your interest in PLCs. Building a PLC at your own school is not rocket science. You don't need expensive outside consultants or years of study. What it takes is having the understanding and vision that we are all professionals and learners, and that our job is to support and assist everyone in moving forward.

I encourage you to seek out some of the many good resources that are out there to help you and your staff learn the simple protocols and systems that schools adopt in support of PLCs, and advise you and your staff to identify, visit, and observe a few schools that have implemented powerful PLCs.


Ellen Moir is a veteran bilingual teacher who is focused on the challenges faced by new teachers as well as on the needs of those with long careers in education. She is also the executive director of the New Teacher Center, at the University of California at Santa Cruz, a resource for educator-induction research, policy, and practice.

Comments (12)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Nathan (Massachusetts)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Unfortunately, Professional Learning Communities in most schools are not the bottom up activities that most teachers would like. They tend to be directed from above for example being assigned a SMART goal or having administrator-types sit in on all PLC meetings giving teachers the feeling they cannot be trusted, or creating arbitrary PLC groups of teachers that have little in common. We instituted PLCs last year in my school, I actually collaborated less last year b/c all our time was spent on protocols and no time spent on our real work...collaborating to provide the best education for our students.

Dan Bruno's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

PLCs are just a fad and nothing more. The reason they are a fad has little to do with the "merit" they possess. As with most educational reforms of the past 100 years, PLCs promise new success in educational practice while giving a catchy title to something that is already a professional duty of teachers worldwide. Teachers should be learners. Teachers should collaborate. Teachers should discuss students' work as well as academic articles about their profession. These are all things that teachers should already be actively engaged in doing; however, now we have an acronym and a vague model that rarely turns out as described here and we certify it as a reform. Perhaps we should have PLCs about the overly general, non-specific reforms that do nothing but label professional behaviors teachers should already be engaged in as groups. Maybe then we could see how this reform, and others like it, do nothing but tinker with our existing structures in meaningless ways with an end result of zero change to the superstructure of education.

If you want a real reform, how about sutting back some of the less "professional" duties teachers have (and most public school teachers know what I mean) and allow time for group meetings whether departmentally or grade-level wise. Let teachers have actual time to discuss things amongst one another and you might be surprised how much change would be created. Otherwise, all you do is construct a framework creating processes out of what should be free and simple communication; however, that might allow teachers more power than most administrative teams (principals to superintendents) may be willing to give. After all, the government should be afraid of its people and our local school governments are not nearly afraid enough of what their teachers can do in the name of our students.

Melissa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Our district is moving into PLC's. I really do not know enough about them but from what I have read - I am afraid I agree with the comments. Our administrative team will have a very difficult time letting go of their control. However, I vow to keep an open mind and hope for the best.

Paula Williams; first grade teacher, Bonaire Elementary, 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My school district has excellent support for cultivating learning communities to ensure that teachers have a good understanding of professional standards. Examples are teams working together to acquire training for computer programs, system web sites, and county wide educational opportunities in content areas. Another important component is to familiarize teachers to the culture and history of the area. Teachers are supported by grade level meetings, curriculum planning, and aligned vertical teaming. The county provides a literacy coach and a math coach for each school. New teachers are appointed a mentor teacher for their first teaching year in the county, regardless of the years of experience the new teacher has acquired. Teacher representatives from their grade levels are on county collaborative planning teams for the implementation of all student learning standards. Teachers work together with administrators and parents for the changes in policies and practices to track the goals for school improvement.

India Carlson, Ballard High School, Seattle, Washington 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Outside of my school, I have been working in a district wide PLC for the past 1 1/2 years on middle and high school science leadership. The purpose of this group is two fold, to learn about and use research driven tools to use in the classroom to improve student understanding and performance, and to share that knowledge with each other and our schools. Teachers bring in student work, have action research projects, and have been filmed for the group. The work I have done in this PLC has been helpful and satisfying.I am now implementing ideas from those sessions into my new school year, and will continue as part of that PLC throughtout the year. In contrast to this experience, my high school placed every teacher into PLCs last year and were given the vague task of looking at student work. These groups are not grade specific or content specific, and despite participating in these sessions I could not name one thing that helped inform my instruction for this year. I would say that PLC's demand 2 things, committment from those involved and a common (specific) instructional goal.

L Bailes's picture

I have been reading a lot of information on Professional Learning Communities. Through this research, I found that PLC are different in every state, district, and school. The way you implement PLC is not the problem. I think that the key to successful learning communities is to have a faculty that is committed to student learning. When everyone is committed and no "excuses" are accepted then student learning will occur.

Jamie Fortman's picture

You are absolutely right... teachers should be participating in collaborative groups in the name of students. I hate to say it, but there are many places in education where teachers are not doing those things. PLCs are not just another fad when done right, because it offers a means and a reason for teachers to meet and collaborate. And if the term PLC is a fad that will come and go just as quickly, I cannot imagine that teachers would let go of that collaborative network provided by a PLC. PLC means Professional Learning Community and it is an avenue for teachers to finally stop complaining and do something about the education of their students. I for one am proud to say that I am a member of a PLC and cannot imagine my teaching career without one- even after the fad fades! You should be proud of the thousands of teachers who are jumping on this bandwagon called Professional Learning Communities in the name of students!

Katie's picture

PLC could be extremely helpful if they are put to use and enacted in the correct ways. In my school we tend to share our successes and failures at the end of the day in casual conversation. Although I wouldn't specifically call that a time where a professional learning community meets, it is a time where 4 or 5 professionals come together to discuss what works and what doesn't. What's even more helpful is that 3 of us are in the same department. We tend to give suggestions to each other for improvement and pats on the back when someone succeeds. The problem we do find is getting administative support. Like Dan said, there are a few jobs within the public schools that cut into time we could be spending together learning and discussing our student's learning. We would need some commitment from their end in order to get the time necessary to further the informal chats and nurture them to become a professional learning community. Does anyone have any advice on how to get administrative support?

Ofelia Trinidad's picture

Although on my campus we do meet on a weekly basis as a team and then again with the Administration, I feel that we have a long way to go to becoming an effective learning community. We do compare data and we do discuss strategies however, most of the time is spent discussing school business. Such as, making plans for the upcoming events, or Spring Festival booths. I do not believe that PLC's can exist if you do not first have a strong leadership team that creates that culture.

TeacherGobin's picture

Thank you for mentioning that PLC's should be teacher lead. I think school's sometimes prevent teacher ownership which prevents success. When teachers are leading the PLC's they will be more likely to open up their room and welcome others in to see what they are doing.

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