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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

How to Break Down Barriers to Starting PLCs

Here are the five most common obstacles to starting professional learning communities -- and how to address them.
By Ellen Ullman

This how-to article accompanies the feature "Teachers and Community Members Practice TLC with PLCs."

Stephanie Hirsh has spent a lot of time studying professional learning communities. As the executive director of the National Staff Development Council, in Dallas, she's pinpointed the five most common obstacles to starting PLCs -- and how to address them.

1. "We don't have time."

Administrators say it's too hard to provide the necessary hours, but hundreds of schools are making it happen. Some have late-start mornings, giving teachers a chance to meet with their groups before students arrive for class; others rework the schedule so teams can have planning time. Get creative. Ask teachers for help. If you want to do it, you'll find a way.

2. "PLCs will not translate to improved learning."

Sure, if PLC members are not given the support they need, especially in the beginning, they may not learn how to collaborate effectively. A group of teachers that studies a book may advance its knowledge but won't necessarily improve student learning. But effective PLCs apply strategies that lead to improved educator and student learning.

3. "We're not sure how to do it right."

There is no one right way to set up a PLC. At the Bronx's PS 85, also known as the Judge Charles J. Vallone School, there's a literacy team, an administrative team, an instructional-support team, an English-language-learner/special-needs team, and a team for core subjects. "One way to help PLCs be successful is to delineate a clear set of expectations from leadership," says Hirsh. And you can consult the tips provided above.

4. "My community won't understand."

Family members and anyone affected by changes to school schedules may not understand why the changes are necessary. Teachers may initially resent schedule changes, too. To garner community support, focus on the purpose: improving student performance and classroom instruction. Share information about specific examples of the benefits.

5. "There is no research to show PLCs work."

Though there may not be mountains of research about PLCs as a sole development program, the proof can be found in the fact that many of the higher-performing countries in the world use PLCs in their education systems. Anecdotal evidence from educators in the United States shows it works. (See information about the Sanger, California, school district.)

Ellen Ullman is a freelance writer and editor in Fairfield, Connecticut, who specializes in education and technology.

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