By Tom Many, EdD and Brian Butler

“The impact of Professional Learning Communities on student achievement is significant and sustained. That is if, and it’s a big if, PLCs are implemented deeply, well, and over an extended period of time.” – Reeves, 2015, p. 51

Doug Reeves highlights the impact Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) can have when educators fully engage in continuous, comprehensive and ongoing development of the PLC process. It takes a real commitment but when it happens, we call it PLC Right.

We have also seen honest attempts to implement PLCs have little impact on teaching and learning. These well-intended efforts result in changes that are trivial and temporary and when that happens, we call it PLC Lite.

Moving schools from PLC Lite (dipping their toe into the water) to PLC Right (diving head first into the pool) requires a cultural shift. While we will not discuss all the shifts necessary to move schools from “Lite to Right” in this article, we will share examples that illustrate the importance of practice and language. (See Learning by Doing for a complete summary of the necessary shifts.)

“If key terms are only vaguely understood or represent different things to people throughout the district, it will be impossible to implement the PLC process across a district.” – DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, Many, & Mattos, 2016

PLCs are grounded in research and supported by evidence but for some reason, we see some leaders rename or redefine PLC elements or vocabulary. The thinking is that adapting the PLC process will create more ownership and greater clarity but in fact, just the opposite happens. When the basic tenets and key terminology of the PLC process are mislabeled, misapplied or misaligned it causes confusion and contributes to PLC Lite.

Consider the example of a district leader who insisted on six (instead of four) critical questions of learning. The rationale was that six critical questions “would more closely align PLCs to the district’s strategic plan.” For an entire year, principals had to field questions from teachers asking, “Which set of critical questions are we expected to use?” This confusion only served to divert and distract the school’s improvement efforts.

A colleague (Diane Kerr) asks teachers during her workshops, “What do you do during team meetings?” In one of her trainings, a group of teachers enthusiastically reported every week they talk about two things —which students needed extra help and what logistics would be necessary to provide it. Kerr follows her initial question by asking, “How do you know what they need?” The teachers explained how they used the district’s mandated assessments and classroom observations to group students by name and need.

After some additional training highlighting how the combination of essential standards, learning targets, and team-developed common assessments could result in more effective interventions, the team realized they had been operating as PLC Lite! They recognized their teaching wasn’t aligned, their assessments were not linked to specific learning targets, and their interventions were not as targeted as they could or should be!

These teachers now use data from team-developed common formative assessments to identify 1) students who need more help and 2) the instructional practices that were most effective. Teachers have seen the “Lite” and are doing things “Right” by prioritizing standards, identifying targets, and creating assessments to target their interventions more effectively.

“We don’t all speak the same language, even when we seem to use the same words.” – Jami Bernard

Agreement on the meaning of key terms is also critical for schools moving from PLC Lite to PLC Right. We have seen schools change the name of classes from “remedial” to “interventions” (Voila! We now have interventions), or call their team meetings PLCs as in, “our PLCs meet on Tuesdays.” One leader made the conscious decision to change PLCs to PLTs (professional learning teams) in order to place greater emphasis on collaborative teams. After a year of meetings, no one could articulate the difference between PLCs and PLTs.

When Brian Butler works with teachers and principals, he asks them to write down the definition of a Professional Learning Community. Despite working with dozens of groups, Brian has yet to see the same definition in the same group! He often sees definitions that are dramatically different indicating a need to clarify the underlying meaning of the PLC process.

After teaching the definition of a PLC; “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,” Brian suggests educators think of the PLC as the larger organization (the school) which is made up of the various teams (grade level, department, vertical, content, course specific and electronic, etc). While teams are the fundamental building blocks of a PLC, teams themselves are not PLCs.

Brian reports teachers are often surprised by the notion the school is the Professional Learning Community; they thought their team was the PLC and thus, they had no connection to, nor were they encouraged to collaborate with, anyone beyond their immediate team. DuFour explains the unintended consequence of not understanding the relationship between PLCs and teams, “when teams define themselves a PLC, they are prone to believe that they work as PLCs only during their weekly team meeting.”

“A Professional Learning Community is an ethos that infuses every single aspect of a school’s operation. When a school becomes a professional learning community, everything in the school looks different than it did before.” – Andy Hargreaves, 2004

The term Professional Learning Communities has been part of the educational lexicon for nearly 20 years. The PLC process enjoys widespread acceptance and is recognized as the most effective way to improve our schools. Prominent authors such as Mike Schmoker (2006) declare PLCs as, “arguably the best, most agreed-upon means to improve instruction and student performance.”

Yet, and despite such overwhelming levels of support, when asked what percentage of schools in the U.S. were functioning as effective PLCs, Rick DuFour, leading author and architect of the Professional Learning Communities process said, “There is no way of knowing. The percentage of schools using the term is quite high. However, the percentage of schools actually engaged in the process is far less. It is not yet the norm in terms of practice.”

One of the best ways we can make the PLC process the norm in more schools is to help principals understand what they can do to help move their schools from “PLC Lite” to “PLC Right.”

See whether your school is operating as PLC Lite or PLC Right with this simple activity.

DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., Many, T. & Mattos, M. (2016). Learning by doing: A handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work (3rd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
DuFour, R. & Reeves, D. (2016, March). The futility of PLC Lite. Phi Delta Kappan, 97 (6), pp. 69-71.

Dr. Tom Many is an author and consultant. His career in education spans more than 30 years.

Brian Butler is the former principal of Mason Crest Elementary School (Fairfax County, VA), which received Solution Tree’s first annual DuFour Award in 2016. His passion is helping educators understand the power of teamwork and collaboration.

TEPSA News, March/April 2018, Vol 75, No 2

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