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Don't do PLCs...unless

I remember being struck by the cover of the book On Common Ground. It lists the chapter authors in this order: Roland Barth, Rebecca Dufour, Richard Dufour, Robert Eaker, Barbara Eason-Watkins, Lawrence Lezotte, Douglas Reeves, Jonathan Saphier, Mike Schmoker, Dennis Sparks, and Rick Stiggins. At the time, I couldn’t think of a better list of the most influential school researchers and thinkers. The text puts forward a powerful case for why all schools should implement professional learning communities. It also laments the fact that many schools would not, even when it was backed by significant research.

That was back in 2005.

I’d like to report that the situation is better, but I don’t think it is. In fact, in some ways, I think it might be worse. Many schools have now tried “PLCs” and didn’t get better results. Now, rather than being hesitant about trying something new, they are even more resistant to trying something they think has already failed them. Many schools we work with have tried multiple iterations, changing the name each time, because teachers have “a bad taste in their mouth from the last time we tried.”

Our attempts to implement PLCs have actually had a negative effect in many cases.

Here’s why many attempts to implement PLCs have failed:

  • Professional Learning Communities require a cultural shift, not the implementation of a structure.

We focus on finding time in our schedule for teams to meet. We create agendas. We have teams turn in notes. We focus a lot of time on the structures of PLCs and not their purpose. While necessary, those structures are not the goal of PLCs. The goal is to build collective teacher efficacy through shared mastery learning experiences, not to have meetings. Meetings don’t improve student learning; collective teacher efficacy does.

  • This cultural shift does not align with the rest of the school.

PLCs aren’t just a once a week meeting. They are a shift in “how we do things.” If other areas of the school don’t align with that shift, then they cannot be successful--no matter how much the teachers believe in it or how many structures we put in place. For example, if the teachers are mandated to follow a set of materials with fidelity as their curriculum, then there is no reason to attempt to create PLCs. Why would we spend time discussing what we’re teaching next week, if it’s just written in the Teacher’s Guide?

  • We spend our time focusing on everything except the teacher.

We should always be focused on student learning. Always. The problem is that this often turns into a focus on what’s wrong with the students. We “admire the problem” rather than collectively finding ways to impact that problem. Even many who move past just admiring the problem, then shift into how someone or something else can fix the problem. This looks like using data to assign students to interventions outside of the classroom or labeling them as ESL or SPED or G/T and having a specialist work with them. The purpose of PLCs is to improve our practice as teachers. While we may have students receiving interventions, the goal of PLC work is to collectively improve what we do with students in our classrooms to ensure the majority of students learn at high levels without needing those additional supports. Our focus must be on what we can do differently to impact student learning, not someone else.

  • School leaders receive little support with implementation science or change management.

Cultural shifts require leadership that understands how to manage change. This is a hugely complex task that has little to do with the structural implementation of a new building schedule so that teachers have time to meet together. It requires fostering buy-in, building momentum, adaptive thinking, strong relationships, shared leadership structures, and strategic design. Many school leaders have little training in how to manage change. While we can easily understand “what” PLCs are and the structural components of making them happen, we need support in “how” to effectively implement large scale change.

What to do:

  • Build buy-in AND an understanding of what PLCs really mean.

We present research. We read articles about the power of PLCs. We even go visit a school that is “doing it.” We get all or most teachers believing in the idea. This is critical (remembering that you’ll rarely get all teachers and that you can’t spend years building buy-in before actually implementing). It’s also critical that teachers start understanding from the beginning that PLCs are about changing what happens in the classroom and the development of a community of learners, not having a once a week meeting. Staff need to be clear on the “what” as much as the “why.”

  • Model what it looks like through your building leadership team.

PLCs may be a huge behavioral shift for teachers. We need to see what it looks like and how it feels to be in a professional learning community. The building leadership team is a great place for that to happen and then to build the capacity of those team members to do similar work with their teams. Plus, you can’t possibly expect teacher leaders to facilitate effective PLCs if they are experiencing an ineffective one at every leadership team meeting.

  • Ensure there aren’t structural barriers to engaging in the work.

This includes scheduling time to meet, but most importantly, it means considering what curriculum and assessment mean in the building. The goal is to build collective teacher efficacy through short-cycle improvement loops. Teachers need to see the impact of their efforts in creating a PLC through improved outcomes for their students as quickly as possible. This means focusing on daily/weekly outcome measures, not summative assessments. And, it means teachers need to have the ability to make changes in their instruction and materials to better meet those outcomes.

  • Start small, celebrate often, and build momentum.

Cultural shifts and behavioral norms take time. The existing culture and behavior wasn’t created in a day and neither will professional learning communities. Behavior change happens when we see different results from different actions. We need to structure our implementation so that teachers see improvements in student learning as quickly as possible. That means one to two week cycles where teachers focus on one outcome, examine quick formative assessment data, and plan for improvements that they can see quickly. Celebrate successes to reinforce the effort staff are putting into the new process and build collective momentum.

Professional learning communities can have a huge impact on student learning. Teacher collective efficacy is the highest ranked of all factors in Hattie's research. However, if done poorly, PLCs can have a negative impact. We need to make sure we do it right.

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