Richard DuFour’s six characteristics of effective professional learning communities (PLCs) have been around for almost 22 years, and their benefits have been well documented by researchers. So why are some PLCs effective and others not? In a word, implementation.

Research by DuFour and others has confirmed that the most challenging component of PLCs is the implementation process. As part of my dissertation, I recently completed a study of one school district’s implementation of PLCs. The results of that study showed that not one PLC team had completely implemented all of DuFour’s six characteristics. Instead, different PLC groups had implemented pieces of the six characteristics. Perhaps the most interesting component of the study was that there was not a significant difference between the teachers’ and principals’ ratings of the level of PLC implementation. In addition, there was not a substantial difference among elementary, middle level, and high school staff ratings of the level of PLC implementation.

Given the large amount of time and money districts and schools have spent on developing PLCs, school leaders must ensure that each PLC has been implemented with all the critical characteristics. Here are four concepts to help improve the implementation of PLCs.

Determine Your School’s and PLC Teams’ Level of Implementation

Before one can improve the level of PLC implementation, a leader must first know what characteristics have been implemented in each PLC. There are several ways to accomplish this, such as a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis; a teacher perception Likert scale survey, which I used for the study mentioned above; and interviews of PLC members. It is important to note, however, that whatever PLC framework was used to train staff should be the same framework used to create interview questions or a survey.

Create a Differentiated Professional Development Plan

Based on PLC members’ responses to the leader’s inquiry into the level of PLC implementation, principals should develop a differentiated professional development plan to meet each PLC’s needs. In addition, principals should also develop a professional development plan for new teachers so that all teachers have the same grounding information.

Develop Frameworks

Along with a differentiated professional development model, PLC teams may also benefit from a PLC agenda framework. In my current school, when PLC teams meet, teachers use five guiding questions:

  • What is the standard that is going to be taught?
  • How are you going to teach the standard? What strategies will be used?
  • How are you going to assess what students have learned? (Common Formative Assessment)
  • Did students learn what you wanted them to learn? How do you know? (Data)
  • What will you do next? Enrichment or remediation, and how?

Ensure That Principals Are in Attendance

Perhaps the most interesting finding to come out of the above-mentioned study was that PLCs that had a principal who regularly attended the meetings had a higher rating of implementation of DuFour’s six characteristics. It is important to mention that an administrator attending the PLC should not necessarily be evaluating the PLC. Instead, it should be the instructional leader helping to guide and coach the PLC team. Furthermore, when the principal is an active participating member of the PLC team, relationships improve, communication is improved, and a culture of support is fostered.

Dr. James Whitehead is the 2020 Wyoming Assistant Principal of the Year and associate principal at Johnson Junior High School in Cheyenne, WY.


  • PLC Time?

    I have been an English teacher, a principal, a professor, and these days I function as a partner in a leadership development company in Houston, TX. As such, I rub elbows with aspiring and seated principals on a regular basis. These are courageous leaders who face intense challenges in Houston area schools. I interact with them on a regular basis, and while I love and admire them, I have bad news for them and all others in principal positions. There is no such thing as Professional Learning Community (PLC) time. This may come as a great surprise to many, but no school has “PLC time”, yet I hear it over and over: “During PLC time, we decided to enact a new instructional strategy” or, “We created PLC time every Thursday from 7:30-9:30.”

    PLC time is a misnomer. Professional Learning Community is not a “time” that occurs in schools any more than a rural community exists for small pockets of time. Professional Learning Community is a complex organizational system a school becomes. PLC time, as currently actualized today in most schools, is simply a meeting of educators to collaborate, nothing more and nothing less. When I hear principals say, “We have our PLC time this week”, I cringe. What I would like to hear is, “We are a PLC or we are becoming a PLC.” This is not just semantics. Implemented and used authentically, PLCs can be a tremendous tool to propel teaching and learning in a time when educators need all the tools they can get.

    It is important to know some history around PLC so we can get this right. If you ask leaders about PLC, you will likely hear Rick DuFour’s name. Most know DuFour’s story of how he created an extremely high performing high school and shared how through workshops, conferences, and published materials. This began in the late 90’s, and by 2010 PLC was more than a buzzword. It was what schools sought. DuFour’s PLC framework revolves around a school’s mission, vision, values, and goals, about teams that used common assessment data, and those famous questions asked in the DuFour literature.

    Principals and teams learned the framework and began meeting around implementation. These sessions became “PLC time.” Over the years, PLC time has evolved into weekly professional development meetings or other meetings. There is nothing wrong with that, except this does not make the school a viable PLC. Becoming a viable PLC is a complex evolutionary process that does not occur by attending a conference, adopting a framework, and attending weekly meetings. History shows us this.

    The historical development of professional community may have begun in 1967 with an article published by Fred Newmann and Donald Oliver entitled, “Education and Community.” Their article argued for modern schools and formal education to develop a sense of community rather than fragment the sense of community most schools displayed. Following this, researchers began to look at the difference between public schools and private schools. One finding of this work indicated a stronger sense of collective responsibility and purpose in the private schools.

    Researchers inferred one reason private schools were marginally more successful than public schools was due to this sense of “community” within the private schools. Newmann believed this might have been the birth of professional community. From his Center for Effective Secondary Schools, he commissioned Tony Bryk in 1988 to do the first quantitative analysis of communal school organizations on student achievement. Bryk studied high schools and created scales of communal measures, such as the degree of respect staff members had for each other and the extent to which they shared goals. He concluded the higher degree of communal organization that occurred in the high schools, the higher student achievement levels were. This brought more studies on bureaucratic vs. communal organizations, and more analyses of teachers occurred.

    The question was raised, “What is the difference between community in general and a “professional community?” From this, the definition of community, which included the notion of shared goals, expanded to shared goals for student learning. Another distinction was that within communities, face-to-face contact occurs with standard communication; in a professional community, the notion of “practice” and sharing practice with colleagues via deprivatization was noted. Finally, Newmann noted the biggest distinction; within a professional community, educators engage in reflective dialogue about practice that is based on inquiry, not just observation.

    So, based on Newmman, Bryk’s and other’s research, to become a viable professional community (PC-the word “learning” was not part the title then), a school must: (1) have shared norms and values, (2) have a collective focus on student learning, (3) engage in reflective dialogue, (4) engage in deprivatization of practice, and (5) engage in collaboration. The principal’s role is to develop and support the PC as a system. There is not enough space here to explain all of the positive impact these have as a system on a school, but the research is there.

    These are not items to be accomplished in a meeting once a week. PC is a complex system that evolves carefully and slowly over time with leadership driving the work. As Karen Seashore Louis points out, “One problem, however, with much of this literature [on PLCs] is that it portrays the development of a PLC as an innovation to be implemented rather than as a culture change that will take years and create conflict as well as success.” It is hard, courageous work that depends on strong leadership. And leaders need to get this right because the most precious commodity a school has is time, and bring teachers together in the name of PLC time is not getting it right.

    Once carefully established, each component above works in concert with the other, and the school becomes a professional [learning] community. Once this happens, time is used well with focus and precision as a system that drives improved teaching and learning. DuFour’s current PLC system certainly parallels the historical structures of professional community, but I would venture to say he might also cringe hearing “PLC time”. It is not just semantics.

    Lawrence Kohn is a partner and co-founder of Leadership Partners

  • Phil Thompson says:

    Thanks, James. I agree with a lot of what you said and hope we can use some of this with our staff to improve our implementation. We have been trying to get the PLC’s at South to dig deeper into the data and reflect on what is happening in the different classes that are working, then look at what interventions may work. We try to attend as many as possible, and I do see a more effective approach when we are there simply observing. Hope all is going well and have a great year.

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