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.
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.
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.