Professional Learning Communities and Their Prospect for Reform

By: Kimberly LaPrade, PhD
Grand Canyon University

In the development of the professional learning community (PLC) as a model of school reform, Dufour et al (2005) emphasize that each word of a PLC has been strategically chosen; "professional learning community" has built-in purpose to its meaning. Professionals, in this case educational experts, engage in a continuous cycle of inquiry or learning that promotes a collaborative neighborhood or community. This model has been gaining momentum as "an increasing number of organizations and schools have succeeded with this model" (Schmoker, 2004).  Success breeds excitement. "Professional learning communities have become one of the most talked about ideas in education today (Thompson, Gregg, & Niska, 2004). 

The Effectiveness of the Professional Learning Community Model
The following recommended principles guide (shift) the development of a professional learning community:

  1. From a focus on teaching to a focus on learning
  2. From working in isolation to working collaboratively.
  3. From focusing on activities to focusing on results.
  4. From fixed time to flexible time.
  5. From average learning to individual learning.
  6. From punitive to positive.
  7. From "Teacher tells/Student listens" to "Teacher coaching/Student practice."
  8. From recognizing the elite to creating opportunity for many winners.
    (DuFour, Eaker, & DuFour, 2005, p 179)

However, at the end of the day, the effectiveness of a professional learning community depends on the QUALITY (my emphasis) of the conversations within the community.  A key component to effective reform when using a PLC model is that the collaboration be purposeful (DuFour, 2004).  Strahan's study of three elementary schools (2003) and Langer's study of 25 secondary schools (2000) highlighted professional conversations as a foundation for successful reform.

Here, it is important to note, there is not just one component or focus that can shoulder the responsibility for successful reform.  The people, the ideas, and the tools necessary to build professional learning communities are interdependent.  According to Peter Senge (2000) in his article on leadership and learning, "What fundamentally will distinguish learning organizations from traditional authoritarian "controlling organizations" will be the mastery of certain basic disciplines" (p. 15).  These disciplines are outlined in the following table: 
Table 2: (adapted from Senge, 2000)


The disciplines work together to build the capacity of the learning organization. The effectiveness of a professional learning community would depend on the organization's ability to function at high levels in all five disciplines.

Michael Fullen (2000) has a formula that he uses to help describe an organization's ability to be successful in their reform efforts:

E = MCA2 - where E refers to the rate of efficacy of the system, M refers to the motivation for reform (will purpose, commitment), C refers to the capacity for reform (skills, know-how, available resources,) and A2 refers to assistance times accountability" (p. 6).

Fullen's formula and Senge's disciplines can work hand in hand to describe school change.  Either of these explanations can serve to describe the effectiveness of a professional learning community.  No two PLCs are the same.  PLCs are as fluid and dynamic as the community they represent. The effectiveness of any PLC is only as strong as its weakest link and it becomes the challenge of the learning organization to evolve in pluripotent ways.

Another significant finding (Huffman & Jacobson, 2003) is the relationship between leadership style and the perception that the professional learning community model makes a positive impact. Leaders that exhibit collaborative or transformational styles have been shown to "have greater opportunities for success in developing professional learning communities" (p.248). Their research reinforces the trend for promoting more facilitative leadership styles in order to build partnerships that afford students every opportunity for success.

School Climate
"The professional learning community model has now reached a critical juncture...initial enthusiasm gives way to confusion about fundamental concepts driving the initiative, followed by implementation problems...reinforcing the conventional wisdom that promises, ‘This too shall pass'" (Dufour et al, 2005, p. 31).  This can be avoided if the principal, as instructional leader, stays the course so that the core principless of the model "become deeply embedded in the culture of the school" (p. 32).  It is the responsibility of the school's leadership to maintain a school climate that promotes a professional learning community.  At the 2005 National Education Association's annual convention in Scottsdale, Arizona, Richard DuFour spoke about his "tight-loose" style of leadership.  For example, he demands achievement for all students; however, how the teachers choose to "get there" is up to them.  Teachers and students are given ownership and it is empowering; it is the driving force of the school's climate.

Michael Fullen (2000) addresses the importance of school climate to successful reform when he refers to climate as the "inside story." The climate must move from a "culture of teaching" to a "culture of learning" (DuFour, 2004). In this realm, Fullen (2000) further suggests that educators should pay attention to the difference between "restructuring" and reculturing." "In short," he says, "the inside story is that there is no substitute for internal school development" (p.3). Roland Barth (2006), a former public school teacher and principal, champions a relationship-oriented approach to fostering successful school climates.  "A precondition for doing anything to strengthen our practice and improve a school is the existence of a collegial culture" (p.7).

Teacher Morale
Moreover, collaboration is a key component to teacher morale. In Susan J. Rosenholtz's (1991) important book, Teachers Workplace: The social organization of schools, she summarizes that the hopes of educators "were not likely the domain of isolated workplaces" (p.207).  Where on the other side, in collaborative schools, "many minds tended to work better than a few" (p.208).  In these types of schools, the modus operandi was one of assistance; these schools lived in a culture that empowered each other.  Common was the call for requests of help or unselfish offers of assistance. "Teachers work in teams, engaging in an ongoing cycle of questions that promote deep team learning" (DuFour, 2004). Schools must dedicate the time required for colleagues to work together in order to maximize the benefits of teaming!  "For meaningful collaboration to occur, a number of things must also stop happening. Schools must stop pretending that merely presenting teachers with state standards or district curriculum guides will guarantee that all students have access to a common curriculum" (DuFour et al., 2004). "Growth and development are a process that must become part of the daily lives of professional" (p.19). Furthermore, the PLC helps address the problem of teachers working in isolation (p. 26). With a decrease in isolation, teacher morale would increase and the increased collegiality would have a positive impact on teacher efficacy.

Yet, according to Peter Senge in Chapter 2 of Educational Leadership (2000), "surprisingly few adults work rigorously to develop their own personal mastery" (p.17). If that is the case, it makes sense why professional development programs sometimes feel like such a struggle to take flight.  It is important for educators to rely on "best practice."  Why should we reinvent the wheel?  The main assumption of best practice professional development programs is that educators can learn from successful programs. "A true learning community," according to Schmoker (2004), "identifies, honors, and provides opportunities for any and every successful team or teacher to share his or her methods and successes with colleagues (p. 88).  Teachers are empowered by results that show improvement across indicators; it is that fist in the air exclamation of triumph that can pump up a teacher's morale.

Increased Academic Performance
First, as schools move to a learning centered culture, they must investigate what to do with a student that experiences difficulty in learning.  With collaboration, "teachers become aware of the incongruity between their commitment to ensure learning for all students (designed and applied curriculum) and their lack of a coordinated strategy to respond when students do not learn (acquired curriculum)"(DuFour, 2004).  In a PLC model, "teachers approach this discrepancy collaboratively by designing strategies to ensure that struggling students receive additional time and support, no matter who their teacher is" (DuFour, 2004).  The PLC's response must systematic, timely and directive.

Professional learning communities can work effectively, but it is work! As a community, there is a responsibility to and for one another. The goals for learning teams should promote equity and excellence; student achievement is the priority.  It is not as much about teaching as it is about learning. Point of view is critical to the success of a professional learning community as the schools move from teacher mode to learning mode - it is a matter of direction.

"The main enemies of large-scale reform are overload and extreme fragmentation" (Fullan, 2000, p. 6).  The professional learning community model minimizes those dangers.  With shared responsibility between communities of experts working toward common goals, there is less of a chance for "overload" or "extreme fragmentation."  The prospect that a reform movement, specifically PLCs, can be a long-standing effective model for productive change has never been better.

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