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Professional Learning Communities

What Does the Literature and Emerging Research Tell Us About the Benefits of PLCs?

Although PLCs have received a great deal of attention in the literature, few research studies have been conducted to determine their effectiveness. In general, the literature and research base has explored the following topics:

  • Identifying teacher benefits

  • Confirming PLC characteristics

  • Assessing the impact on student performance

Identifying Teacher Benefits

A PLC can contribute to instructional improvement and school reform (Annenberg, n.d.; Little, 2003). PLCs can be most effective when their purpose is to enhance teacher effectiveness for the ultimate benefit of students (Stoll et al., 2006). By participating in PLCs, teachers may experience a variety of benefits that contribute to improved student achievement, including:

  • Reduction of isolation

  • Increased commitment to the mission and goals of the school

  • Shared responsibility for student success

  • Greater job satisfaction and higher morale

  • Lower rates of absenteeism (Hord, 1997)

Sustained school improvement efforts also have been attributed to PLCs (DuFour & Eaker, 1998).

Confirming PLC Characteristics

PLCs often are defined by the presence of certain characteristics (Stoll et al., 2006). Investigators have attempted to identify characteristics in PLCs that are operating smoothly-such as supportive and shared leadership, belief that the school is a learning community, shared vision, focus on student achievement, continuous inquiry and reflective dialogue, collaboration-and participants' perceptions about those characteristics (Hord & Rutherford, 1998; Huffman, 2000; Thompson, Gregg, & Niska, 2004).

Investigators also have considered characteristics in schools at different stages of PLC development as in the following examples:

  • Three themes-proactive administrator and teacher leadership, purposeful decision making, and job-embedded professional development-distinguish more advanced PLCs from less developed ones (Huffman, Hipp, Pankake, & Moller, 2001).

  • A strong vision that is connected to student learning and continuous improvement is found in more developed PLCs (Bolam et al., 2005). Shared vision is evident in more established PLCs (Huffman, 2003).

  • Shared leadership structures, including opportunities to build teacher leadership capacity, are more evident in schools that have more developed PLCs (Moller, 2006). However, it should be noted that structures for shared leadership are emerging in less developed PLCs.

Assessing the Impact on Student Performance

Improvement in student performance is at the center of PLC work. However, it can be challenging to show direct relationships between PLCs and student outcomes. Part of the difficulty lies in being able to first determine the presence of a PLC and then show that the work of the PLC resulted in improved student outcomes. Several studies have attempted to study this relationship. Consider these examples:

  • Researchers (Hughes & Kritsonis, 2007) selected a sample of schools from a database of schools with staff who had attended PLC workshops and that were possibly implementing PLCs. The mean length of time that sample schools (n=64) reported functioning as a PLC was 2.5 years. During a three-year period, 90.6 percent of these schools reported an increase in standardized math scores; 81.3 percent reported an increase in English/language arts scores between 5 points and 26 points.

  • Case studies of three elementary schools showed that during a five-year period, students from minority and low-income families improved their scores on state achievement tests from less than 50 percent proficient to 75 percent proficient. Strahan (2003) conducted interviews to examine the role of a collaborative professional culture on instructional improvement and found that working collaboratively in PLCs was a characteristic of these schools.

  • Using multiple sources of data from a four-year evaluation of PLCs in an urban district, Supovitz (2002) found that an explicit focus on instructional improvement is necessary for PLCs to have a positive impact on improving teaching and learning. Without such focus, PLCs may have a positive effect on culture and teachers' feelings of well-being, but not necessarily on student achievement. Researchers found similar results in another large urban district (Supovitz & Christman, 2003).

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