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Professional Learning Communities

What Supports Are Necessary to Develop and Sustain a PLC?

It can be difficult to build and sustain PLCs (Moller, 2006; Wells & Feun, 2007). While organizing into small collegial groups may improve school culture, it does not necessarily result in improved instruction and student achievement (Supovitz, 2002).

PLCs require organizational structures and supports to be successful (Supovitz & Christman, 2003). A summary of two often-cited supports follows:

  • Supportive leadership

  • Structural supports

[Note: This Information Brief describes elements that are necessary for supporting a PLC; however, it stops short of presenting a specific plan that educators might use to develop and implement one. Readers seeking such information are encouraged to consult the websites listed in this resource for suggestions.]

Supportive Leadership

Strong, supportive leadership is necessary to build and sustain PLCs (Eaker & Gonzalez, 2006; Mitchell & Sackney, 2006). Even though principals' roles may change as they redistribute and share leadership, their support is one of the resources necessary for schools to become a PLC (Hargreaves & Fink, 2006; Huffman et al., 2001; Huffman, Pankake, & Munoz, 2007; Louis & Kruse, 1995).

Principals actively build a context for PLC work. Their support includes such things as:

  • Expanding leadership among teachers (Burnette, 2002). This may include encouraging teachers who may be reluctant to take on leadership roles (Moller, 2006) and defining autonomy and authority for teacher leaders (Supovitz & Christman, 2003).

  • Securing fiscal and human resources to support teacher development (Bolam et al., 2005; Huffman, Hipp et al., 2001).

  • Modeling the vision and shared focus of the PLC (e.g., maintaining an unwavering focus on student learning) (Huffman, Pankake, & Munoz, 2007; Leo & Cowen, 2000). Principals promote learning rather than teaching as the fundamental purpose of schools (Eaker & Gonzalez, 2006).

  • Creating communication mechanisms to keep all of the staff informed (Burnette, 2002). Progress is monitored and acknowledged (McREL, 2003).

  • Ensuring that student data are available (Eaker & Gonzalez, 2006; Supovitz & Christman, 2003). When data are not available but desired, principals find ways to provide them.

  • Establishing a high-trust environment in which it is safe to learn and grow (Hargreaves & Fink, 2006). Approaches that support interdependent teaching roles (e.g., team teaching, integrated lesson design) are encouraged and fostered.

  • Supporting teacher-determined professional development (DuFour, 2003; Supovitz & Christman, 2003).

District support also is essential. Examples of support include:

  • Establishing a clear priority for PLCs districtwide and providing each school and/or department with the authority to chart its own course for achieving the goals (DuFour, 2003).

  • Making resources (e.g., time, professional development, student data, etc.) available to support PLC development (Supovitz & Christman, 2003).

  • Working out agreements with teacher unions as necessary, especially when time is being modified to fit shared meeting arrangements or teachers are being asked to take on new responsibilities (White & McIntosh, 2007).

  • Embedding PLCs in mission statements and district policy (Tucker 2008). District policy can influence the depth of interactions (Coburn & Russell, 2008). School leaders influence the degree to which interactions are consistent with reform aims and how teachers talk about curriculum and instruction (Supovitz & Christman, 2003).

  • Linking PLCs to existing district, school, and state program requirements and expectations (Burnette, 2002).

Structural Supports

In addition to administrative support, PLCs require supportive conditions in which to develop and thrive (Hord, 1997). At the very least, PLCs require suitable spaces for meetings (Hord & Rutherford, 1998). Communication structures used to keep people involved and informed (e.g., meetings to discuss problem areas and new ideas, schoolwide announcements and distribution of information) also are in place (Burnette, 2002; Hord & Rutherford, 1998; McREL, 2003).

Perhaps the most significant resource that is required is time-PLCs require sufficient time to meet and talk (Burnette, 2002; Hord & Rutherford, 1998; Supovitz & Christman, 2003; Reichstetter, 2006). Numerous strategies have been attempted to provide structured time. Examples include:

  • Classes are scheduled to create common planning periods (DuFour, 2003; McREL, 2003).

  • Particular school days are extended to bank time for professional learning (McREL, 2003).

  • The schedule is built so that teachers are freed up by "specials" (music, art, physical education, student assemblies, etc.) (Burnette, 2002).

  • Monthly faculty meetings and district professional development days are used for PLCs (Burnette, 2002; DuFour, 2003).

  • Combine classrooms to free teachers to meet (Murphy, 1997). This should only be done when the teacher who is covering the class has expertise in the instructional content.

  • The schedule is adjusted (Murphy, 1997; White & McIntosh, 2007). For example, every other Thursday, student start time is delayed 20 minutes; classes start late one day and teachers arrive 30 minutes earlier on that day.

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