Professional Learning Communities

Research Summary

By: Kim K. Ruebel


A professional learning community (PLC) is more than a group of individuals meeting together to read a common book or discuss a relevant issue. According to Huffman and Hipp (2003), PLCs are a way of working; "a school's professional staff members who continuously seek to find answers through inquiry and act on their learning to improve student learning" (p. 4). Further, DuFour (2004) expressed concern that PLCs may lose their credibility as an important part of education reform unless educators think critically about the fundamental concepts, which make up the model. As a tool for school reform, Huffman and Hipp (2003) asserted that a PLC is "the most powerful professional development and change strategy available" (p. 4). What educators are looking for today in school reform initiatives are those that result in not only improved teaching, but also in overall school improvement and student learning. Vescio, Ross, and Adams (2008) reviewed six separate research studies that scrutinized the relationship between teachers' participation in professional learning communities and student achievement—all six studies revealed that student learning improved when teachers worked in PLCs.

Tenets of This We Believe addressed:
  • Varied and ongoing assessments advance learning as well as measure it.

With school improvement as the goal, DuFour (2004) suggested that PLC formation requires the asking of a series of critical questions: What do we want each student to learn? How will we know when each student has learned it? How will we respond when a student experiences difficulty in learning? Lewis (1989) remarked that if schools are miserable places to learn and work, it is because the educational system created them that way. If PLCs are a way to alleviate apathy and create engaged and critically thinking communities of practice, then principals need to understand how to create and support those (Huffman & Hipp, 2003). Hord and Sommers (2008) reinforced this position when they called the principal the gatekeeper to change. He or she could, in essence, help create schools that are vibrant, engaging places to learn and work.

Hord and Sommers (2008) organized the literature on PLCs into five major components. They discussed how many schools use common planning time so that teachers can meet in professional learning teams. In a time when so many middle schools have lost their common planning time, the growth of PLCs as a dynamic and effective school reform effort provides an advantage to principals and teachers as they make a case to preserve or incorporate this time within the school day.

Shared Beliefs, Value, and Vision. If the participants in a PLC are focused on their own continuous learning, it is easier to maintain a clear focus on students' learning. Having a common purpose is a fundamental component in constructing a vision of the school and just how the PLC will work together. This vision expands as people work together over time. Hord and Sommers (2008) described the focus on student learning success as "unrelenting" (p. 10). Again, the principal plays a vital role in this process as she or he not only supports the beliefs and vision of the PLC, but also communicates these to all stakeholders.

Shared and Supportive Leadership. The principal-as-gatekeeper concept is reiterated within this component of PLCs in the sense that any school change "must be accepted, appreciated, and nurtured" by the principal (Hord & Sommers, 2008, p. 10). Key to understanding the challenge of this component is the fact that influence, authority, and decision making are shared and promoted in PLCs. Sharing of power can be as tough for the school staff as it is for the principal (Hord & Sommers, 2008) and is something that happens over time as a culture of mutually respectful individuals is developed when PLC members share their practice through talk and observation.

Collective Learning and Its Application. Learning together as a PLC must also be accompanied by working together to apply what is learned. Hord and Sommers (2008) believed that success of the PLC is based not only on inquiry and reflection, but also on conversation about that reflection. Developing a strategic model or plan for implementation and later debriefing what actually happened in practice with the intent to revise or continue the approach is crucial.

Supportive Conditions. According to Hord and Sommers (2008), there are two types of support conditions. Time can be seen as the most challenging factor a school may face in the creation of PLCs. Just as middle level education researchers have argued for years (National Middle School Association, 2010), upholding the value of a PLC can best be shown by providing time to meet within the school day. The bringing together of individuals without mutual trust and respect may be problematic. Providing avenues for staff to relate, form social networks, and create a caring culture in the school are the kinds of personal connections needed to overcome relational obstacles. Research confirms the nature and significance of these kinds of positive collaborations among teachers within PLCs (Vescio et al., 2008).

Shared Personal Practice. Examining other teachers' practice and pedagogical, assessment, or management behaviors should be a regular aspect of PLC work. This is not meant to be evaluative, but part of working together to make possible the act of changing practice with each other. Over time, teachers become comfortable sharing triumphs as well as difficulties and letdowns with the PLC team.

Summary of the Current Research

Much of the practical literature on PLCs focuses on the difficulties in building the social and support structures necessary to allow for critical and deep inquiry into practice and the transition toward systemic change, the barriers along the way, and the strong support and guidance needed from principals and teacher leaders. Though these are important factors to consider, PLCs are largely considered one of the most promising educational reform efforts around (Hord & Sommers, 2008; Huffman & Hipp, 2003; Louis & Kruse, 1995; Sergiovanni, 1992; Stoll & Louis, 2007). DuFour (2007) examined a number of studies and found researchers consistently touted schools engaging in PLC practices "as our best hope for sustained, substantive school improvement" (p. 3). In an extensive review of the research literature, Vescio and colleagues (2008) found four studies that document the connection between learning communities and the classroom practices of teachers. All four studies identified specific changes teachers made in their instructional practice, while one documented initial teaching practices before studying change over time.

The focus on responsive networks of school individuals, continuous reflection directed at student learning, and ongoing focus on teacher development to meet school and student needs corresponds well with the middle level concept articulated in This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (National Middle School Association, 2010). Huffman and Hipp (2003) further noted, "As teachers become more involved in decision making processes, they grow in their overall sense of commitment and accountability for student learning" (p. 35). Teachers begin to feel listened to and that their opinions matter, which is the very argument that middle level researchers make regarding young adolescents and their involvement in the development of curriculum and support of the learning process.

According to Huffman and Hipp (2003), Louis and Kruse (1995) and Sergiovanni (1992) supported PLCs as the basis for essential school reform for a number of years. Sergiovanni (1992) called for professional learning that is "continuous, reflective, and focused on improving student outcomes" (Huffman & Hipp, 2003, p. 5). When PLCs fail as a reform, it is often due to a lack of attention on building a school culture. A strong connection exists between the dimensions of implementing a PLC and the tenets of This We Believe (National Middle School Association, 2010). Caskey and colleagues (2010) reported, "Credible research on middle grades leadership and organization documents the importance of a shared vision among the stakeholders…" (p. 26). Furthermore, just as a common vision is a key component of a PLC, the same is true of a middle school. In the case of both the PLC and the middle school, "teacher leaders need to be empowered by principals" (Caskey et al., 2010, p. 27).

It is critical to note that most of the PLC research supports the specific focus of the teachers' collaborative efforts (Vescio et al., 2008).

In the middle school case study of teachers collaborating to create innovative curriculum, the goal of the teachers' work was to improve learning for low and underachieving students (Phillips, 2003). The teachers in studies by Strahan (2003), Hollins et al. (2004), and Englert and Tarrant (1995) all had an underlying focus of improving student literacy. Finally, two overlapping articles (Supovitz, 2002; Supovitz & Christman, 2003) poignantly demonstrated the importance of focus in teachers' collaborative actions. In their report about reform efforts in both Cincinnati and Philadelphia, they state that teachers who participated on teams or in small communities that focused on instructional practice reported changes in instructional cultures. The teachers who reported that they did not use designated meeting times to focus on teaching practice did not report changes in the instructional culture. These findings reinforce the importance of persistently pursuing an instructional focus as teachers engage in their work in learning communities. (p. 11)

Jackson and Davis (2000) pronounced that no one is more important to initiating and sustaining improvement in school and student performance than the principal. Huffman and Hipp (2003), along with Hord and Sommers (2008), echoed this sentiment when describing the potential success and impact of PLCs.

PLCs have a consistently positive impact on student achievement results, but it is important to note that the synergy between those who strive for professional renewal and those who insist on immediate achievement gains, coupled with the incontrovertible evidence of the early impact and effectiveness of PLCs, has led to a drive to disseminate PLCs further, to spread them out and scale them up. They can improve student learning or simply elevate scores on high-stakes tests, often at the expense of learning. (Hord & Sommers, 2008, p. ix)

Middle level teachers and researchers understand the distinctions between teams that are thrown together in a rush to perform tasks and those that determine vision, goals and focus; examine data; and critically reflect on the issues at hand. The literature on middle level schools has negotiated the important components and functions of developmentally responsive schools and interdisciplinary teams. Educators can and should take comprehensive knowledge and experience related to developmentally responsive middle level schools and teachers on the journey toward the professional learning community, embracing beliefs and using these arguments to make a case for middle schools and students.


References

Caskey, M. M., Andrews, P. G., Bishop, P. A., Capraro, R. M., Roe, M., & Weiss, C. (2010). Research and resources in support of This We Believe (2nd ed.). Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.

DuFour, R. (2004). What is a professional learning community? Educational Leadership, 61(8), 6–11.

DuFour, R. (2007). Professional learning communities: A bandwagon, an idea worth considering, or our best hope for high levels of learning? Middle School Journal, 39(4), 1–8.

Hord, S. M., & Sommers, W. A. (2008). Leading professional learning communities: Voices from research and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Huffman, J. B., & Hipp, K. K. (2003). Reculturing schools as professional learning communities. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Jackson, A. W., & Davis, G. A. (2000). Turning points 2000: Educating adolescents in the 21st century. New York, NY & Westerville, OH: Teachers College Press & National Middle School Association.

Lewis, A. (1989). Restructuring America's schools. Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators.

Louis, K. S., & Kruse, S. D. (1995). Professionalism and community: Perspectives on reforming urban schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

National Middle School Association. (2010). This we believe: Keys to educating young adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.

Sergiovanni, T. J. (1992). Moral leadership: Getting to the heart of school improvement. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Stoll, L., & Louis, K. S. (Eds.). (2007). Professional learning communities: Divergence, depth, and dilemmas. Berkshire, England: Open University Press.

Vescio, V., Ross, D., & Adams, A. (2008). A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning. Teaching and Teacher Education, 24(1), 80–91.


Annotated References

Hipp, K. K., & Huffman, J. B. (2010). Demystifying professional learning communities: School leadership at its best.
Lanhan, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

This recent book not only provides a comprehensive description of professional learning communities and how they work, but also includes examples and case studies of professional learning communities in action. The purpose of the book is to detail how professional learning communities respond to critical issues in schools and to support educational leaders in tackling the important mandates of accountability and school improvement.

Hord, S.M., & Sommers, W. A. (2008). Leading professional learning communities; Voices from research and practice.
Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

The authors of this book are leaders in the field of research and practice on professional learning communities. They highlight the strong, positive relationships between successful PLCs and increased student achievement. The book itself can be used as an invaluable guide for implementation of PLCs as each chapter concludes with vignettes of real principals and school leaders; Rocks in the Road, a section on potential pitfalls or issues that may arise; and learning activities which pose questions requiring critical reflection on the part of readers.

Huffman, J. B., & Hipp, K. K. (2003). Reculturing schools as professional learning communities.
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

The strength of this small book lies in its comprehensive description of six powerful dimensions of a professional learning community. The dimensions outline the process of implementation from initiation to becoming an ingrained component of the workings of a school. Huffman and Hipp focus on elements of PLCs that readily connect to the tenets of This We Believe (NMSA, 2010). They focus on the idea of shared and supportive leadership, shared values and vision, shared personal practice, and supportive conditions. The book includes five separate anecdotal case studies that do more than provide a simple example in practice. Each case is described and then points of discussion are made, challenges are presented, and key questions are posed for the readers.

Stoll, L., & Louis, K. S. (2007). Professional learning communities: Divergence, depth and dilemmas.
New York, NY: Open University Press.

This book draws upon the current research, presenting professional learning communities as a reform effort aimed at sustaining improvement. So many efforts today focus on immediate and impressive results. Teacher leaders desire long term improvements that are sustainable. Stoll and Louis's small volume includes a series of chapters divided into three themes. The section on divergence includes chapters on widening the spectrum of participants in the professional learning community to include school staff, parents, students, those within and between schools, and even to international partners. The second theme is depth, and the authors either hone in on one aspect of the PLC or focus more specifically on the process of change itself. The last section of the book, dilemmas, details three serious challenges faced by professional learning communities today: implementation of the PLC in secondary schools, building social capital among members, and sustainability.


List of Recommended Resources

DuFour, R. (2003). Building a professional learning community. The School Administrator, 60(5), 13–18.

DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional learning communities at work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & DuFour, R. (2005). On common ground: The power of professional learning communities. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

DuFour, R., DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (2008). Revisiting professional learning communities at work™: New insights for improving schools. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Karhanek, G. (2004). Whatever it takes: How a professional learning community responds when kids don't learn. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. (2006). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work™. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Eaker, R., DuFour, R., & DuFour, R. (2002). Getting started: Reculturing schools to become professional learning communities. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Eaker, R., DuFour, R., & DuFour, R. (2007). A leader's companion: Inspiration for professional learning communities at work™. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Kanold, T. (2006). The continuous improvement wheel of a professional learning community. Journal of Staff Development, 27(2), 16–21.


Author

Kim K. Ruebel is associate professor, associate chair, and middle level program director in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas at Arlington. She is a former middle school language arts teacher who taught in Texas, Indiana, and Georgia. The central focus of Dr. Ruebel's research agenda is the induction and retention of teachers.


Citation

Ruebel, K. K. (2011). Research summary: Professional learning communities.
Retrieved [date] from http://www.amle.org/TabId/198/ArtMID/696/ArticleID/310/Research-Summary-Professional-Learning-Communities.aspx


This research summary was approved by the AMLE Board of Trustees, January 2012.


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1 comments on article "Professional Learning Communities"

I believe in the importance of team work. A school is a community where every member plays an important role that contributes to the growth of the learners. Consequently, it is necessary that administrators provide and encourage spaces for teachers to share ideas, and suggest solutions from different perspectives. I agree with the fact that clear objectives and critical thinking must be at the core of PLCs.

—Ana
6/13/2015 11:24 PM

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