Creative Education
2013. Vol.4, No.5, 357-361
Published Online May 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 357
The Importance of Professional Learning Communities
for School Improvement
Leslie Jones, Gregg Stall, Debra Yarbrough
College of Education, Nicholls State Univers ity, Thibodaux, U SA
Received February 16th, 2013; revised March 18th, 2013; accepted March 31st, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Leslie Jones et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons At-
tribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
In this article, we begin with a discussion of the development and sustaining of professional learning
communities. We proposed that PLCs can be an effective form of professional development for teachers.
This professional development can be facilitated by the principal. The necessary cultural components for
effective professional learning communities are also included. Embedded in the discussion is the role of
the principal in facilitating the PLCs and facilitating the positive culture.
Keywords: Professional Learning Communities; School Improvement; Professional Development
Professional Learning Communities are difficult to define
because th e y are NOT new pres c r ipt ions , prog rams, model s; nor
innovations. Like many concepts in education, PLCs have dif-
ferent interpretations and levels of implementation for different
professionals. There are frequently many initiatives and pro-
grams implemented in K-12 schools and College of Educa-
tion/Teacher Preparation programs to target school improv ement
and student achievement. Teachers and school leaders are at the
core of, student learning , achievement, and school improvement.
One of th e re asons PLCs in an y i mpl ementat ion l evel is viabl e is
because they are means to engage educators especially school
leaders and teachers within the work environment.
In the perspectives of PLCs cited by the Center for Compre-
hensive School Reform and Improvement
(,) terms like “ongoing,” “collabora-
tiation” and “student learning/achievement” are repeated which
validates the potential principles of PLCs to inform practice
through collegiality. PLCs involve infrastructure changes that
lead to continuous school improvement (Hord, 1997). The ulti-
mate benefit for professional learning communities is improved
instructional practices which lead to improved student achievement.
In this article, we begin with a discussion of the development
and sustaining of professional learning communities. We pro-
posed that PLCs can be an effective form of professional devel-
opment for teachers. This professional development can be
facilitated by the principal. The necessary cultural components
for effective professional learning communities are also in-
cluded. Embedded in the discussion is the role of the principa l in
facilitating the PLCs and facilitating the positive culture.
Developing and Sustaining Professional
Learning Communities (PLCs as
Professional Development)
There are obvious challenges to developing and sustaining
professional learning communities. According to Fullan (2009)
in his observations of schools, many educators suggest that their
schools have professional learning communities, and the cul-
tures in the schools are not reflective of sharing and other es-
sential attributes. Collaboration and collegiality are obviously
necessary att r i b utes of learning communiti e s .
It is more important for concepts like professional learning
teams to be applied in schools rather than quickly using the
verbiage. Unfortunately, the conceptualization and thinking do
not travel as rapidly as the verbiage in most professio nal settings.
Dufour and Colleagues (2006) suggest in the second edition of
the Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning
Communities at Work that the terms—professional learning
communities have been used too loosely recen tly to descr ibe any
“loose coupling of individuals who share a common interest in
education.” The concept of professional learning communities
initiated in business.
The verbiage “learning organization” was first used by Senge
in 1990 for the purposes of businesses. The educational context
was translated by S ergiovanni in 1994 from Senge’s work. It was
not until 1997 that Shirley Hord used the terms—professional
learning communities aligned with her work with the Southern
Educational Research Laboratories (SEDL). The following are
the five descriptors of Professional Learning Communities
suggested by Hord:
Supportive and shared leadership;
Shared values and vision;
Collective learning and application;
Shared person a l p r ac tice; and
Supportive conditions.
Hipp & Huffman (2010) elaborated on Hord’s perspective of
professional learning communities and define each of the pre-
viously cited components. Since 1990, multiple perspectives of
learning c o mmunities h a ve been presented . The asser t i o n s made
by the Dufour & Colleagues (2006) about characteristics of
learning communities are emphasized in the perspective of
Blankstien. Blankstien (2010) suggests that there are six princi-
ples essential in schools with Professional Learning Communi-
Principle 1—Common mission, vision, values, and goals;
Principle 2—Ensuring achievement for all students;
Principle 3—Collaborative team ing focused on teaching and
Principle 4—Using data to guide decision making and con-
tinuous improvement;
Principle 5—Gaining active engagement from family and
community; and
Principle 6—Building sustainable leadership capacity.
Dufour and colleagues (2006) contend that commitment to th e
learning of each student is key in learning communities. This
notion parallels Blankstien’s (2010) Principle two. Prin ciple four
reflects the need for educators to use data to inform practice
(Blankstien, 2010). It has been our experience that there is a
great deal of data prevalent in schools. The challenge for edu-
cators is using the data in relevant ways. Student data must be
used to inform instructional decisions of educators.
A second noted principle by Dufour and Colleagues (2006) is
that there is a shift of focus from teaching to learning. Teacher
behaviors were once a focus in classrooms. When observations
were conducted by supervisors of teachers in the 90s; supervi-
sors noted the behaviors and dispositions of teachers. Engaging
students has become the critical focus. This notion corresponds
with Principle three of Blankstien (2010).
There is so much val ue in tea chers colla borating a s it rela tes to
instructional strategies and practices focusing on the needs of
learners. School leaders play a critical role in creating the cul-
tures for the collaboration to take place. In some instances,
school leaders should facilitate the collaboration.
The advantages of including professional learning communi-
ties have been well documented in the literature since the 80s.
There have been varying ways to approach the concept of pro-
fessional learning communities and adjustments to the concept
since the 80s. It is also noteworthy that several professional
associations have noted the importance of professional learning
communities including the National Commission on Teaching
and America’s Future, the National Education Association, The
American Federal of Teachers, and the National Association of
Elementary School Principals.
According to the Anneberg Institute (2003,) the following are
the key benefits of professional learning communities:
Building productive relationships that are required to col-
laborate, partner, reflect, and act to carry out school-im-
provement programs;
Engaging educators at all levels in collective, consistent and
context-specific learning ;
Addressing inequities in teaching and learning opportunities
by supporting teachers who work with students r equiring the
most assistance; and
Promoting efforts to improve results in terms of schools and
system culture, teacher practice and learning.
Brady and McColl (2010) noted the relevance of educators
shifting their thinking to the learning of students. To truly use
data well while focusing on learning, educators should have
clear definitions of assessments with clear purposes of assess-
ments. There is a tendency for teachers to constantly test and/or
assess students. Assessments should be meaningful with clear
expectations for students.
Obviously, the fundamentals of professional learning com-
munities must be present for the communities to function and to
be sustained. Professional development facilitated by school
leaders can be the most effective form of professional devel-
opment. Darling-Hammond and colleagues (2009) suggest that
professional l earning comm unities work when th ey are sustain ed,
school-based and embedded in the daily work of teachers.
Providing opportunities for effective professional develop-
ment is one manner for school leaders to begin to build learning
communities. Hord (1997) emphasizes the role of the leader in
sharing decision-making with teachers. Professional develop-
ment can be most effective when the school leader involves
teachers in setting individual goals rather than dictating the
parameters for teachers. Leaders must also share power and
authority with teachers (Hord, 1997).
One example of a need to e mbed professional development in
the daily work of teachers is that during informal conversations
and class discussions with practicing teachers, man y suggest that
professional development in their districts is not necessarily
linked to the needs of the teacher s. Som e district leaders hip have
sponsored huge professional development initiatives at the
beginning of the school year where all teachers across all grade
levels and disciplines meet in an auditorium for an entire day
with an expert on a relevant issue for the district that may not be
specific enough to meet the needs of teachers at a challenged
school or the individual needs of teachers. There is so much
information in the literature on differentiating instructional
needs for students. It is also important to differentiate the pro-
fessional development needs for teachers.
Experience has taught us that the following concepts are
critical for meaningful professional development: time and
organization, relevance, follow-up. Many districts have the first
days of school calendars designated for professional devel-
opment. Although this may appear as an appropriate and logical
time, most teachers are most concerned with classroom organi-
zation, the classes that they will be teaching, etc. Therefore, the
focus on the professional development becomes rather limited.
Timing is so critic al.
There are other instances when professional development is
scheduled at the end of the work day when teachers have been
frustra ted by the co mplexity of challenge s of the day. The most
effective time for professional development is during working
hours particularly when teachers are energetic and can work.
Effective professional development planning should allow time
during the instructional day for teachers to discuss the critical
components of lesson planning; what is working and what is not
working; and pertinent issues linked to the needs of the students .
Previously, we cited and discussed the need for the shift to
occur in the thinking of educators with a focus on learning. As
educators focus on the learn ing of students, it is fundamental for
educators to observe assessment data. Scheduling Professional
learning communities during the school day is an excellent op-
portunity for edu cators to ana lyze and re-di rect instruct ion based
on the findings of data. There is an important component of data
analyses for focusing on individual students, and there is a com-
ponent for focusing on whole class performances.
Many schools and school districts are beginning to use data
rooms or data walls. Typically, there are more forms of as-
sessments in elementary schools. In data rooms or on data walls,
teachers can view the scores of an entire class on EAGLE or
DIBELS. When an entire class is under-performing on a skill,
this is an indication for the teacher to re-teach the skill in com-
parison to one or two students in a class under-performing.
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
Schmoker (2011) discusses the importance for educators in
the teaching and learning process for/of students as simplicity,
clarity, and priority in Focus. He feels that there are three ele-
ments that educators should approach with diligence and sim-
plicity—what is taught; how it is taught; and authentic literacy.
We raise these notions because Schmoker (2011) specifically
emphasizes the importance of learning communities for educa-
tors as educators focus on what is taught, how it is taught, and
authentic literacy.
Assessments for educators of st udents in the learning process
of what is taught and how it is taught are so crucial. Educators
must collect data and/or reflect on the prior knowledge levels of
learners, learnin g styles of l earners , and oth er pert inent vari ables.
This information must also be used in the how it is taught.
Schmoker (2011) discusses the—what is taught as the cur-
riculum. He notes that the curriculum should be coherent with
topics and standards. The Common Core is presently being
adopted in many states across the country, and the Partnership
for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)
assessm ents are the standa rdized measure s of the Common Core.
Grade level expectations are currently in place in many states.
One of the premises of the Common Core is to “raise the bar ” on
what is taught at each grade level. Competencies that were in
fifth grade are in third grade for the Common Core
Schomoker (2011) describes The How We Teach as “ordinary,
structurally sound lessons that employ the same basic formula
that educators have known for decades but few implement con-
sistently.” Again, it is important for educators to use data perti-
nent to students needs to inform methodology.
Revisiting the concept of professional development at the
beginning of the school year—relevance is always such a critical
variable. When all the teachers and other professional staff
gather at one location, it is very difficult to have the individuals
focus on what is relevant for the school year. Teachers are most
distracted by re-acquainting with colleagues after the summer
break. We have experienced many district-wide initiatives like
the adopting of reading programs, special education programs,
and computer-based programs. However, it is difficult for a
district-wide training to be facilitated that is relevant for all
teachers across disciplines and/or g rade levels. Th ere is t ypically
a great need for specificity for schools and teachers.
To ensure effectiveness with implementation of professional
development, it is so vital to have follow-up. The most practical
kind of follow-up is for professionals in the building or at
minimum within the district to be able to answer pertinent
questions for teachers. It does not matter how effectively pro-
fessional development is facilitated; teachers will have questions
as implementation is occurring. And, it is necessary for teachers
to be able to obtain feedback quickly.
The research findings of Fullan (2009) support the dis-con-
nectivity of the work of teachers with their professional devel-
opment. He suggests that only ten to twenty percent of teac hers
experience meaningful professional development. Furthermore,
ninety percent of teachers have participated in short term con-
ferences or workshops. Engaging teachers in meaningful dis-
cussions linked to practices based on the pertinent student
populations is a challenge for professional learning communi-
Schlager & Fusco (2003) made similar assertions regarding
school based professional development. They suggest that mis-
aligned pedagogical content can be a challenge when teachers
are unable t o connect t he profess ion al developmen t w it h teacher
practices. It is so important for planning to accompany profes-
sional development so that there are not gaps and redundancies
in training. We note that the school leader as an instructional
leader plays a critical role in ensuring that the professional de-
velopment is aligned with teacher practices; is meaningful and
organized; and that the relevant follow-up occurs.
The Necessary Culture for Professional
Learning Communities
Previously we cited that the verbiage of professional learning
communities is often us ed and referred to any “loose coupl ing of
individuals who share a common interest in educat ion.” We have
also cited pr inci ples a nd char act eris ti cs t h at ar e es s ential for true
professional learning communities to exist. Olivier, Hipp, &
Huffman (2003) revised and used extensively an instrument to
measure the extent to which professional learning communities
exist in schools and school districts. Th e assessment is a 52-ite m
instrument that assesses shared and supportive leadership,
shared values and vision, collective learning and application,
shared personal practice, supportive conditions—both structural
and relationship based.
There are theorists who note the role of the school leader
as critical to instructional leadership and to facilitating the
culture for true professional learning communities. Schools
with strong cultures have ten attributes as suggested by Smith
and Andrews (1989). Those attributes are:
Places priority of curriculum and instruction issues;
Is dedicated to the goals of the school and school district;
Is able to rally and mobilize resources to accomplish the
goals of the district and school;
Creates a climate of high expectations in the school, char-
acterized by a tone of respect for teachers, students, parents,
and the community;
Functions as a lea der with direct involvement in instruction al
Continually monitors student progress toward school achi-
evement and teacher effectiv e ne ss;
Demonstrates commitment to academic goals, shown by the
ability to develop and articulate a clear vision or long-term
goals for the school;
Effectively consults with others by involving the faculty and
other groups in the school decision processes;
Effectively and efficiently mobilizes resources such as ma-
terials, time, and support to enable the school and its per-
sonnel to most effectively meet academic goals;
Recognize time as a scarce resource and creates order and
discipline by minimizing factors that may disrupt the learn-
ing process.
Wagner and Phillips (2003) note that the two most important
variables in school culture are collegiality and efficacy. They
feel that professional collaboration is essential. That is, staff
members should work together regarding professional issues.
Indicators of the presence of collegiality are when people feel
included, when people feel valued, and when a sense of com-
munity is prevalen t.
There are also cl ear indicators when co llegiality d oes not exist.
When individuals in the work environment play the “blame
game”, collegiality is not present. There is a tendency in K-12
environments for some educators to blame other educators for
the under-performance of students. Teachers in critical testing
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 359
grades will often suggest that the teachers of the lower testing
grades are responsible for the skills that students lack.
Kennedy (2003) discusses the need for teachers to collaborate
and the value of collaboration pertinent to school improvement.
In some instances, competitive spirits exist that create competi-
tion among colleagues that is not positive. Collegiality does not
exist when participants operate in isolation. Teamwork is es-
sential for positive cultures and for professional learning com-
Efficacy is present when participants feel ownership in the
work environment. Ownership from employees is so valuable to
both promoting positive cultures and to sustaining professional
learning communities. In schools where efficacy is present,
employees also feel that they can influence important decisions;
participants are proactive; and participants are problem solvers.
The language used by educators is a clear indication of the
absence of efficacy. When staff members use phrases like “I
don’t know, I only work here;” “somebody should do something
about this;” “we might make it through the year;” “we could
never do that;” and “I can stick it out until I retire;” these are
clear indicators that efficacy is not prevalent in the work envi-
Many of the knowledge, skill, and dispositions necessary for
leaders to exhibit are indicators on the revised professional
learning communities’ assessment. For the shared and suppor-
tive leadership section of the instrument, many of these attrib-
utes are directly linked to the school leader facilitating a strong
culture. Involving staff members in decision making by school
leaders is so critical to having staff members feel empowered.
The involvement also requires that the school leaders provide
information to staff members and incorporates the advice from
staff members in decision making.
It is so vit al for sc hool lead ers to commit to involv ing teach ers
in decision-making. The concept of participatory decision-
making is often verbalized but not us ed to t he ext ent that it coul d
be across teacher committees within schools especially as it
relates to classroom practices. There are often specific curricula
issues that staff memb ers should be involved in to initiate change
that is advantageous for student learning. It is important to reit-
erate that there must be strong emphases on meeting the needs of
The powerful notion regarding staff empowerment and in-
volving teachers in decision-making is an opportunity for edu-
cators to have ownership in school buildings if provided. When
teachers are involved for instance in selecting the curriculum or
something as simple as a strategy, the teachers will work harder
at implementation of the curriculum or strategy. Furthermore,
educators will take responsibility in the process and hold them-
selves as well as others accountable.
A possible unintended impact which is very positive takes
place as w ell throu gh the involv ement of the leade r of teach ers in
decision-making. When this practice is implemented multiple
times, leadership capacity is established—which obviously fa-
cilitates the collegiality, collaboration, and other attributes in
schools associated with strong cultures. The obvious benefit of
strong cultures is higher performing teachers which ultimately
lead to higher performing students. All educators know that ther e
is strong interrelationship between/among teacher motivation
and student motivation. Greater teacher motivation impacts
student motivation.
On the second section of the Professional Learning Commu-
nities Assessment—Revised, shared values and vision are ad-
dressed. There are different perspectives about the visioning
process and the r ole of th e school lead er in th e process. Howeve r,
we feel that the v i s i o n may originate within teacher s o r any st af f
members, but the principal has the responsibility in the facili-
tating, communicating, and providi ng the opportunity for growth.
The principal must also be an instructional leader and a cur-
ricular leader.
Developing a vision is a critical component of school im-
provement for school leaders. A vision is much more than the
articulation of statements and beliefs. It reflects the continuous
reflection, action, re-evaluation, and communication among the
principal and staff. It is essential for school leaders to have
visions for schools that are communicated and shared by the
faculty, staff, students, parents, and school community. Inclusive
of the school goals, the vision provides a realistic perception of
present functional levels of students-academic, disciplinary, and
all other aspects deemed critical for school improvement.
The vision becomes critical for school improvement because
it also includes the desired functional levels—providing the
framework for action steps toward improvement. Therefore, the
short and long term goals are established based on the present
levels of academic, behavioral, and other pertinent variables
revealed in data analyses.
It was stated as early as 1998, that the readiness for vision
must be created in schools (Lashway, 1998). The principal must
create a culture and climate for change. All participants should
have the opportunity to examine their thinking which can be
achieved through forming study groups, visiting schools that
have restructured, or collecting data that challenges present
assumptions. Guiding characteristics and action steps regarding
the vision may originate by teachers, but the principal must play
the greatest role in helping to facilitate.
The shared vision “sets the stage” for many aspects in the
school community particularly aligned to the culture. The pro-
grams and policies must be aligned with the vision—specifically,
programs and policies that impact achievement because of the
important link to school improvement driven by the vision.
Ultimately, all decision-making has to align with the values of
the school and the vision.
We previously discussed the notion that terms are often used
frequently in professional settings; however, the conceptualiza-
tion and thinking are not in ternalized at the levels they should be.
Fullan (2009) noted that this is a large scale problem of reform.
Many school employees suggest that prof essional learning com-
munities are in place when fragmented components are included.
Professional Learning Communities are systemic in that the
infrastructure in schools must change.
The challenge of establishing and sustaining professional
learning communities is coupled with the notion that educators
are involved with many complex responsibilities affiliated with
the jobs of meeting the needs of students.
With a considerable amount of clarity and improved cultures,
educators in professional learning communities report that the
job becomes easier when learning communities are in place.
However, there are no short routes to cr eating professional learn-
ing commun ities. Consistency w ith the comm on goals for staff i s
It is also critical for the p ractices an d beliefs, assum ptions, and
expectations of Professional Learning Communities to be em-
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 361
braced for true transformation. The structural changes like poli-
cies, procedures, and programs provide the foundation. The new
competencies and commitment exhibited by teachers are keys
for sustainability of Professional Learning Communities.
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