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When Districts Function as

Professional Learning




The world's best school systems use the professional learning community process to support the ongoing learning of their educators through professional development that is collaborative, data-driven and peer-facilitated. All of the activity focuses on improving student learning.

What can we learn from school districts that implement the process effectively throughout all of their schools? These are five things I’ve concluded from working closely with school districts nationwide as a consultant over the past decade.

They begin exploring the professional learning community process by building shared knowledge about the rationale for using the process. Rather than unilaterally announcing that all schools in a district must begin to function as PLCs, effective superintendents work with their principals and key teacher leaders to help them develop an understanding of and enthusiasm for the process. They rely more on dialogue and conversations than monologue and PowerPoint presentations. They make themselves available to address questions and concerns.

They build a guiding coalition and disperse leadership responsibility for implementation throughout the district. Effective superintendents recognize they cannot unilaterally transform traditional schools into high-performing PLCs from the central office. Therefore, they work with principals to create a guiding coalition of key teacher leaders in each school to assist with implementation. They build enthusiasm for the process among small cadres of teacher leaders before attempting to build consensus with all the educators in a school.

They clarify what they expect to see in every school. Effective superintendents do more than announce schools must operate as PLCs. They stipulate the specific conditions they expect to see in every school of the district and build a common language to ensure clarity regarding their expectations. These conditions include the following:

a. Educators must work in meaningful, collaborative teams in which members work interdependently to achieve common, results-oriented goals for which members are mutually accountable. Each school must provide teams with the time and support to accomplish what they are being asked to do.

b. Teams must create a guaranteed and viable curriculum for all students, unit by unit.

c. Teams must monitor each student’s learning through a balanced assessment process that includes team-developed, common formative assessments.

d. Teams must analyze the evidence of student learning from common formative assessments to inform and improve the professional practice of individual members and the team as a whole.

e. The school must implement a plan of systematic intervention that ensures students who struggle will receive additional time and support for learning in ways that never remove them from new direct instruction. This intervention is to be specific (by student name and need), timely and directive rather than invitational.

They focus on developing the capacity of principals to lead the PLC process, but they also hold them accountable for doing so. The principal plays the key role at the school level, so effective superintendents turn traditional monthly principals meetings into training sessions to help principals acquire the knowledge and skills to lead the process. These ongoing sessions provide principals with a rationale for the specific work to be done and tools and templates to proceed with the work.

Principals rehearse and role play what they will be called upon to do back in their buildings. The meetings become a collective and collaborative effort to identify and resolve implementation challenges. And very importantly, these meetings require principals to present to the central-office cabinet and their peers both the steps they have taken to implement the PLC process and a comprehensive analysis of evidence of student achievement over a multiyear period.

This process, as Robert Marzano and I wrote in Leaders of Learning, helps principals “learn from each other’s successes
and resolve one another’s difficulties. ... [W]hen done well, it provides the combination of pressure and support that build capacity. The process helps to foster collaboration, collective responsibility, a results orientation, and a culture of accountability by capitalizing on the subtle peer pressure that accompanies presenting to one’s peers and by making evidence of student learning transparent. And, very importantly, it represents a powerful tool for increasing a principal’s effectiveness in leading a PLC because it develops a stronger sense of self-efficacy among principals.”

They maintain their focus on the PLC process. School districts successful in implementing the PLC process do not view it as one of a myriad of initiatives to improve student learning. They consider it the fundamental strategy for raising achievement. Their sustained focus brings coherence to school improvement that is sadly lacking in most districts.

Richard DuFour, a former superintendent, is a consultant on learning issues and co-author of Leaders of Learning: How District, School and Classroom Leaders Improve Student Achievement (Solution Tree, 2011). E-mail:

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