An essential characteristic of a true professional learning community is continuous improvement—a “persistent disquiet with the status quo” and a constant search for better practice (DuFour et al. 2016). Until every student is learning at high levels, there is a pressing need—an intrinsic desire—to identify and more deeply implement practices, policies, and dispositions that will improve both student and adult learning.
This focus on collective inquiry and continuous improvement is how the PLC at Work® framework was first created. In the 1980s when Richard DuFour, Robert Eaker and the educators at Adlai Stevenson High School began their focus on collaboration, there were not “Three Big Ideas” or “Four Critical Questions” to guide their efforts. Instead, they began by asking this question: “If we have limited time and resources to collaborate, then what are actions we can take that are proven to best increase student learning and build our staff’s capacity to work in high-performing teams?” They did not guess at what these actions would be, but instead committed to collective inquiry—learning together about research-based best practices. Then they applied what they learned, gathered targeted evidence to determine if their actions were actually helping more students learn, and used that information to determine their next topics of study. The goal was not simply to learn a new strategy, but to create the conditions for job-embedded learning and continuous improvement.
Over time a convergence of dependable research—both from within and outside the field of education—coupled with field evidence, led to Rick and Bob’s first book on the topic: Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement (DuFour and Eaker, 1998). In the decade that followed, the PLC at Work framework became widely accepted as a proven vehicle for improving schools. Much was learned during these early years, leading to the publication in 2008 of Revisiting PLCs at Work: New Insights for School Improvement (DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker).
Over a decade has passed since the 2008 publication, and reliance upon the PLC at Work framework has only continued to grow, both nationally and internationally. New insights have been gained. Because we believe increasing student achievement requires continuous adult learning, we purposely and persistently practice what we preach and continue to study best practice through both professional research and field study. Where a single school served as the primary “incubator” for Rick and Bob’s original work, today we have the benefit of learning from hundreds of model PLCs across the world (allthingsplc.info/evidence). In our newly released second edition of Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work: Proven Insights for Sustained, Substantive School Improvement, we dig deeply into what we have learned over the past decade. These insights include:
- Professional research continues to validate the PLC process: The research and evidence supporting the benefits of structuring an organization around learning collaboratively is compelling. In fact, the research base has continued to grow significantly since Rick and Bob published their first original work. If professional educators are expected to utilize the practices deemed most effective in their field, an overwhelming preponderance of research and evidence proves that the best way to organize a school or district to increase student and adult learning is by functioning as a PLC. We can no longer consider this point an opinion or hypothesis—it is a fact.
- The futility of “PLC Lite.” Since the publication of Professional Learning Communities at Work in 1998, the PLC process has been implemented in hundreds of schools across North America and worldwide. The experiences of these schools have taught us that anything less than full implementation of all the essential PLC practices is problematic at best. Douglas Reeves’s (2016) research shows that all the major components of the PLC at Work process are required to see significant gains in student learning. The concepts and practices of a high-performing PLCs are interconnected, with each dependent on and enhanced by the other. Unless a school/district deeply commits to all the essential elements of the process, it is unlikely they will reap the benefits of significant increases in student achievement.
- Significant improvement doesn’t take as long as previously thought. For many years, we would share that it would likely take three to five years to transform a school or district into an effective professional learning community. What we have subsequently learned is that significant school improvement can occur at a much more rapid pace than previously thought. While long-term goals are important, achieving them requires momentum that can only be achieved through a series of shorter recurring implementation cycles. After clearly developing a shared mission that focuses on enhancing the learning of each student, leaders can organize, provide initial training, and direct the work of teams rather quickly. Teams can begin to sharpen the focus on what all students must learn, and engage in the collaborative process of writing a few formative assessments. They can also take the initial steps of developing a plan for additional time, support, and extension of learning. These steps, which can be well underway after one year, will, in most cases, have a positive impact on student learning.
- Developing a healthy school culture: Culture matters. Though the practices of the PLC process are time tested and research affirmed, the human environment in which they are implemented is an important factor in predicting the impact of the process. The scope of research on the importance on school culture on student achievement has grown exponentially since the original edition of PLC at Work was published in 1998. We explore the attitudes, dispositions, and collective beliefs that educators develop about their students, their school, and one another on successful PLC implementation. We also explore the importance of leadership at the school, district, and policy level in creating a healthy, student-centered school culture. It is difficult to claim that we are committed to ensuring high levels of learning for all students if everyone does not believe that all students can learn at high level.
- Embed a simultaneous loose-tight structure and culture: In Professional Learning Communities at Work, Rick and Bob (DuFour & Eaker, 1998) observed that the results of previous top-down reform initiatives have been disappointing. Similarly, bottom-up improvement efforts failed to achieve desired results. A more promising approach advocated by business management experts Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr., in their best-selling book In Search of Excellence (2007) is for leaders to be both tight and loose— tight about the organization’s mission, vision, values, shared commitments, and data-based goals, along with a few specific strategies and behaviors, and loose by encouraging creativity, innovation, and initiative. Over the past decade, we have sharpened the knowledge base regarding which actions and behaviors effective leaders must view as tight, which we discuss in great detail in our new book.
- The critical role of effective leadership: The very definition of school improvement implies action, and causing people to act requires effective leadership, particularly from the district superintendent and each building principal. Implementing the PLC at Work concept in a wide variety of schools and districts throughout North America and around the world has led to our belief that effective leadership is the one indispensable factor for sustained significant school improvement. There is no way around this fact. As powerful as the PLC process is, it is not strong enough to overcome weak and ineffective leadership.
- Limited initiatives: The PLC at Work process is not one of many improvement initiatives districts and schools undertake. Rather, it is the organizing framework for embedding practices throughout the district or school that, taken together, research and practice have shown to positively impact student success. To reap the full benefits of becoming a high-performing PLC, administrators, teachers, and support staff (and students) must be spared a wide range of initiatives that are disconnected, redundant, or simply lack the promise of a significant positive impact. Time, clarity, deep understanding, and confidence only come when superintendents and principals limit initiatives.
The PLC at Work process has proven to be the most promising approach to systemic, continuous school improvement. The words “continuous improvement” implies a journey that never ends. And the key to continuous improvement in student learning is continuous adult learning. As more and more schools and school districts implement PLC at Work concepts and practices, we as professionals will continue to learn more about how to effectively achieve higher levels of learning for all students. While it is our hope that this second edition of Revisiting PLCs at Work will be a valuable tool for adult learning, it is our firm belief that in subsequent decades an increased knowledge base related to the PLC at Work process will necessitate future “updates” regarding what is being learned as the journey continues. If we had one over-arching message to our readers it would be this: Here is what we currently know about the best ways to ensure high levels of learning for all. The challenge now is to first gain shared knowledge, get started, then continuously get better.
DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., Many, T., & Mattos, M. (2016). Learning by doing. A handbook for professional learning communities at work. (3rd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional learning communities at work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Peters, T. J., & Waterman, R. H., Jr. (2007). In search of excellence: Lessons from America’s best-run companies. New York:
Reeves, D. (2016). From leading to succeeding: The seven elements of effective leadership in education. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.