To Reach the Highest Levels of Student Learning We Need High-Functioning PLCs

By Stoney M. Beavers, Ph.D
Assistant Director
Alabama Best Practices Center

Our pandemic experiences over the past year-and-a-half have been enough to disrupt even the most coherent and laser-focused of schools. Many professional learning communities have been repurposed as leadership teams and are required to spend much of their time and energy on safety, COVID protocols, and helping colleagues master new learning management and student information systems.

In the face of so many disruptive experiences, now is a good time to rethink our PLC process and ask ourselves some hard questions about the future of these communities of professional learners. Will they be extensions of administration? Loose collaborations? Or genuine communities committed to professional growth and high levels of student success?

The Alabama Best Practices Center is ready to support these important inquiries. Using guiding texts by Robert Marzano and his colleagues, this year both our Powerful Conversations Network (diverse school-based teams) and our Key Leaders Network (leading educators in districts and schools) will revisit the essential role of the PLC process in advancing student learning.

In the past decade, Robert Marzano has closely tied his school improvement research and strategies to the PLC vision first proposed by Richard DuFour in the 1990s and evolved over years of school-based action research partnerships. Their co-written 2012 book, Leaders of Learning: How District, School, and Classroom Leaders Improve Student Achievement (Bringing the Professional Learning Community Process to Life), blended the conceptual frameworks of DuFour and Marzano into a resource that Michael Fullan has described as “a great book…deep, practical, and thorough.”

Although DuFour passed away in 2017, his legacy (including the extensive PLCs at Work® resource library) continues to expand and influence thousands of schools across the globe. One of his last co-authored books – written with Marzano, Philip Warrick and Cameron Rains – is our Key Leaders Network guiding text this year: Leading a High Reliability School (Solution Tree, 2018).

Carrying DuFour’s PLC Insights Forward

In his powerful Introduction to Leading a High Reliability School, Rick DuFour helps situate the Professional Learning Community front and center in every school’s improvement effort. His insights are the culmination of years of work on what he calls the “primacy of the PLC process.”

In short, he says that this professional learning community process must be soundly in place if a school has any hope of becoming highly effective, excellent, and equitable.

As ABPC Executive Vice President Cathy Gassenheimer reminds us, exploring DuFour’s “big ideas” about school-based professional learning communities was part of the earliest work of our Powerful Conversations Network teams, as far back as the early 2000s. “We’ve always viewed PLCs as the means to collaboration and – as our thinking and research has evolved and deepened – to collective teacher efficacy,” Cathy says.


A PCN Essential Question: Is Our Process True?

This year, the question that our PCN members may find themselves asking in our first round of asynchronous meetings is“Do we have a true PLC process, or do we simply have collaborative teams?” DuFour summarizes the PLC process very clearly in his Introduction:

“The PLC process calls for educators to work together collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve. It operates under the assumption that purposeful, continuous, job-embedded learning for educators is the key to improved student learning.” (2)

DuFour goes on to identify three assumptions that must fuel every effective PLC:

  • Our focus is on learning.
  • We are a collaborative culture.
  • We are results driven.

All educators in our enterprise – in the classroom, across the school, in the district office – must make the conceptual leap from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning. Effective PLCs keep this sharp focus as they go about their difficult work in the areas of mission, vision, collective commitments, and goal setting.

DuFour unequivocally states that “a school will struggle in its PLC implementation efforts if a faculty persists in believing that its job is to teach rather than to help all students learn” (4). This belief is key to an effective collaborative culture. And PLCs must collaborate to build a shared knowledge base of “better” practices that improve student learning.

Possibly the most important connection DuFour makes in his Introduction is the one tying equity to the role of PLCs, supporting not only equitable learning opportunities but also equitable outcomes for students – a true “results orientation.”

A KLN Essential Question: How Will Leaders Strengthen PLCs?

The job of educating students in today’s climate is simply too large for individuals; it can only be accomplished through the work of highly effective collaborative teams following a tight vision-driven process.

Most everyone is probably familiar with the four critical questions for team and school consideration:

  • What is it we want students to learn?
  • How will we know if students are learning?
  • How will we respond when students don’t learn?
  • How will we extend learning for students who are highly proficient?

In both Leading a High Reliability School and our PCN guiding text, The New Art & Science of Teaching, Marzano and his team underscore two new questions that really bring the primacy of the PLC process into focus:

  • How will we increase our instructional competence?
  • How will we coordinate our efforts as a school?

It is only by seriously posing and reflecting on these final two questions that we come to consider how we grow as teachers and leaders so that our students grow as learners – and how we all work together toward meeting their learning goals. As DuFour reminds us, “the ultimate criterion for successful teaching is student learning” (13).

Successful leaders understand that this work cannot be done in isolation, and student success should not depend on the “luck of the draw.” All students should be afforded equal learning no matter the classroom or subject, and every leader has a responsibility to ensure this equitable learning.

We are also reminded through the clarity of DuFour’s introduction that the PLC process is complex, that it must have all of the right elements in the right places – with continuous, high-quality support – and that each person in the community must rise to the place where they agree to accept a shared focus on and accountability for increasing student learning.

If you would like to know more about a high-functioning Professional Learning Community process, please be sure to join us in our first Key Leaders or Powerful Conversations Network meeting – or read more in Leading a High Reliability School.

Additional links to Rick DuFour’s work:,77

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