Impact of Professional Learning Communities
02 May, 2017
Evidence, INPC, Murphy
Professional Learning Communities (PLC's) is a vibrant topic and PLC’s are considered highly relevant for the professional development of schoolleaders (and teachers). Since I worked in the early eighties with the International Network of Principals’ Centers (at that time at Harvard) I also was convinced of that.
The INPC (Roland Barth) was built on the conviction that then-current (academic) training for schoolleaders was not very useful. Instead principals themselves should organise their own inservice training, meeting in self-chosen groups on self-chosen topics. And the main instrument during the meetings was ‘conversation' that we now would qualify as ‘deep conversation’. (See e.g. Tamara Homund Nelson e.a. *1). INPC was a success for almost three decades. *2
In the nineties and beyond professional development for schoolleaders in many countries became increasingly and thoroughly designed and organised at national and sub-national level, at times with considerable or even large budgets. Profiles for schoolleaders were designed and detailed as well as requirements for training, and by preference evidence-based. There seemed to be no place anymore for initiatives by principals themselves till recently.
PLC's where principals learn from each other in a self-organised way are now even perceived as a very important instrument to build educational systems of the future.
A major example of that is the state of Victoria, Australia: 'We are making Victoria the Education State building an education system that produces excellence and reduces the impact of disadvantage’. *3.
'Education State' is also the name of the agenda:
Evidence is central in the agenda. But what about (robust) evidence of PLC's?
Santiago Rincón-Gallardo and Michael Fullan (2016) express a major concern in "Essential features of effective networks in education", *5
Fullan and Rincón-Gallardo provide a framework how to distinguish 'effective from inconsequential or even harmful networks’, including eight essential features of effective networks and three fundamental shifts in the relationship between central leadership and networks.
It sounds great but I have seen earlier that Fullan formulated conditions for a major change in education (CEIBAL-report about the use of ICT in education in Uruquay) which were very difficult to achieve if not unachievable.
Joe Murphy published a thorough study about PLC's in 2015 'Creating Communities of Professionalism: Addressing Cultural and Structural Barriers’ *6. (Also in Leithwood, 2017 *7)
Murphy (key person in educational management development in the USA) describes how many constraints one encounters when trying to create PLC's. Structural and cultural constraints that are inherent to education itself. Also many times resources, conditions and support are insufficient.
I am inclined to think that in such a situation it is doubtful that robust evidence could exist.
And indeed although much literature and research about PLC's can be found, there is not much evidence. See: ‘Arredondo, Real World Professional Learning Communities: Their Use and Effects, 2016’
As is stated in the publishers text about the book
So I invite you to read chapters 12 and 13 of the book and conclude for yourself about the value of the existing evidence (and this is mainly about elementary schools and teacher PLC's within such schools, although the scope of the book also includes other levels).
Sometimes PLC’s are even used in such a way that I would predict success in terms of better student results as hardly possible. So I expect no proof of evidence in e.g. the UK where PLC’s can be considered as the cheap variant of earlier forms of professional development of schoolleaders (*8) and in Peru where PLC's are organised by the Ministry and designed in a rather bureaucratic way via the support of USAID. *9
But evidence or not (yet). It is clear that interest in and expectations of PLC's is high. That shows in my opinion a deep felt need to have real conversations and shared reflection about the practice of being a schoolleader especially in times of detailed frameworks for high-stakes accountability.
*2 And it still exists on a smaller scale. See: http://www.floridakeys.com/newsletters/INPC/
http://www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/about/educationstate/Education-State-Initiatives-Fact-Sheet.pdf (10-04-2017) (p. 1)
*5 Journal of Professional Capital and Community, Vol. 1 Iss 1 pp. 5 - 22
*7 Chapter with the same title in Leithwood e.a. (eds.), How School Leaders Contribute to Student Success (2017) http://www.springer.com/gp/book/9783319509792
*8 Compare the current trend towards Self-Improving Schools with the budget of the National College for School Leadership (2000-2012).