Impact of Professional Learning Communities

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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:

'The Education State is a broad-based reform agenda that sets ambitious targets for the Victorian education system over ten years…...

The Education State initiatives include three key pieces of implementation architecture that will support this practice change across the education system. This key architecture is aligned to the three significant groups of change-agents that exist within our system – our teachers, our school leaders and our regions – and the critical role they have to play in realising the Education State vision:

• Professional Learning Communities (PLC's) provide the culture and structure our teachers need to effectively collaborate and improve professional practice 

• The Communities of Practice (CoP) approach within networks will create a compelling space for school leaders to learn and share best practice together to drive improved learning outcomes for students

• Learning Places aligns our regional staff to deliver a stronger, more place-based system of support to meet the needs of all children and their families.

The Education State initiatives collectively build the capacity of Victorian schools to deliver more effective teaching, improved learning and improved student outcomes. The initiatives are based on robust evidence about what works to develop excellence in schools and reduce the impact of disadvantage across the state. Together, they make a contribution towards our achievement of the Education State targets.’ *4 (p. 1)

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

'The field is in a very early stage of building evidence that causally connects network dynamics with improved student outcomes, increased professional capital, and enhanced educational systems. At the same time, the excitement about the potential of networks seems to be spreading faster than our knowledge about what makes them effective’ (p. 8)

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.  They state:

'As we enter a potentially transformative period of change for education, where innovation combined with focus and links to impact will be essential, we predict that effective networks will become increasingly critical to system success.’ (p. 19)

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. Murphy concludes:

When new ideas run against deep-seated ways of doing schooling (i.e. culture) and collide with the sturdy structures of the existing educational system, change is all the more arduous. And no reform is being asked to overhaul the structure and culture of schooling more than communities of professional practice’ (p. 253 in Leithwood).

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

'While more than 3300 scholarly refereed journal articles have been published about PLC's, fewer than two dozen of these articles report rigorously designed, quantitative studies reporting results of levels of implementation and the effects on either faculty or student learning’.

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.

*1 *2 And it still exists on a smaller scale. See: *3 *4 Education State Targets. *5 Journal of Professional Capital and Community, Vol. 1 Iss 1 pp. 5 - 22 *6 *7 Chapter with the same title in Leithwood e.a. (eds.), How School Leaders Contribute to Student Success (2017) *8 Compare the current trend towards Self-Improving Schools with the budget of the National College for School Leadership (2000-2012), at the start of NCSL some 100 million GBP a year.. *9


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