Renewing Teachers, Reforming Schools through Professional Learning Communities

by Melanie Morrissey, D'Ette Cowan, Tara Leo and Leslie Blair
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XI, Number 2, August 1999, At the Heart of the Matter: Improving Teaching and Learning Through Professional Development

Schools and teachers often cannot produce the kind of behaviors or skills reform demands because they haven't learned how," declares Shirley Hord, program manager for SEDL's Strategies for Increasing School Success (SISS). "Teacher development is the flip side of the coin of school change. Unless teachers become more effective at what they're doing, schools will not improve."

Creating a professional learning community requires staff time for planning, communication, and collaboration.

Hord shares this view with researcher Linda Darling-Hammond and the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (1998). According to Darling-Hammond, educators can expect little change in the teaching/learning process unless they pay more attention to the ways in which teachers learn together and do their work. She advocates investing in strategies that would strengthen teachers' knowledge base, developing their capacity to make decisions, and giving them autonomy to improve the profession.

Professional Learning Community-The Basic Concept

The teaching and learning process can improve and teachers can become more professional when school staffs transform themselves into into professional learning communities (PLCs), sometimes called communities of continuous inquiry and improvement. Staffs who become professional learning communities continuously seek and share learning, and act on their learning. They examine conditions that have an impact on student results, assist one another in evaluating the effectiveness of strategies and techniques, and make informed decisions to increase student learning. Such interactions support improvement of the teacher-student relationship as well as give teachers the courage to try new tactics and provide a way for them to work through problems associated with changes in practice.

Examining how teachers and administrators learn, work, and make decisions as members of a professional learning community is part of SEDL's research and development work with co-developers and partners at schools throughout the country.

"One of the things we are doing in the project is trying to better understand what it takes to bring all of the professional staff in a school together, frequently and regularly, in what we call a professional learning community," says Hord. "The purpose is to learn. And what the learning community does is to focus directly and incessantly on kids and kids' needs."

A teacher whose school has formed a professional learning community explains, "This is a very 'together' school. The other teachers and I pay more attention to what we identify as students' needs [based on the school's data] than on directives sent by the state department or district office. After all, we're more knowledgeable about our students, aren't we? We recognize where we need to change to help our kids succeed."

Hord says that as a PLC, the faculty members ask themselves if what they are doing in the classroom is effective. If it is not, they must ask themselves, What do we need to do differently? The group then must decide how they should change its practice so that the students benefit.

"And that is not an easy thing to do," she declares. "Because one problem schools face is that they have no time to do this kind of work. We expect that they'll be flying the plane, and designing and changing it at the same time. So finding the time for planning and implementing change is a real barrier, a real problem."

Reviewing research literature about schools as organizations, Hord discovered that schools operating as PLCs share five characteristics: supportive and shared leadership, collective learning, shared values and vision, supportive conditions in human and physical resources, and shared personal practice. However, the literature did not reveal how the school's administrators and teachers created or invented this way of working with each other. To identify ways a PLC is created, SEDL undertook a research project through the SISS program at four schools in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Texas. At each of these schools, a culture of continuous learning was established over time.

A research instrument was designed to assess the presence or absence at each school of seventeen dimensions associated with the five characteristics of PLCs. Face-to-face interviews were conducted with faculty and staff members to gather information related to the history and development of the professional learning community that existed within each school.

Faculty and staff at these schools overwhelmingly agreed that their school was a "good" school, and mentioned that their focus on students and their relationships with each other made their school a good one. Each of the schools had a diverse student population and showed improvement in test score data over time as well.

Principal's Role in Nurturing teacher Development

Principals play a critical role in nurturing teacher development by sharing decision making with teachers and developing the leadership capacity of teachers. In each school studied, the principal created a structure or process for obtaining input from professional staff on a regular basis. Such processes helped to organize and support regular meetings of a school's entire staff as well as team and committee meetings for deliberation on school concerns.

Recognizing the connection between their own learning and that of their students reinforced the belief that they could overcome conditions usually identified as barriers to student learning.

At schools that operated as PLCs, the principals promoted teacher participation in decision making on school priorities and staffing, and encouraged professional staff to assume leadership roles in the development of new programs and activities. These principals were also a visible and knowledgeable presence in their schools, continually visiting with teachers to gain firsthand information on how issues were being addressed. They recognized and reinforced staff efforts by facilitating and supporting teachers' decisions and actions that were in the best interest of students.

At one school, the principal established design teams to deal with major issues confronting the school. During the year of the study, the teams focused on professional development, safety, curriculum and instruction, community relations, facilities, and faculty well-being. Any issue that needed to be addressed was sent to the appropriate design team.

"People who aren't used to a site-based school and come to this school feel a little overwhelmed at first," comments a teacher at the school. "And even those of us who have been here a while feel a little overwhelmed sometimes. But I think the input that we have and the decisions that we make have made our school much more productive, not only for staff, but also for our students."

The study found that principals at the four schools also encouraged purposeful learning and practice on the part of the professional staff. The principals modeled their own personal continuous learning and growth by maintaining current knowledge of the professional literature. They nurtured the faculty's continuous learning by providing learning opportunities on campus, by encouraging teachers to attend professional development activities, and by arranging opportunities for teachers to share with others what they had learned. They also fostered partnerships with external entities so that their staffs had professional contacts outside of the school and district.

The principals always kept the vision of what the school was striving to become at the forefront of attention. At one of the schools studied, the school's mission statement was much more than a written statement—the teachers often referred to the statement when asked about the school's vision. They also all knew what priorities had been agreed upon for the year. The vision and the priorities were directly related to teacher actions. Explained one teacher, "We are meeting our priorities not just for the principal, we are doing it for the kids."

Finally, principals promoted and encouraged communication among the staff. This communication between and among administration and teachers helped bind the staff to their common cause. Staff at all study sites reported that they were well informed about school issues and believed that their communication fostered coordination of effort and unity of purpose.

Virtually every teacher from one successful school mentioned that e-mail facilitated communication between the administration and faculty and among faculty members. Within the school there were several places where teachers could easily check for messages. Another school used a variety of communication methods: frequent staff meetings, a bulletin board, and a printed document that was distributed twice a week that included information from the principals and faculty and staff members.

A Culture of Collaboration

A culture of collaboration pervaded the campuses at each of the four study sites—teachers were committed to using the time they had together in productive ways. In some cases, they used the time to focus on improvement initiatives involving curriculum, staff development, or student achievement scores; in others, they focused on faculty study or behavioral expectations for students. Teachers at the study sites not only worked together as a whole staff, but they often met in grade-level and cross-grade teams to collaborate within discipline areas on curriculum concerns or instructional strategies. Time allotted for these activities gave teachers regular and ongoing opportunities to problem solve around critical issues, to learn together, and to reflect on their work.

At each study site, a spirit of professional respect and trust promoted teachers' collective work on school improvement initiatives. Teachers viewed parents and community representatives positively and solicited their input into the decision-making process. Together, they developed ways to improve educational experiences for students.

One of the schools created a parent task force to reach out to parents; another had good luck getting parents into the school by offering "Dine-a-versity" once or twice a year, where families were invited to attend a dinner and educational program. All of the schools reported having active PTAs that played a role in school decision making.

The staffs at the four study sites also supported one another's improved professional practice. Teachers shared instructional materials and sought advice and opinions from colleagues about effective approaches to working with students, although this sometimes happened in informal ways, such as in the manner described by a teacher at a suburban school: "I spend a lot of time each week talking with other teachers about how well things worked or didn't work in my classroom. I have a lot of friends who work at this school so we will contribute among ourselves . . . . Everyone is willing to share."

At another school, the Critical Friends program allowed teachers to observe and coach each other.

The teachers at the four schools were committed to school improvement initiatives and were willing to come together to develop innovations and monitor their results. The professional staffs were comfortable taking risks, attempting new strategies, representing their peers in decision making, and expressing their personal views and concerns to the whole faculty.

Teacher Accountability

Teachers at the schools that developed PLCs held themselves accountable not only to the students, parents, and community they served, but also to one another. An expectation existed that all teachers were responsible for engaging students in high intellectual quality work. Teachers believed that reviewing their work with peers was effective and productive, and they linked this collaboration and inquiry to improved teaching practices.

These teachers also believed they had responsibility for learning new skills to improve their students' learning. They attended and participated actively in schoolwide meetings that focused on improved instruction and curriculum strategies. They sought staff development related to their goals and brought information back to the school from these learning opportunities to apply to their instruction. The support from peers encouraged teachers to try new practices and take risks.

One teacher summarized the faculty's attitudes at her school: "You could say we were change seekers. For sure, we valued finding new ways to teach, and learning how to do things, although it was sometimes scary."

As teachers implemented new strategies, they continually evaluated the impact the new practice or program had on student learning. Teachers in two schools kept professional portfolios that reflected how they addressed school goals in their classroom. The principal at one of these schools regularly reviewed the professional portfolios, adding comments, praise, and suggestions that might be helpful to the teachers.

Teacher's Commitment to All Students' Success

Teachers at each study site were committed to all students' successful learning, regardless of students' backgrounds or circumstances. Social or economic factors were not viewed as insurmountable hurdles, and teachers truly believed that their collective effort could overcome conditions otherwise considered barriers to learning. They believed that schools should adapt to fit students, rather than the students adapting to fit the school. They were continually questioning themselves as to how they could improve student learning.

All professional staff believed that good teaching would positively impact student learning. As they learned new practices and received ongoing coaching and feedback from their peers, their teaching improved. Consequently, student learning improved. Recognizing the connection between their own learning and that of their students reinforced the belief that they could overcome conditions usually identified as barriers to student learning.

A spirit of determination and collective effort supported teachers in their work. As they worked together, an atmosphere of collegiality and support developed in the schools. They viewed themselves as allies in reaching their common goals. As one teacher reported, "Our principal is passionate about enabling kids to learn well and instilled this belief in the staff . . . . We have seen what we can do when we help each other."


  • Darling-Hammond, L. (1996). The quiet revolution: Rethinking teacher development. Educational Leadership, 53(6), 4-10.
  • Darling-Hammond, L. (1998). Teachers and teaching: Testing policy hypotheses from a national commission report. Educational Researcher, 27(1), 5-10.
  • Hord, S. M. (1997). Professional learning communities: Communities of continuous inquiry and improvement. Austin: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.
  • Little, J. W. (1997). Excellence in professional development and professional community. Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
  • Louis, K. S., Marks, H. M., & Kruse, S. (1996). Teachers' professional community in restructuring schools. American Educational Research Journal, 3, 757-798.
  • National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office.

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