What Are Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)?

by | May 24, 2021


At the Center for Student Achievement Solutions, we help school leaders understand how to build effective professional development plans for their teachers and staff. We know that teacher development must be ongoing in order to drive sustained school improvement, and professional learning communities (PLCs) offer a great way for educators to continually improve their practice.

Definition of Professional Learning Community (PLC)

A professional learning community, or PLC, is a collaborative group of educators that works together to improve student learning by committing to continuous improvement.

A PLC could be made up of teachers across different subject areas, grade levels, and/or levels of leadership to ensure consistency in students’ academic and social, and emotional learning.

What Are the Characteristics of an Effective Professional Learning Community (PLC)?

An effective professional learning community:

  • Prioritizes student learning — The educators in the group use data from diverse sources, such as formative assessments, year-end exams, and even student reflections, to understand students’ learning needs. The teachers can identify which instructional practices are effective in promoting student achievement and areas of opportunity to close learning gaps.
  • Sets common goals ASCD shares examples of questions that educators in PLCs answer together as they work toward common goals: What do students need to learn? What evidence will show us that students have learned these things? How will we support students who are behind in their learning?
  • Has a deeply embedded culture of collaboration — Educators do not work in silos to try and figure out how to help students meet grade-level standards. Rather, they meet regularly to develop data collection and evaluation methods to understand students’ individual needs; they align the curriculum across grade levels to promote sustained student achievement; they share insights about which instructional practices are working and which need to be tweaked.
  • Shares responsibility for struggling students — Members of a PLC do not think of students as “your students” versus “my students.” Instead, they work to understand what interventions and supports “our students” need to thrive. The PLC teachers work together to closely monitor struggling students’ progress and find solutions for their challenge areas.

PLCs are often teacher-led, but school leaders play a vital role in their success. Many teachers do not have a background in data collection and analysis; principals and district leaders must provide ongoing professional development to help teachers understand how to recognize trends in student learning, identify which students are at risk for falling through the cracks, and pinpoint additional enrichment opportunities that help high achieving students remain engaged in the curriculum.

How Often Do Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) Meet?

Educators in a professional learning community typically meet at least monthly, but preferably more often. This frequency may feel overwhelming, especially when you consider how many hours teachers typically spend working overtime to meet their existing obligations. But principals can take steps to make professional development a priority for teachers:

  • Set aside time during regular work hours for PLCs to meet. This helps prevent teachers from feeling like they have yet another after-hours task to add to their plates.
  • Conduct needs assessments that uplift teachers’ voices. Listen to teachers’ feedback about the areas in which they need more targeted professional development.
  • Remove barriers to professional learning. Learning Forward shares some examples of how school leaders can do this: “Districts may hire substitute teachers to allow teachers to meet in learning teams or to observe peers. … Districts may “bank” time, allowing educators shorter workdays and combining the extra minutes for a block of professional development. … Most districts have specific days within the school calendar when students are released, and educators spend time learning.”

How much time do educators need to dedicate toward professional development each year? In their 2009 reportProfessional Learning in the Learning Profession”, Darling-Hammond et. al. finds that professional development programs including 30-100 hours of PD spread over the course of 6-12 months resulted in significant student achievement improvements.

What Are the Functions of a Professional Learning Community? (What Does a PLC Do?)

In professional learning community meetings, educators will:

  • Set common goals for student learning.
  • Work together to identify instructional best practices, based on educational research and teachers’ real-world experiences.
  • Analyze student work and student data to look for areas of opportunity to improve teaching and learning.
  • Offer one another feedback about their lesson plans, assessments, or classroom observations to help improve instructional practices.

Learn more about the functions of PLCs with the Glossary of Education Reform.

Establish or Improve Your School’s PLCs

The Center for Student Achievement Solutions works closely with principals, district leaders, and even state Departments of Education to implement professional development best practices for educators. We can help your leaders incorporate professional learning communities into a well-rounded, long-term professional development strategy.

Schedule a free call with one of our expert consultants today to learn more about our approach to teacher development, and start building a plan for your 2021-2022 professional development strategy.