The SLP’s Guide to PLCs A professional learning community (PLC) is a group of school professionals who collaborate and focus on school improvement through a professional development model wherein the team members join together to solve problems about teaching and learning through ongoing processes of inquiry and action research. Speech-language pathologists are well equipped to ... Article
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Article  |   June 2013
The SLP’s Guide to PLCs
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  • Disclosure: Judy Rudebusch has no financial or nonfinancial relationships related to the content of this article.
    Disclosure: Judy Rudebusch has no financial or nonfinancial relationships related to the content of this article.×
    Disclosure: JoAnn Wiechmann has no financial or nonfinancial relationships related to the content of this article.
    Disclosure: JoAnn Wiechmann has no financial or nonfinancial relationships related to the content of this article.×
  • © 2013 American Speech-Language-Hearing Association
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School-Based Settings / Attention, Memory & Executive Functions
Article   |   June 2013
The SLP’s Guide to PLCs
SIG 16 Perspectives on School-Based Issues, June 2013, Vol. 14, 22-27. doi:10.1044/sbi14.2.22
SIG 16 Perspectives on School-Based Issues, June 2013, Vol. 14, 22-27. doi:10.1044/sbi14.2.22

A professional learning community (PLC) is a group of school professionals who collaborate and focus on school improvement through a professional development model wherein the team members join together to solve problems about teaching and learning through ongoing processes of inquiry and action research. Speech-language pathologists are well equipped to participate in PLCs at the school, district, state, or national level.

Professional Learning Communities Defined
A professional learning community (PLC) is a group of school professionals who collaborate and focus on school improvement. A PLC is not a social network of educators who share stories, materials or advice; nor is it a new name to describe committees, grade-level teams, or weekly data review planning meetings (Coburn & Russell, 2008; DuFour, 2004; Jessie, 2007; Protheroe, 2008). Typically, the PLC is comprised of a variety of school professionals, which may include teachers, administrators, and support staff such as speech-language pathologists (SLPs). It is a professional development process through which educators work collaboratively and use data to focus on students’ learning in order to enhance
professional effectiveness on behalf of students (Hord, 1997a). Feger and Arruda (2008)  defined a PLC as a strategy to increase student achievement by creating a collaborative school culture focused on learning. Others have described professional learning communities as groups of educators critically interrogating their practices (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, 2003); educators committed to working collaboratively in ongoing processes of inquiry and action research (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2006); and team members who regularly collaborate toward continued improvement (Reichstetter, 2006). A PLC is difficult to define concisely because it is a process, rather than a program, model, formula, or prescription. A PLC is an infrastructure and a way of working together that results in continuous school improvement (Hord, 1997a).
The Beginnings of PLCs
The PLC concept emerged from work in the mid-1980s that linked teacher workplace factors with examination of teaching quality (Rosenholtz, 1989a). Teachers who felt supported in their own ongoing learning and classroom practice were more committed and effective than those who did not feel professionally supported. When schools encouraged teacher networks, collegial cooperation, and expanded roles, Rosenholtz (1989b)  found that teacher efficacy for meeting students’ needs was increased. Further, teachers with a high sense of efficacy were more likely to adopt new classroom teaching behaviors and also more likely to stay in teaching as a profession.
Researchers in the mid-1990s confirmed that when teachers engage in collaborative inquiry, share wisdom taken from what they have learned, and use shared decision-making, there is great potential for curriculum reform and school transformation (Darling-Hammond, 1996; McLaughlin & Talbert 1993). When teachers have structured time to work together to plan instruction, systematically observe each other’s teaching, and share reflective feedback with each other, the depth of learning in students increases. School reform leaders began to shift focus from teaching to learning as the fundamental purpose of schools (Eaker & Gonzalez, 2006; Newcomb, 2003; Senge, 1995). A corollary to this shift was an increased openness to redefining schools as learning organizations for adults and students. Active, intentional, sustained, and job-embedded professional learning became the key ingredient in school improvement and reform (DuFour, 2004; DuFour et al., 2006; Haar, 2003; Phillips, 2003). The big ideas that characterize learning communities include teamwork and a culture of collaboration; ensuring that all students learn; and a focus on results through data-driven decisions.
PLCs are grounded in two assumptions about school improvement: (1) The knowledge needed for deep improvement is found in the day-to-day experiences of teachers and is crystallized through critical reflection with others who share the same experiences (Haar, 2003; Vescio, Ross, & Adams, 2006); and (2) Actively engaging teachers in effective PLCs will increase their professional skill set and yield increased student learning (Vescio et al., 2006).
Attributes of PLCs
The literature on PLCs consistently identifies five key attributes of PLCs.
Supportive and Shared Leadership
Educational leadership literature clearly recognizes the role and influence of the building administrator (principal and assistant principal) on whether or not change will occur within the school. A school can only transform into a learning community with the sanction and support of the leaders. Administrators, along with teachers, must be learners who question, investigate, and seek solutions for school improvement. Everyone in the PLC participates actively in inquiry learning that focuses on meeting the needs of every learner in the school (students and adults).
Leadership in an effective PLC is shared and distributed among formal and informal leaders (Phillips, 2003; Reichstetter, 2006). Administrators become committed to sharing decision-making with teachers and providing opportunities for them to serve as leaders. Shared leadership increases leadership capacity and reinforces belief in the school’s collective ability to increase students’ learning (Olivier & Hipp, 2006).
Collective Creativity
In the early 1990s Peter Senge (1995) introduced the idea of a learning organization where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they desire and where people are continually learning how to learn together. In the school setting, this learning community engages in collaborative work that is grounded in reflective, problem-solving dialogue. As PLC participants engage in collaborative learning conversations learn to apply new ideas, information, and shared practice to problem solving which leads to new and improved teaching conditions that improves learning for students.
School improvement becomes a reality when teachers engage in ongoing collegial collaboration through conversations about teaching, provide each other feedback on teaching, design lessons together, and teach classes together (Little, 1989, 2003).
Shared Values and Vision
Teachers and administrators share a vision focused on student learning and a commitment to improvement (Reichstetter, 2006). Together, they must collectively develop and then challenge this vision and expect it to be used as a guidepost in making decisions about teaching and learning in the school. If educators are focused on their own continuous learning, it is easier to maintain a clear focus on students’ learning.
Supportive Conditions
In order for PLCs to function productively, the physical structural conditions and relational dynamics of the people involved must be put into place and then protected from decay (Louis & Kruse, 1995). Physical factors that support PLCs include designated and protected time to meet and talk, proximity of the PLC staff to one another, interdependent teaching roles, well-developed and clear communication structures, autonomy, and teacher empowerment. The relational aspects that support PLCs include a culture that promotes willingness to accept feedback and work toward improvement; respect and trust among colleagues at the school and district level; supportive leadership; adequate skill set and content knowledge for effective teaching; and open, honest communication protocols.
Shared Personal Practice
The process of peers helping peers pervades effective PLCs, with open classrooms, open lesson plans, open conversation, and collective inquiry. Colleagues regularly review teachers’ behaviors by observing teachers, taking script notes, and scheduling reflective dialogue about teaching and learning. Mutual respect and understanding are paramount to sustaining a strong PLC. Learning together as a PLC must be accompanied by working together to apply what is learned (Hord & Sommers, 2008).
Creating Effective PLCs
Professional learning communities are small groups of professionals who typically meet regularly over a significant period of time to examine and improve their own professional practice. PLCs can be school-based, district-based, cross-district, or national. Membership in a particular PLC is determined by its focus. There are few models to guide the creation of PLCs within school organizations. However, researchers have identified several initial steps (Garmston, & Wellman, 1999; Hord, 1997b).
  1. Determine school and staff readiness by taking note of the barriers that limit current improvement efforts, such as the master school schedule, leadership, level of collegial respect, shared vision, concern for student learning, and level of communication among professionals.

  2. Consider the use of an external change facilitator to assist in bringing a group’s efforts into alignment, encouraging individuals to take on new roles, analyzing the leadership at the school that may facilitate or inhibit change, and analyzing the resources that are available.

  3. Identify barriers and boosters for the group to take on the goals of continuous inquiry, improvement, and attaining the shared vision. The goal is not to ―become‖ a PLC, but rather to work together to achieve the shared vision for student improvement.

  4. Begin with the learning by bringing educators together to learn, develop, and improve their skills in order to meet identified student needs. Professional learning is not a one-time-event, but rather a regular experience based on collaboration with other educators through shared experiences.

  5. Create a theory of change through active learning. PLCs can be organized around finding the answers to four questions (DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, 2002): What is it we expect students to learn? How will we know when they have learned it? How will we respond when they don’t learn it? How will we respond when they do learn it?

Common products of teacher-level PLCs include developing common assessments, developing common scoring rubrics, examining student work together, strategizing common interventions in response to students’ needs, and using student results to revise teaching practices.
Why PLCs are Important
PLCs can have significant positive effects on students and educators. The benefits of participating in a PLC for speech-language pathologists who practice in a school setting are the same as for teachers, principals, and other educators. Hord (1997b)  identified several positive effects of learning communities.
For staff, these include
  • reduced isolation,

  • increased commitment to the mission and goals of the school,

  • shared responsibility for the total development of students,

  • collective responsibility for students’ success,

  • powerful learning that defines good teaching for the conditions that currently exist,

  • increased understanding of content that teachers/SLPs teach,

  • increased understanding of the roles each team member plays in helping all students, and

  • more satisfaction, higher morale, and lower stress.

    For students, these include

  • decreased dropout rate;

  • lower absenteeism;

  • greater academic gains in math, science, history, and reading than in traditional schools; and

  • smaller achievement gaps between students from different backgrounds.

Moving Forward Through PLCs
With introduction of the Common Core State Standards (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2010) in almost all states there is a renewed sense of urgency for SLPs to focus on educational relevance in service delivery. Participating in one or more PLCs creates a way to move forward in the delivery of quality, relevant, effective delivery of SLP services in schools. Speech-language pathologists have a variety of options for involvement in PLCs.
At the campus level, SLPs can participate in a grade-level PLC focused on improving language-to-literacy connections and improving academic language; a multigrade-level PLC collaborating on ways to ensure a coherent learning pathway for their students for college and career readiness in thinking and communication skills; or a special interest PLC of English as a second language teachers focused on providing interventions for students who seem stuck or on a plateau in English language acquisition.
At the district level, SLPs can participate with other SLPs in a PLC to conduct action research regarding intensity and treatment dose to maximize treatment effects for certain types of intervention; work with other SLPs to collect information about treatment effectiveness for a newly purchased program; or study the benefits of a service delivery model that combines individual and group sessions for certain types of communication disorders.
At the state or national level, SLPs can participate in PLCs that systematically investigate workload issues, standards-based intervention, prevention through response to intervention models, or use of consistent eligibility and dismissal guidelines. Whatever the configuration, the work of the PLC is data-informed, standards-driven, and focused on instruction, equity, and results.
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