Within education, professional learning communities (PLCs) are launched to foster collaborative learning among teachers and educators. Essentially a way to share tips, tactics, and best practices, PLCs are on the rise across the country. If schools are serious about improvement, they should consider creating a PLC.

PLCs go far beyond meetings and assessments. These communities establish a method for determining instructional practices and appropriate student benchmarks, which requires intensive reflection and involvement of the entire staff. PLCs focus on ongoing learning throughout a teacher’s career, rather than one-shot training sessions.

Knowing this, it’s easy to see why PLCs are catching on in education. First, America needs solutions to improve its educational system for its students. Second, PLCs are built on big ideas, and schools are seeing their potential to be that solution. Finally, the countries that perform the best in subjects like math, science, and reading already employ something similar.

The need for effective education solutions in America

Comparisons between the U.S. educational system and high-performing countries like Singapore and Finland must take into account the proportional differences. After all, the U.S. has a population of more than 324 million people across 50 states, with people of ethnicities and religions from almost every corner of the globe.

That being said, there’s still a lot that can be learned from how these countries do so well in subjects like math. After all, the U.S., which ranks 31st out of 35 OECD countries in math, could be doing much better.

What’s the reason for poor performance in American schools? It’s a combination of the following three issues:

  • lack of support
  • lack of collaboration
  • Inconsistent curriculum design

This is where PLCs can step in and help. They can help solve these problems in a much more cost-effective way compared to other solutions.

Fortunately, there are many good examples of successful PLCs across the U.S. For instance, South Elementary in Eldon, Missouri has become a leader in its use of the PLC model. The school implemented the model in the early 2000s, and within just a few years, it saw a 24.1% increase in the number of advanced and proficient scorers in communication arts.   

There are big ideas driving PLCs

PLCs wouldn’t be where they are today without Richard DuFour, who was a huge advocate for collaborative teaching environments. He believed PLCs were the most sustainable way to continually improve education and student outcomes.

In an article DuFour wrote for ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development), he outlines the big ideas behind PLCs, which are:

  1. Making sure students learn: As DuFour notes, PLCs are not just a group, but a continual process where “educators work collaboratively in recursive cycles of collective inquiry and action research in order to achieve better results for the students they serve.”
  2. A culture of collaboration: Education isn’t just to ensure pupils are taught, but that they actually learn the material. Creating structures like PLCs that promote a collaborative culture enable educators to work together to achieve that collective purpose of making sure students learn.
  3. Emphasis on results: PLCs run on results-driven strategies. Current student levels are first assessed, then goals are established to improve those levels. Teachers work together to reach those goals, providing ongoing evidence of progress and regularly offering each other support and advice.

Of course, for PLCs to have success, DuFour explains that hard work and commitment is required. The PLC model is great, but requires proper execution. That mean answering the four critical questions of the PLC model:

  • What do we want students to learn? This requires that teachers plan and pace instruction.
  • How do we know if they learned it? This requires that teachers collect data.
  • What do we do if they don’t learn the material? This requires that teachers intervene before students fall behind.
  • What do we do if they do learn the material? This requires that teachers enrich the lesson plan.

The PLC model advocates a continuous cycle of improvement, one that can be used in any setting. This is precisely why it’s catching on at many schools, like Freeport Intermediate School. Located south of Houston, teachers at Freeport Intermediate School spend 90 minutes every day focusing on the results of their students, clarifying outcomes for their grade level and course, and aligning goals with state standards. Teachers constantly share results from assessments and work together to improve their teaching abilities. Since implementation of the PLC model, Freeport has gone from having poor performance to being a national model for academic achievement.

Clearly, if there is a commitment, the PLC model is the way to build a winning educational strategy for students. This model can also stand the test of time, ensuring long-term sustainable success for generations of students.

Educational powerhouses have similar teaching philosophies

There is much to be learned from the most forward-thinking countries. Many of them operate their educational system on ideas consistent with the PLC model.

Consider Singapore, a country that took first place among OECD countries in math, science, and reading on the 2015 PISA test (Program for International Student Assessment). One of the reasons for their incredible student success is rigorous teacher selection, as well as the ongoing training and support teachers receive. Educators are provided with consistent, practical professional development. It also helps that teachers are paid well in Singapore, with salaries about on par with that of an engineer (unheard of in the U.S.).

Japan, which consistently ranks near the top on the PISA test in math, science, and reading, is another great example of the power of a collaborative teaching approach. Japan uses a practice called jugyokenkyu, or lesson study, in which teachers sit down and review other teachers’ teaching. Success and failure are evaluated, and ways to improve are realized. This highly personal and team-based approach is very successful; many Japanese teachers agree that it’s their single most important professional experience.

Educating ourselves about education

When it comes to the best educational methods for our students, there have been countless trends. Many have been discarded. We cannot misuse or underestimate PLCs in the same way. They are a truly cost-effective, sustainable way to improve education in the U.S., where improvements in subjects like Math are sorely needed.