Need MORE Proof that PLCs Work?

Regular Radical readers know that PLCs have been front-and-center in my mind for the past few days.  After all, we’re going to spend time talking about the nuts and bolts of restructuring traditional schools as professional learning communities with Rick and Becky DuFour next week (see here, here and here). 

That’s why a new study released in August by the National Bureau of Economic Research caught my eye this week.  Titled Teaching Students and Teaching Each Other:  The Importance of Peer Learning for Teachers, the report documents the impact that adding high-quality teachers to a school community has on student achievement across an entire grade level. 

What study authors C. Kirabo Jackson and Elias Bruegmann discovered after plowing through eleven years of data on North Carolina schoolchildren is something that experts have long documented in other professions:  There is a significant “spillover effect” in teaching, meaning that educators benefit from being exposed to the knowledge and skills of their more accomplished peers. 

Smokin’! (2) by Kyle May, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Kyle May 


And those benefits translate into statistically significant learning gains for students.  “For the average educator teaching in a grade with three other teachers,” writes Education Week’s Debra Vaidero, who reviewed Jackson and Bruegmann’s study in this online article, “replacing one peer with a more effective one has a spillover effect of .86 percent of a standard deviation on students’ test scores.”

For those of us who have spent the better part of the past decade working in professional learning communities, these results are no great surprise.  We know that exposure to the instructional strategies of our peers has an impact on student learning across our hallways.

But (still more) concrete, statistical evidence of the impact that teachers can learn from their peers might just be the lever that we need in order to encourage education's holdouts—from skeptical teachers to doubtful professional developers—to believe in the power of professional learning communities.   

Perhaps these results will lead to a willingness on the part of superintendents and building principals to set aside their penchant for programs and to invest in collaborative teams as the only form of “professional development” in their schools and districts.  Perhaps it will lead to a willingness on the part of parents and community leaders to make more time on-the-clock for teachers to work closely with their peers.

And perhaps—as the study authors suggest—it will lead to efforts to refocus the way that we evaluate performance in schools.  Instead of looking at the effectiveness of individuals, which creates inherently isolated or competitive situations, we’ll begin to look at the effectiveness of collaborative teams, which will encourage the kinds of cooperation that can lead to higher levels of learning for all students.

Anyone else happy to have more tangible proof that PLCs work?

2 thoughts on “Need MORE Proof that PLCs Work?

  1. sweber

    Bill:
    Thank you for sharing your research and thoughts on the implementation of Professional Learning Communities. Teachers embrace PLCs because they feel like their professional opinions are valued. A PLC nearly eliminates the need for a traditional Department Chair, because everyone in the group has a voice and shares their strategies for improving teaching and learning. For the third year in a row, our school district started the year with teachers working with content-alike teams from other schools (i.e., Middle School Math, Middle School Social Studies, etc). The teachers enjoy the work and the time to plan for the upcoming school year. They utilize curriculum maps (which were developed as a collaborative group – not by a single group of teachers or by the district office) to guide their conversation. The next district wide meeting will be in late September. Between now and then, teachers will meet in their building level content-alike teams and they can have ongoing conversations through email or a site that our district developed to encourage ongoing curriculum conversations and district collaboration.
    One of my favorite articles which describes a PLC is titled, “Improving relationships within the schoolhouse” (visit http://tinyurl.com/kpngjw). In the article, Roland Barth describes how teachers benefit from sharing craft knowledge.
    On a side note….Congratulations on your new column in Educational Leadership! Right behind Robert Marzano’s new column – not bad! I enjoyed reading “Taking the Digital Plunge” and I am looking forward to next month’s article.

  2. Joel Zehring

    I’m reminded of the post “School of One” on the Teaching Matters blog. Maybe you linked to it here?
    Anyway, one key insight is this:
    “Teachers will change practice for each other. In fact, the end of teacher isolation is one of the best promises of the model. Imagine the naturally occurring modeling and mentoring opportunities that could occur when new and experienced teachers work together in these classrooms that offer varied roles for teachers. ”
    The post isn’t about PLCs specifically, but the ideas resonate.
    http://www.teachingmatters.org/blog/school-one

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