What Are Professional Learning Communities?

Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) utilize continuous improvement cycles to focus collaborative work on improving student achievement. PLCs consist of numerous collaborative teams. The teachers within these teams either serve a common group of students or instruct a common content area. PLCs help teachers develop a deeper understanding of content standards and effective teaching practices. Teachers apply this knowledge to their classrooms to better serve students and improve learning outcomes.

The continuous improvement cycle includes multiple elements: “—organizing staff into relevant collaborative teams, establishing a guaranteed curriculum, creating common formative assessments, analyzing evidence of student learning to improve adult practice, creating systems of intervention and enrichment— but these critical elements are part of one coherent strategy to improve schools” (DuFour & Marzano, 2011).

Why PLCs?

Improving the quality and results of an educational system cannot be accomplished by individuals working in isolation. Collective effort and collaborative leadership are needed to meet the needs of every student and improve student achievement across an entire district. DuFour and Marzano (2011) advise “no single person has all the knowledge, skills, and talent to lead a district, improve a school, or meet all the needs of every child in his or her classroom.”

Professional Learning Communities offer a structure and culture that build the collective capacity of a school district to continually improve the professional practice of educators and learning outcomes for all students. PLCs do not focus on improving individual educators; they focus on improving schools and school systems. “The PLC process is specifically intended to create the conditions that help educators become more skillful in teaching because great teaching and high levels of learning go hand in hand” (DuFour & Marzano, 2011).

Three Big Ideas Guiding the PLC Process

  1. Learning is our fundamental purpose.
  2. We work collaboratively to achieve our purpose.
  3. We respond to results.

PLCs in Practice at DCSD

All schools have a one-hour late start every Wednesday. 

The first three Wednesdays of the month are devoted to PLC collaborative work – providing a minimum of three hours of grade-level (elementary) or content-area (secondary) collaboration each month.

The foundation of  Decorah Community School District’s Professional Learning Community (PLC) is a commitment to high levels of learning for all students. As part of the collaborative team meetings on Wednesday mornings, educators determine the essential knowledge and skills students need for each grade-level or course. 

Continuous improvement cycles guide teachers in identifying learning outcomes and effective instructional practices for each unit. Teams develop formative checks to monitor student learning throughout the instruction of the unit. They analyze this data to make needed adjustments to pacing, strategies, and materials. At the end of each unit, teachers analyze student learning data to identify students in need of support and to improve upon their instructional plans and practices.

Below are terms and concepts utilized in our PLC.

Continuous Improvement Process: The ongoing cycle of planning, doing, checking, and acting designed to improve results—constantly (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2010). This process is the heart of the collaborative work time for educators during Wednesday’s late-starts.

Formative Assessment: Formative assessments, or assessments for learning, are part of an ongoing process to monitor each student’s learning on a continuous basis. Formative assessments typically measure a few things frequently and are intended to inform teachers regarding the effectiveness of their practice and students of their next steps on the scaffolding of learning (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2010, p. 75). 

Summative Assessment: An assessment of learning (Stiggins, 2002) designed to provide a final measure to determine if learning goals have been met (Ainsworth  & Viegut, 2006). 

Essential Learning: The critical skills, knowledge, and dispositions each student must acquire as a result of each course, grade level, and unit of instruction (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2010, p. 215). 

Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum: a curriculum that 1) gives students access to the same essential learning regardless of who is teaching the class and (2) can be taught in the time allotted (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2010, p. 63).

Systematic InterventionA multitiered system of intervention is a school-wide plan that ensures every student in every course or grade level will receive additional time and support for learning as soon as they experience difficulty in acquiring essential knowledge and skills. . . . A  system of intervention means that providing this support for students is a collective, school-wide responsibility rather than the sole responsibility of the individual teacher (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2010, p. 99-100).


DCSD’s The Work of PLCs Handbook

Decorah Community Schools PLC Site (staff access only)

Elementary PLC Facilitator- Andrea Knaack

5-12 PLC Facilitator- Tyler Wedemeier