Implementing professional learning communities in an urban environment


This article discusses the professional learning communities (PLCs) at an urban school in the northeastern United States that included middle and high school teachers and university researchers from a university in the northeast region. The objective of the study was to engage teachers in the PLCs of a practice model to increase student achievement. Prior research indicates that developing PLCs is one of the best ways to implement change in teaching methods in the classroom. Over the course of the 2013-2014 school year, the PLCs focused on five areas: student engagement, Common Core standards and implementation, assessment and differentiated instruction, writing strategies, and supporting special education and ELL populations. Teacher surveys and student assessment scores were used to examine the effectiveness. Student assessment scores improved in the four areas of math, reading, writing and science.


Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) are one of the best ways to implement change in teaching methods in the classroom. Teachers need the time and resources to discuss, observe, and reflect on learning models. According to Joyce and Showers (2002), “Theory or demonstration alone results in effect sizes for skill of around 0.5 of a standard deviation for refining existing skills and even lower for new skills. When demonstrations and practice are added, the effect size rises to about 1.18 in the average study. When coaching is added to the theory, demonstration, and practice treatment, skill continues to rise.” (p. 76) This gave us reason to believe that implementing PLCs, which includes theory development, practice in the classroom, and coaching by facilitators and each other, would have an impact on student achievement. Joyce and Showers (2002) also found, “a large and dramatic increase in transfer of training— effect size of 1.42— occurs when coaching is added to an initial training experience comprised of theory explanation, demonstrations, and practice.” Because this plan incorporates coaching in addition to the explanation of what works, research suggests the teachers will transfer this knowledge into every day practice.

Key Beliefs

The key beliefs during this year-long professional development are based on Joyce and Showers (2002) understanding that four conditions must be present if staff development is to significantly affect student learning:

  1. A community of professionals comes together who study together, put into practice what they are learning, and share the results.
  2. The content of staff development develops around curricular and instructional strategies selected because they have a high probability of affecting student learning— and, as important, student ability to learn.
  3. The magnitude of change generated is sufficient that the students’ gain in knowledge and skill is palpable. What is taught, how it is taught, and the social climate of the school have to change to the degree that the increase in student ability to learn is manifest.
  4. The processes of staff development enable educators to develop the skill to implement what they are learning. (p. 4)

Educational Context & Participants

The urban charter school in which this study occurred was established six years ago. There were 12 teachers with a graduate degree out of 22 full-time teachers. There were two teachers who were experts and highly qualified in their field, but are not yet certified. According to PA Charter School Laws, schools are required to have at least 75% of teachers certified, and they may employ up to 25% of non-certified, but highly qualified teachers.

The school community focused on academic excellence and committed resources to curriculum alignment with the Common Core.  The school recognized that many of the incoming students lacked the necessary literacy skills to be successful across all content areas, and added additional focus and learning time toward reading.  Providing greater differentiation, especially for high performing students was a priority, as well as developing data driven instruction to support individualized learning for all students.

The teachers are a significant resource to not only what students learn, but also how students learn. Professional development is one way to increase student achievement; however, it needs to be done in such a way that has proven results. Bruce and Showers (2002) propose “that if a teacher or a community of teachers engages, for a dozen days during the school year, in the formal study of a curriculum area or a teaching strategy that is useful across curriculum areas, and regularly studies implementation and consequent student learning, then the odds are that student achievement will rise substantially.” (p. 3) A good professional development plan that encourages teachers to make the changes in their own classrooms requires giving the teachers the opportunity and time to practice implementing the skills or strategies. This plan provided teachers with the time to discuss, implement and study their teaching strategies. To bring a teaching model of medium complexity under control requires 20 or 25 trials in the classroom over a period of about 8– 10 weeks (Joyce and Showers, 2002). In providing teachers the opportunity to practice skills during an eight week time period, the idea was that the skill would become part of the teacher’s repertoire. Data was collected over the eight week time period and evaluated to provide teachers the knowledge of whether or not that skill was effective. On-going evaluation and assessment of teacher effectiveness and student achievement is necessary to make decisions on implementation.

This professional development plan included the necessary components of a high-quality staff development. The school teachers worked with experts in content knowledge and pedagogical skills. They had the opportunity to practice these skills and researched the results. The staff was given the time to implement this process during the school day with the help of colleagues and administrators. The plan included what Sparks (2002) identified as high-quality staff development:

  • Focused on deepening teachers’ content knowledge and pedagogical skills;
  • Included opportunities for practice, research, and reflection;
  • Was embedded in educators’ work and takes place during the school day;
  • Was sustained over time; and
  • Was founded on a sense of collegiality and collaboration among teachers and between teachers and principals in solving important problems related to teaching and learning.  (pg. 15)

Activities & Learning Experiences

The activities and learning experiences involved in this professional development plan were directly related to the school’s strategic plan and the results of a teacher survey given prior to the start of the school year. This professional development plan focused on teacher identified needs. The plan relied heavily on Professional Learning Communities (PLC). “Professional learning communities” or “communities of practice” are the terms often given to schools in which staff members provide meaningful and sustained assistance to one another to improve teaching and student learning” (Joyce & Showers, 2002, p.55).

This was not only research-based, but was also the avenue of choice chosen by the teachers. The plan unfolded in three phases throughout the school year. Teachers received four full days of professional development before the school year began. PLC meetings were held after school on a bi-monthly basis, and additional full day in services on teacher chosen topics were provided every eight weeks.

Phase I: University Faculty Lead in-service prior to start of school year

Day 1: Team Building, School Vision, Discussion of overall PD plan, Selection of PLC members

A half-day in-service included activities that encouraged the teachers to work together and Administrators discussed the school vision, the overall PD plan and the selection of PLC members.

Day 2: Teaching & Learning in the Digital Age for the 21st Century, Student Engagement

A half-day in-service on the latest evidence-based practices for bringing in technology and improving student engagement.

Day 3: The Common Core Standards and Implementation

A half-day in-service with ELA, Social Studies, Science/technology, and Mathematics teachers on incorporating the literacy standards of the common core was provided by expert university faculty on the new Pennsylvania literacy standards and common core.

Day 4: Teaching Writing Strategies, Working with Special Education and ELL Students, RtI and Progress Monitoring

A two hour presentation by a facilitator was provided for all teachers on evidence-based writing strategies for adolescents.  Also, a two hour presentation by a facilitator was provided for all teachers on best practices, modifications and adaptations for special education students and ELL students. In addition, a two hour presentation by a facilitator with Special Education teachers on RtI and progress monitoring.


Phase II: Bi-Weekly PLC Meetings

Teachers were assigned to a PLC on the first day of the five days of in-service at the beginning of the school year. Those PLC teams met every two weeks throughout the school year. A specific topic was discussed, observed, and reflected upon every eight weeks. Five topics were covered throughout the year. During PLC time, a university faculty member assigned to the group, was available to discuss issues, provide deeper learning and help the teachers reflect on their practices (Sparks, 2002, p.55). The university faculty also engaged in classroom observations and coaching throughout the eight weeks in order to help with implementation. The five eight-week topics included:

  1. Classroom management, classroom behavior, student engagement

Since management, behavior and engagement is crucial to student achievement and important to start and maintain throughout the year, it was chosen to be the first topic of the PLCs. Results from the teacher survey showed they wanted deeper training in this area. The charter school’s positive behavior support plan was reviewed and implemented. The skills learned and the strategies implemented continued through the entire school year.

  1. Implementing the Common Core Standards

As of July 1, 2013, the state of PA adopted the new common core state standards for English/Language Arts and Mathematics. New literacy standards for reading and writing in the content areas were also introduced. The second eight-week session focused on the different content areas. PLCs were rearranged according to content area. Teachers in each content area were in the same PLC.

  1. Assessment and Differentiated Instruction

Teachers in this charter school identified assessing students and differentiating instruction as an area of need in which they wanted to learn more effective strategies.

  1. Writing Strategies

This topic was chosen based on the teacher survey and supported the strategic plan on preparing students to be college and career ready. Writing skills can improve student achievement. Writing a summary reflection of a required reading also demonstrates comprehension. The common core standards also require writing in the content areas. When all of the teachers are implementing writing strategies in their classrooms over an eight week period, improvement in student writing should be the result. During the PLC meetings, student writing samples were evaluated to determine areas that need scaffolding and additional instruction.

  1. Supporting Special Education and ELL populations

The strategic plan discussed closing the achievement gap. The teacher survey showed teachers wanted tools/strategies to improve instruction when working with students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and students where English is their second language.

Phase III:  Full Day In-service (one every 8 weeks during the school year)

These days were offered after the eight week implementation of the PLCs. This provided an opportunity to reflect on what occurred over the eight weeks. The topics for the sessions were similar to the topics for the PLCs. Teachers did not feel they needed additional inservice on the Common Core standards, but rather wanted to focus on effective instructional strategies. The original plan of including another inservice on Common Core was replaced with an inservice on homework.

  1. Student Engagement- participants were asked to read Ten Steps to Better Student Engagement by Tristan de Frondeville. Teachers then discussed and reflected on strategies they have tried and what the result was in their classrooms. Teachers shared their engagement strategies in small groups to encourage sharing of strategies that were effective.
  2. Working with Emotionally Disturbed Students- an overview of the characteristics of students with emotional/behavior disorders was given as well as descriptions of the different types of disorders that fall into this category, ie. Bipolar, obsessive-compulsive, conduct, anxiety, and psychotic disorders. Small groups of teachers were given case studies of students with emotional disturbances. Each teacher in the group was given a role to play in the case study and each group acted out a classroom scenario. A group discussion followed to determine which teacher behaviors escalated and deescalated student behaviors.
  3. Assessment and Differentiated Instruction- teachers were given a survey to identify how they currently differentiate instruction and use assessments in the classroom. Survey results were used to determine areas of need. Also, in small groups teachers participated in a cooperative controversy exercise. They were asked to read Grading for Success by Carol Ann Tomlinson. They were divided into two groups and were asked to debate the issue of differentiated grading. A discussion and reflection followed with a role play forcing them to be reflective on understanding differentiated grading from different viewpoints.
  4. Writing- Teachers were led through an exercise in argument writing that they could use with their students. Teachers were provided a picture of a scene in which a man appears to have fallen down the steps along with a short narrative describing the events that led up to the fall (Hillcocks, 2011). A graphic organize was used to determine evidence, the rule and conclusion that can be drawn from the evidence and rule. Teachers implemented this activity and had the students use the graphic organizer to write an argument piece on whether they believed the scene was an accident or a murder.
  5.  Homework- Teachers were asked to respond to a series of questions regarding homework practices. A discussion of homework practices and alternative approaches happened in small groups and best practices were then shared with the main group as a whole.

Evaluation and Results

When teachers were asked which topic covered during the PLCs was the most effective for them, engagement and behavior was the first choice with 30% of respondents choosing that topic. Positive behavior supports and differentiated instruction were chosen by 20% of the respondents.

Teachers were asked to identify strategies they learned from the PLCs that they implemented and found successful. One teacher commented that he/she brought “a lot more reading and writing into my classroom. I had students work on more assignments during the class period that would focus their attention on passages and their reactions, not just a summary.” Another teacher commented, “The argument writing activity, who dunnit mysteries, worked well with my students. They enjoyed it and were successful in writing their argumentative assignments.” An additional comment, “All English and social studies teachers are using the same model for writing a paragraph: T.R.E.E.”

The goal of implementing the PLCs was to increase student achievement. In comparing Pennsylvania State System Assessment (PSSA) scores from the year prior to the PLC (2013) with the results from the 2014 PSSAs, the students showed increases in math, reading and writing and science. In 2013, the percent of students proficient or advanced in math was 47.1. In 2014 the percent of students proficient or advanced was 65.6; an increase of 18.5%.  In 2013, the percent of students proficient or advanced in reading was 41.2 as compared to 59 in 2014. This was an increase of 17.8%. In 2013, the percentage of students proficient or advanced in writing was 11.4 and in 2014 was 33.3 which was an increase of 21.9%. Finally, in 2013 the percentage of students proficient or advanced in science was 11.8 and in 2014 was 15.2; a small increase of 3.4%. See Table 1.

Table 1: Summary of PSSA Scores Comparing 2013 and 2014

The charter school made a commitment to the teachers and the students. The teachers received information on theories, instructional strategies and best practices. They were also provided support in the classroom and given time to discuss and reflect. The plan was implemented in order to affect student achievement. While it cannot be stated that the implementation of the PLCs was the sole reason for student improvement, it can be concluded that the PLCs were effective for teachers and students.


Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (1999). Relationships of knowledge and practice: Teacher learning in communities. Review of Research in Education, 24, 249-305.

de Frondeville, T. (2009). Ten steps to better student engagement. Retrieved from August 28, 2013.

Joyce, B.; Showers, B., (2002). Student Achievement Through Staff Development.

Alexandria, VA, USA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development (ASCD).

Hillcocks, G. (2011). Teaching argument writing grades 6-12: Supporting claims with relevant evidence and clear reasoning. Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH.

Sparks, D., 2002 Designing Powerful Professional Development for Teachers and Principals.

Oxford, OH National Staff Development Council (NSDC)

Standards for Professional Learning;

Tomlinson, C.A., (2001). Grading for success. Educational Leadership. 58 (6). 12-15.

About the Authors

Dr. Lori Severino

Dr. Severino is a faculty member in the special education program. She teaches courses in reading, high incidence disabilities, and student teaching. Her area of expertise is in reading disabilities. Prior to teaching at Drexel, she was a special education teacher in public education for 26 years in which she taught first through twelfth grades. Most of her teaching career was working with students with dyslexia. She is committed to preparing all teachers to be able to teach all students to read.

Dr. Penny Hammrich

Penny Hammrich is a Professor in the School of Education at Drexel University specializing in Science Education and also the Associate Dean of Graduate Studies in the School of Education. In the past 20 years she has been the Principal Investigator on over 35 research grants totaling over 30 million dollars, and has published extensively. Dr. Hammrich’s research has been nationally recognized over the years by such organizations as the American Association of University Women, Association of Science Teacher Education, National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Education and National Public Radio.

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