Richard DuFour

Richard DuFour, EdD, was a public school educator for 34 years. A prolific author and sought-after consultant, he is recognized as one of the leading authorities on helping school practitioners implement the PLC at Work™ process.

Are Smaller Learning Communities (SLCs) Synonymous with Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)?

Education thrives on acronyms: IEP, UBD, RTI, ESL, SES, LD, NCLB, AYP, API. Sometimes this abbreviated attempt to communicate can create confusion. Recently, we received a query from a high school principal who felt his efforts to help his school become a professional learning community (PLC) would be enhanced by converting the school into a Smaller Learning Community (SLC). Teachers in his school had been working collaboratively in content-specific teams as they attempted to implement the PLC concept. The principal proposed the school should be re-organized into separate houses with teachers working in interdisciplinary teams. He felt certain the SLC structure would promote the PLC concept, and he asked if we felt he should press forward despite the resistance of the staff. We did not, for the following reasons.

  1. Moving teachers from working in isolation to working in collaborative teams is a difficult and challenging task. The school should stay the course it is upon rather than heading off in a new direction.
  2. The principal should focus on building the capacity of staff to work within a collaborative culture rather than shifting his focus to structural issues.
  3. There is little in either the history of American education or recent developments in the field that suggests converting schools into smaller learning communities will improve student achievement.

The current push for smaller high schools stands in direct contrast to the recommendations presented by James Conant after he conducted a study of high schools for the Carnegie Foundation in 1959. Conant, the former president of Harvard University and Ambassador to Germany, called for the consolidation of small high schools, arguing any school with fewer than 400 students should be abolished as ineffective and inefficient (our emphasis). His book on the subject, The American High School Today, became a national best seller.

At the time of Conant’s recommendation, 12,000 of the nations 21,000 high schools served fewer than 400 students. If "small" was the answer to the problems of high schools, the 1950s offered secondary students the perfect environment for a fabulous education. There is little evidence to suggest, however, the students of the 1950s were particularly well served by their small schools. In fact, almost one of every three high school-aged students had left school prior to graduation throughout the decade.

More recently (2005 and 2006), two independent research organizations conducted independent evaluations of the progress of the schools that had been organized into smaller learning communities between 2001 and 2004 with the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Their reports to the Gates Foundations concluded:

  1. Students reported improved relationships with their teachers.
  2. The attendance rate of students in the restructured schools was worse than attendance in other schools in the district.
  3. When taking previous achievement into account, students showed slightly better performance in language arts but worse performance in math than other high school students in the same district.
  4. The quality of student work was low in the restructured schools.
  5. Demanding and unwieldy teacher work loads "may be endemic to the staffing structures of many small high schools" (p. 6), and the resulting teacher burnout threatened the viability of the initiative. Staff turnover at the schools was high.
  6. Staff cited lack of tutoring services and appropriate opportunities to do homework as a barrier to the success of many students.
  7. Lack of staff capacity made the restructured schools vulnerable,
  8. Changes in teaching and learning lagged behind the structural changes that characterized the schools (American Institute for Research and SRI International, 2005).

A year later the same two research agencies issued their final evaluation of the Gates initiative. They reported Gates schools confronted significant difficulty in bringing the attributes of high-performing schools into their restructured schools because "entrenched cultures and sets of expectations about student achievement and behavior often became obstacles" (American Institute for Research and SRI International, 2006, p. 6, our emphasis). They urged the foundation to: "Rethink the school redesign strategy. Although there have been some isolated examples of apparently successful small schools emerging from the restructuring of a large high school, these have been the exception rather than the rule. On the whole, the data that we have for school redesign efforts are not encouraging" (p. 82, our emphasis).  The better hope for changing schools, according to the report, was to emphasize continuous monitoring of student learning, a "tight" school culture, and "greater attention to issues of curriculum and instruction" (p. 4-5).

In other words, even with the support and backing of one of the world’s greatest private philanthropic organizations, structural change alone will not reform schools. Those who pin their hopes on high school reform based on the size of the school are destined to be disappointed. Ultimately the culture must change to impact classroom practice and student and staff expectations, and the best strategy for improving schools at any level will focus less on the structure of the organization and more on building the capacity of people within the schools to create a new culture.



The PLC philosophy and structure can help student learning grow by leaps and bounds. The question of school size in this discussion leads us to ask if an autonomous pilot school of about 400 students that does not share the campus with other schools (vs. an SLC construct that has several small schools on one campus) can implement the PLC practice given staffing and size? For many subjects, there would be one teacher rather than a few who could partcipate in a grade alike & subject alike team --Thank you.

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Rick DuFour

Stevenson High School has a schedule with 50 minute periods and a 20 minute advisory period. You can see the schedule at

The second day of the week schedule is set up to give teachers from 7:30 to 8:30 for collaboration.

Advisories are held during 4A, 5A, and 6B. Freshmen get 30 minutes for lunch. All other students who have good grades and good behavior get 50 minutes for lunch. So there are seven academic periods of 50 minutes and students and teachers have an 8th period for their lunch.

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We are discussing the idea of restructuring our master schedule to incorporate PLC on Wednesday mornings. We are wondering if anyone has a master schedule for 50 minute class periods. We are wanting to implement an advisory program for 9th grade, as well. I have looked on the website, but I am not finding any examples.
Thank you

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I believe Smaller Learning Communities are not synonymous with Professional Learning Communities because they do not share the same characteristics. Hord defines a professional learning community as a place “in which the professionals (administrators and teachers) continuously seek and share learning to increase their effectiveness for students, and act on what they learn” Senge (1999) in earlier years conceptualized learning communities as places where people expand their capacity to receive the results they desire.
To fully implement a valid Professional Learning Community, DuFour warns that PLCs are not authentic communities unless they align their practices with the effective characteristics that define genuine Professional Learning Communities (DuFour, 2007). These characteristics include shared leadership, shared vision, collective learning, and shared practice. Just because a school sets aside small learning communities it does not guarantee that they are indeed a valid Professional Learning Community, thus proving that the two are not synonymous.

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Thanks for your recent posting in ALLTHINGSPLC pertaining to “Smaller Learning Communities (SLCs) Synonymous with Professional Learning Communities (PLCs).”

When I finished the post, I was struck immediately by the delightful notion of the “the genius of and.” I agree, that given the kind of reorganization the principal wanted to do – that is reorganize into houses – it may be wise not to move in that direction until teachers have had the opportunity to settle into a collaborative culture as a way of life. It is also important to note that “houses” are a unique kind of SLC structural issue. There are others. There are schools within schools, partnership academies, theme based schools, pilot schools, magnet schools etc. For a fairly comprehensive list, you can consult, “New Small Learning Communities: Findings from Recent Literature” by Kathleen Cotton, a publication of NWREL.

With all of these SLC “structures”, many of them in place in many schools across the country, it seems vital that we keep “the genius of and” at the forefront of our thinking. For the last three years, I have been directing the implementation of a federal SLC grant at the two comprehensive high schools in Chico, CA. The overriding goals of the grant are increased academic rigor and achievement for all students and increased personalization – connectedness to their school and their education.

At both high schools, we have schools within schools. At Pleasant Valley High, we have a California Partnership Academy in human services, a fine arts program called Art Studio, and next year, we’ll be adding another California Partnership Academy in Hospitality and Tourism. At Chico High there are four schools within schools: 1) The Academy of Communications and Technology – another California Partnership Academy; 2) Chico High WEST; 3) CAD+ (Computer Aided Design in Manufacturing and Architecture); and 4) Ag Barn – they have a focus in Agriculture.

Both schools also offer a “traditional” program for students who do not choose a school within a school. I think it would be safe to say that we are hybrids of a sort. Given the potential PLC/SLC dichotomy, it is ironic that the research into best practice in education was ignited by our SLC grant, and it led us to the Professional Learning Community “way of doing business.”

Needless to say, we have struggled with this dichotomy, and concluded that it doesn’t have to be one – in fact, it is “the genius of and” that has allowed us to continue to explore ways to integrate the profound cultural changes of PLC into the fabric of our schools, part of that fabric being SLCs.

While the definition of an SLC has evolved over the years, the current definition is helpful to this conversation.

Smaller Learning Community (SLC) means an environment in which a core group of teachers and other adults within the school knows the needs, interests, and aspirations of each student well, closely monitors each student's progress, and provides the academic and other support each student needs to succeed.

Based on this definition, the two approaches, PLC and SLC are really one in my view. The challenge for our campuses has been arriving at common language and shared definitions and providing a coherent vision that “connects the dots.”

One of the studies you cited, by Fouts, Baker, Brown and Riley, provides us with many insights about how to successfully implement a professional learning community culture at a school site including sites that have “schools within schools.” For the SLC’s they studied, they conclude:

In those schools where a moral imperative was the impetus for change and where a majority of teachers believed in their students’ inherent ability to learn and the importance of high standards for all students, the structural changes came more smoothly.

They also asserted that “strong teacher collaboration is essential.” These sentiments reflect some of the core principles of PLC’s. In their recommendations for converting high schools to small learning communities they included the following concepts:

1) That leadership deal “effectively with the human dynamics associated with change.”
2) That leadership build a case, using the brutal facts, about why change is necessary.
3) That the reasons to change are “increased personalization, increased rigor and improved instruction.”

Again, these are core principles embraced by PLC’s.

This month’s Ed Leadership Issue has several articles pertinent to this discussion, but the one I will focus on here is “Creating Excellent and Equitable Schools” by Linda Darling-Hammond and Diane Friedlander.

In the article they cite five model schools that are “Successful – By Design.” All of these schools employ personalization, rigorous and relevant instruction, and professional learning and collaboration as essential principles of their success. In the article, one of the policy changes they suggest is to “expand grants to support new schools and small learning communities whose designs promise to attend more to students needs and increase their success.”

While they embrace a collaborative culture with a focus on learning and results, they also speak very clearly to the need for personalization and see small learning communities as a way to accomplish that. This speaks clearly to the “genius of and.”

They also provide some fresh perspective on curriculum and assessment.

Although the schools we studied give their students access to a college-preparatory curriculum, they also offer more innovative learning opportunities.

While the selected response common assessment has its place, one that collaborative groups seem to gravitate to, it should not be the central focus. Perhaps it is a good starting place for people beginning the process of collaboration that is focused on student learning, but I would argue that it doesn’t go far enough in driving rigorous and relevant instruction.

Darling-Hammond and Freidlander suggest “challenging performance-based assessments demand applications of knowledge, provide students and staff with timely feedback about students’ progress, and support revision of student work to meet standards of quality.”

The focus on this kind of assessment goes much further to promote critical thinking and effective citizenship than a selected response common assessment. The balance is important as selected response helps us to know whether or not all students are acquiring the essential skills while performance based assessment promotes, as Darling-Hammond and Friedlander put it, “serious intellectual work.”

Again – the “genius of and.”

I would venture to say that many of schools find themselves in a situation similar to ours in the sense that they have strong and viable SLC structures in place, structures that have experienced success with their students, both in terms of academic achievement and meaningful connection to school and education.

It is also true that “structural change alone will not reform schools.” We have had direct experience with that as some of our structures have failed for many of the reasons cited in the study of the Gates funded schools. The California Partnership Academy model, as an SLC structure, is successful when there is careful and full implementation. We have evidence of that in our district. For a more comprehensive and balanced look at this model, I refer you to a couple of fairly balanced studies, the Cotton study referenced above and “A Profile of the California Partnership Academies,” March 2007. There is also informative discussion of this in Ed Leadership this month, an article entitled, “Bringing Industry to the Classroom.”

Both of our high schools, and schools across our district for that matter, are completing our first year as a professional learning community. The most significant change that has taken place is the embedding of collaboration within the school day, collaboration that has a focus on student learning. We have done a great deal of work “on building the capacity of people within the schools to create a new culture,” and there is still a great deal of work to do, work which we’re excited about and believe in.

Indeed, the work of continuous monitoring of student learning, of keen attention to best practice in classroom instruction, of focusing on results, of productive collaboration, and targeted intervention is work that can inform and continually improve SLC structures as well as our traditional programs.

I can only hope that as we mature in this process, that we not lose sight of this idea of rigor and personalization, of accountability and engagement, of essential standards and “serious intellectual work”, and of the potential of PLC’s and SLC’s.

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Jay Westover

The research and examples that Rick has presented rings true after having worked with several high schools that had an existing SLC structure and then began to implement the PLC model. The major challenges and questions were as follows:

How do we build our collective capacity to ensure that we provide a guaranteed and viable curriculum, effective formative assessments, and instructional strategies aligned with student learning needs when we do not meet frequently as school-wide course-alike teams. Secondly, since we share students as an interdisciplinary team our conversations have a tendency to focus on student topics not focused specifically on curricular, instructional and assessment practices. Thirdly, how do we allocate our resources and personnel to best support "all of our students" as the nature of the SLC design is restrictive from a master schedule perspective. And how do we unite under a strong collective vision when we feel divided by nature of the SLC model. As Rick has articulated so well, why would we want to add additional layers of complexity when PLC implementation requires significant cultural shifts?

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