Mary Ann Ranells

Mary Ann Ranells, PhD, is superintendent of the West Ada School District in Meridian, Idaho. She has played a key role in aligning curriculum to meet state standards and directed several federal programs.

Why Size Doesn’t Matter

             I have been blessed during the past 43 years to work in amazing school districts of all sizes—one as small as 600 students to one as large as 37,000 students. Time after time, school after school, district after district, we have learned size simply doesn’t matter for four main reasons. A highly functioning PLC continually examines and improves its capacity through four main elements: Organization, Execution, Persistence, and Celebration.

            PLCs continually work on Organization and governance structures. Large and small districts experiment with what structure works best by addressing key ingredients.  The key is creating relationships built on mutual, professional respect. There is a collective sense of a higher calling—we will do this, we will win this war for our children, we won’t give up, and we know it will take all of us working together. This deep, abiding commitment paves the way for determining the structure of collaboration, the norms, when and how often to meet, and how we will act and react to one another. The Organization of a PLC will make or break a district’s or school’s success regardless of the size.

            The second fundamental element relies on Execution. Once the Governance Structure is in place, all teams beam a laser focus on achieving common goals for learning by answering the four critical PLC questions through collaboration. Large or small, this question must be clearly answered: What will we accept as credible evidence to convict ourselves of academic excellence? What is written, taught, tested, and reported becomes the heartbeat of the school. (We also include behaviors, dispositions, and soft skills in this question.) Avoiding the “coblaboration” syndrome only happens if true collaboration exists in terms of SMART goals, being intentional, clarifying deliverables, analyzing results, and having fun.  As teachers and principals determine the answers to the four critical PLC questions grade by grade, subject by subject, teams are better able to create a timeline for verifying all students are learning at high levels unit by unit. 

            The third critical component to a strong PLC that dispels the myth regarding size is Persistence. And, it isn’t just persistence, it is dogged persistence—tenaciously unwilling to yield to anything less than ALL students achieving at high levels of learning as determined by the teams. The days of “teach, test, and move on” no longer exist in any PLC. I think this is my favorite part of the journey. We will not be satisfied until our children are “hitting it out of the ballpark.” We no longer tolerate mediocrity—not from ourselves nor from our students. The exciting part is when the students realize people only truly care about them if they have high expectations of them, and they begin to have high expectations of themselves. It also means we have to embrace failure as a positive instead of a blaming event. We are seeing more and more evidence of students (and adults) learning the life skills of resilience and grit through striving for worthy learning targets, recording their “personal best” results, and stubbornly continuing to strive to meet their own goals.

            Finally, the one component essential to success in a PLC, large or small, is Celebration. I often wonder why we are so weak in this area and believe it is because we represent the epitome of problem solving. Educators fix things that need to be fixed. We are consumed with what is wrong. In a highly successful PLC, we have found Celebration is also a norm. How we honor, recognize, and value achievement and accomplishment represents the anchor that holds us steady, gives us hope, and makes us proud of who we are and what we do.

            It doesn’t matter how large or how small your school or district is. It only matters if you have the fire in the belly to Organize, Execute, Persist, and Celebrate!


Jenny Laws

I like that your article specifically addresses the size of the school in terms of implementing PLCs. More often than not, schools seem to think they are either too big or too small to be successful with implementation, and your four main elements take care of that. I work in a relatively small school, and we are currently experiencing some resistance to the concept of PLCs, and I believe that presenting your approach will be helpful in our next meeting.

Posted on

Jenny Laws

I was attracted to this article because of its title. It never ceases to amaze me that so many people feel that there is a certain range in terms of size in which a PLC will be successful. I work in a small school district. We have roughly 400 students in our high school. The elements that you outline - Organization, Execution, Persistence, and Celebration - are crucial to implementing a successful PLC, and I feel that many of the teachers within my school make this concept much more difficult than it needs to be. Do you have any recommendations for getting other teachers on board with the idea of implementing a PLC? I truly think that this would be the best route for my school district to take, but beginning the implementation seems overwhelming!

Posted on