Leading the PLC Journey at the District Office
School districts have the unique opportunity and challenge of educating the diverse population they serve. Schools have a variety of learners and must implement proven strategies to ensure every student’s success. We know there is compelling research on the impact that professional learning communities have on student achievement. As a result, shouldn’t all school districts take on the challenge of doing this work at the district level to ensure all of their schools are on this journey? School districts must allow school leaders the autonomy to make decisions based on the needs of the learners and yet, have common expectations around goals, collaboration outcomes, the use of data and monitoring student progress, and systematic interventions.
Below are some tips and strategies for school districts on how they can begin this work with all their schools.
Create a guiding coalition
A guiding coalition is a team that works to advance, monitor, and celebrate the PLC framework at the district level. We recommend beginning the PLC journey at the district office by establishing a district guiding coalition. This guiding coalition should be a good representation of your district, including site administration, district office staff, and teacher leaders.
For instance, in larger districts, ensure there is a principal represented from each level and area. If you are in a small district, you may need to put all the principals on the guiding coalition. From the district office, ensure you have someone representing each department. If district certificated staff are represented by a union, then engaging union leadership as partners on the guiding coalition is encouraged. Just a with a school—where we want the guiding coalition to be representative of the school—the district’s guiding coalition should be representative of the district.
However, also ensure that these are individuals who will give you honest feedback. “Districts that form their guiding coalitions with individuals who seek to please district leadership rather than ensure successful implementation find themselves with unrealistic feedback” (Smith, 2015, p. 15).
Build shared knowledge
Once the guiding coalition is formed, one of the first things to do is ensure everyone has a clear understanding of what we are trying to accomplish with the PLC work. When a PLC wants to improve, the first step is always collective inquiry—learning together. This could be accomplished by taking the guiding coalition to a PLC institute, visiting model PLC schools and districts, and/or doing book studies.
The purpose is to establish a clear understanding of what the work is and what our expectations are for the work, beginning by clearly defining terms and concepts so everyone interprets ideas the same way. Smith (2015) states, “...district leadership and the guiding coalition that leads districtwide PLC implementation must have a common framework in which to work and lead. They must share the same basic understanding and a common language of PLC implementation and its essential processes” (p. 16). This work also involves creating district-wide non-negotiables. What is it that every school must do as it relates to a PLC? (DuFour & Fullan, 2013). The guiding coalition should revisit the missions and visions established by the schools and district, ensuring they are all aligned. This process can take some time since you are not just moving one school but moving all schools in the district on this journey.
Provide professional development
While you are working with the guiding coalition to set those district-wide expectations, it is crucial that the guiding coalition continues to receive professional development on the work. It is also crucial to create an intentional, reasonable, doable, actionable professional learning plan to provide leaders with professional learning needed to actualize the mission and vision (Smith, 2015). When professional learning is relevant, job-embedded, and directly impacts student learning, it is more palatable to the givers and the receivers of the professional learning.
The guiding coalition team needs to learn not just how to transform their school into a PLC, but how to support their colleagues in other schools on this process as well.
District staff members need the continuous learning so they can support their schools in the district. This professional development cannot be one-and-done sessions—which districts can be famous for! Just as teachers are required to scaffold lessons and standards to support student mastery, district leaders should implement layered, on-going support to ensure processes and procedures around student learning are common place and mastered.
For instance, you may need to provide professional learning on setting realistic goals, creating an implementation plan, prioritizing standards, and creating learning targets. The plan should be created and executed based on the needs of the school and district leaders, and this work could span several years.
Model the right work
Just as we tell principals that teachers are always watching, we want to tell superintendents and executive cabinet members that principals are always watching. We don’t expect teachers or principals “to do” PLCs. When done right, PLC is a way of life for everybody in a school district. When teams meet in the district office, they too should have norms and a process for norm violations. They too should discuss what they want all schools to learn and how they will measure that. They too should discuss what they will do with schools who are understanding the work and how they will support schools who need more assistance with some of the concepts.
There are fundamentals to the PLC at Work® process that are non-negotiable, but district leaders should customize and brand the work of their district and schools. By becoming a professional learning community, district leaders have the opportunity to implement a proven process to positively impact school and district culture, increase student achievement, and maintain a laser-like focus on student learning. As you look at implementing PLCs districtwide, we recommend the books listed in our reference section to help you.
DuFour, R. & Fullan, M. (2013). Cultures built to last: Systemic PLCs at Work®. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Smith, R. (2015). How to launch PLCs in your district. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., Many, T. W., & Mattos, M. (2016). Learning by doing: A handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work® (3rd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.