Professional Learning Communities and Student Achievement

The real test for the movement to professional learning communities as a school improvement effort is, ”Can we show payoff in student achievement?”

In my work with the New Jersey Professional Teaching Standards Board, I had the opportunity to hear a presentation on research that explored the question, “Is there a discernible relationship between schools that purport to function as professional learning communities and those that do not in terms of student success?” *footnote

Two definitions from the report:

Professional Learning Community (PLC): Educators committed to working collaboratively in ongoing processes of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve. Professional learning communities operate under the assumption that the key to improved learning for students is continuous job-embedded learning for educators.

Team: A group of people working interdependently to achieve a common goal for which members are held mutually accountable. Collaborative teams are the fundamental building blocks of PLC’s.

Quick Summary: The standardized test scores on the NJASK demonstrate continual growth of the schools working as PLC’s when comparing the schools to other schools in the same District Factor Group (DFG) [DFG is grouping of schools with similar student body make up]. The results indicate a stronger performance in the schools that are professional learning communities when compared with performance of other schools.

An interesting element of the research is a look at two successful schools serving two different communities.

School B is a small elementary school serving 253 students PreK-8 in a residential suburban community. The district’s costs per pupil was $ 21,372 in 2007-08. One hundred percent (100%) of the students are dominate English speakers. Parents are extremely involved and the community is committed to educational excellence.

School E is a small urban charter elementary and middle school which serves 323 students in K-8. The school’s cost per student for 2007-08 was $11,863. The student body is 30% African-American, 44% white, 14% Hispanic and 12% Asian. Dominate English speakers make up 82.7% while 5.6% are dominant Spanish speakers.

On the 2008 NJASK:

School B: Had 100% of 7th and 8th graders score proficient or advanced on the Spring NJASK in Language Arts Literacy and Mathematics. This was 18-35 points above the state average and 6-19 points above their DFG category. Most impressive were the number of students scoring advanced proficient. Seventh and eigth graders scoring advance proficient in Language Arts and Literacy were from 20-32 points above the state average and 12-21 points above their DFG category.

School E: Had from 73-93 % of 7th and 8th graders scoring proficient or advanced proficient on the same Language Arts and Mathematics NJASK. These scores ranged from 3-25 points above the state averages and from 21 to 46 points above schools in similar DFG category.

Schools B and E have different socioeconomic populations, yet the schools demonstrated academic achievement compared to their respective District Factor Group. The PLC’s address the needs of students in each of these districts.

The researchers identify the limitations of the study including that many factors may influence student test performance and that it would be difficult to isolate the impact of the PLC’s. Interviews that they conducted with teachers and administrators support the connection subjectively.

We will need much continued research to support and encourage leaders building PLC’s to improve service to students. Thanks to the Caldwell College students for advancing the learning.

Caldwell College Team and NJ Professional Teaching Standards Board

Much of my enthusiasm for PLC’s reflects my teaching and working relationships with committed teams. Students’ needs can best be met by professionals working together with a shared accountability for the students’ success. It’s common sense for me.

*Researchers on this report were Patricia Clark, Leah Fanning, Ryan Kelly, Sr., Maurice Liguori, and Jenna Russo. The paper was prepared in the authors’ Problem-Based Externship in Educational Administration at
Caldwell College in New Jersey (ED 676/677) in conjunction with the New Jersey Department of Education. Spring 2009… Dr Joan Moriarty (advisor)

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4 Responses to “ Professional Learning Communities and Student Achievement ”

  1. C. Bell Says:

    You’ve hit it on the head again, Steve! Building and then sustaining (the key) a true professional learning community is the key to continuous school improvement. Our school has gone from a “Needs Improvement Year Three” school to receiving state achievement awards for the past two years because of our transformation to becoming a true collaborative culture. No new programs or curriculum, but instead, a commitment to reflecting, sharing, and learning together everyday of the school year. Another story in itself, I believe the other key element is a ongoing focus on a limited number of achievement-related goals. By the way…When are you coming back to Georgia?

  2. Stephen G. Barkley Says:


    Sustaining is the hard work…. thanks for giving another example that connects teacher collegiality to student success.
    PS I am on my way to Georgia this week to work with TAPP Abassadors

  3. Dr. Sanford Aranoff Says:

    To build a true professional learning environment, we need to understand students and teaching. We have to understand how students think, and build from there stressing basic principles. See “Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better” on amazon.

  4. Rob Jacobs Says:

    Steve, I can give you a first hand account of the power of PLCs. This year I spent nearly 700 hours in Professional Learning Communities at a K-6 site, with a high EL population in a lower socio-economic area.

    The grade levels that demonstrated the greatest commitment to PLC showed the greatest growth as a grade level. One could even see certain grade levels increase the month they decided to buy-in and stop resisting.

    The cognitive diversity that is brought to bear on increasing student learning through PLCs is such a benefit.

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