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IMPROVING A PROFESSIONAL
LEARNING COMMUNITY AT ONE
ELEMENTARY SCHOOL: AN ACTION
Donald Spencer Francis II
A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
DOCTOR OF EDUCATION
WASHINGTON STATE UNIVERSITY
College of Education
“Most states and districts are still not
providing the kind of professional learning
that research suggests improves teaching
practice and student outcomes. The
research tells us that teachers need to
learn the way other professionals do—
and on the job.”
(Darling-Hammond, Wei, Andree, Richardson, & Orphanos, 2009, p. 1)
• Professional Learning Communities are said to
be the most promising school improvement tool
since the invention of the overhead projector
(Roy & Hord, 2006). Districts advocate for these
teacher teams, but how is their development
• There was a desire by staff to have functioning
PLCs, but frustration with a lack of professional
development or support in this area.
• What are the roadblocks that individual PLCs
are facing? This had not been fully explored.
(a) What journey took place for this team as it
became a PLC?
(b) What resources were needed to help this
PLC improve its’ functioning?
(c) What do I as an administrator need to know
about how to guide the improved
functioning of a PLC?
(d) How can other PLCs learn from this PLC
and its efforts to improve student learning
in mathematics at Monument Elementary
Monument PLC Timeline
August 2006 Three-hour district introduction of PLCs.
2006-2007 William, Darrell, Lisa, and Don start at Monument.
Leadership team Learning by Doing book study.
PLC Staff development several times over the year.
ESD facilitated work days on PLC with 12 staff members.
2007-2008 Working with PLCs as they developed.
Mike arrives at Monument.
2009-2010 School Improvement grant begins.
David arrives at Monument.
Appendix A (cont.)
Fall 2009 CEE survey on nine characteristics of highly effective
August 2009 Introduction of research project at staff retreat.
Survey baseline data on PLCs at Monument.
Fall 2009 Pilot Qualitative study of PLCs at Monument.
Feb. 2010 6th grade math team explores action research.
March 2010 6th grade math team establishes norms and structures to
Spring 2010 CEE survey on nine characteristics.
Appendix A (cont.)
May 2010 Research narrows to 6th grade PLC.
They become co-researchers for the study.
June 2010 Team uses PLC rubrics to gather data on
Summer 2010 Team gathers more data on functionality.
Engages in reflection and explores possible actions.
Fall 2010 Team engages in practices to improve functioning.
Nov. 2010 Team explores emergent themes from data analysis.
Jan. 2011 Team plans action for exploring functioning in
relation to shared practices.
Rationale for Study
• Will a grass roots effort allow staff to become
effective PLCs? The implication of this could
save thousands of dollars spent sending all staff
to DuFour’s Institute.
• Will a look, listen, think, and act process be a
model that will allow PLCs to flourish? Action
research and its implications in PLC work.
• Can this process benefit other schools in the
district? State? Country? World?
• Staff want to know more about how to be
effective PLCs and to reflect on their current
Methodology: Action Research
(a) selecting a focus
(b) clarifying theories
(c) identifying research questions
(d) collecting data
(e) analyzing data
(f) reporting results
(g) taking informed action
Methodology: Action Research
Ernest T. Stringer
Purpose of Study
This is an action research study that
improved the functioning of a professional
learning community (PLC) team at one
elementary school. As principal of the
school, I was the head researcher with the
members of the PLC team serving as co-
• Monument Elementary had an enrollment of 600 students in
grades 4-6 in 2008.
• 85% free or reduced lunch, 80% Hispanic, 33%language learners
• 36 teachers with average teaching experience of 8.3 years
• 2007 3rd grade WASL: 56% passing rate in math and a 61%
passing rate in reading.
• 2008 4th grade WASL: 45% passed math and 55% passed
reading, a slight drop in scores.
• 2009 5th grade WASL: 37% pass rate for math and 48% pass rate
• In the 6th grade our math scores have been 26%,
32%, and 29% from 2006 to 2009. In 2010 as the
study progressed and the 6th grade team became
more functional, scores improved to 46%.
– Math Coach, Kim
– David, Darrell, William (Lisa, support)
– Added Mike in 2010 school year
– Learning improvement team
– All grade levels
– The principal
– Community (including parents)
• student performance data (NWEA, MSP, WASL, classroom
• Meeting minutes and artifacts from the school
• School climate survey
• School Performance Report
• School Improvement Plan
• PLC Rubrics
• Team Functionality Rubrics
• Video taped PLC discussion sessions
• Focus group
• Learning journals
• Interviews of key stakeholders (includes pilot study)
• observation of significant events or activities: Staff
meetings, PLC meetings, work sessions, dialogue and
• Literature Review. Resource for PLC to use.
• Notes, audiotapes, videotapes, reflection journals
• Collaborative PLC descriptive accounts, answering the
why, what, how, who, when, and where in relation to their
reality, and creating community profiles.
• The organization of meetings, procedures, decision
making, and communication become critical components
of action research within this stage (Stringer, 2007).
“Looking” at our PLC
Table 1. Monument 6th Grade Math Professional Learning Community Demographics and Self Perceptions
Name Role Years Teaching Personality
Darrell Team member 4 Reserved, passionate, loyal
David Active participant 6 (Passionate, problem solver)
Don Principal, secondary 13 Outgoing, passionate
Kimberly Support member 15 Quiet, listen then act, conservative
Lisa Team member 6 Reserved, no conflict
Mike Colleague, listener 20 Sequential thinker
William Team member 4 Easy-going, flexible
• PLC “think” tanks to understand more clearly the
way the issue affects their lives and activities.
• Use of DuFour’s Learning by Doing rubrics and
“Cultural Shifts in PLC” documents as a
framework for analysis of the functioning of the
• Categorization and coding of key experiences;
analyzing of this data using frameworks for
interpretation, reports written.
• Presentation to staff
• Action plan is developed by PLC for improving its
functioning (goals, objectives, tasks, persons, time, and
• PLC implements the plan while paying attention to
communicating how the plan is going, nurturing people’s
efforts, reflecting on progress, assisting members in
overcoming roadblocks, resolving conflicts, and
connecting members to supportive networks.
• Progress is reviewed and the plan with its
implementation are reviewed, assessed, revised, and
achievements are celebrated (Stringer, 2007)
• Principal hat off, researcher hat on (staff
• Working with the team that most wants to
be a part of the research project (part of
their National Boards).
• Research fits into our staff crafted School
Improvement plan (Validate staff initiative)
• IRB approval Fall of 2009
• Informed consent
• Confidentiality discussion in PLC
• Mutual benefits of this research study
• School action research by “other” PLCs
• Checks for trustworthiness (Lincoln and
Guba) Credibility, transferability,
dependability, and conformability.
• History of Teacher Learning Communities
• Characteristics of PLCs
• The role of PLCs in PD and SIP
• Process of developing a functional PLC
• The role of principals in developing
collective efficacy within PLCs
“Why does it take so long to initiate a PLC?
One answer can be found in the
increasingly robust research that suggests
that trust is an element of organizational
culture that is critical and routinely
administrators do not really want to face
the music.” (Louis, 2006, p. 482)
The Action Research Study
• The Pilot Study
• 7 PLCs experimenting with action
• Narrowing the focus to one PLC
• The Math PLC moving through the action
Pilot Study Themes
• Definitions, activities, & frustrations of
• Influences of PLC Functioning:
– Size of the PLC
– Schedule and time
– Trust and Relationships
The 6th Grade Math PLC “Looks”
“As the team engaged in the action research
cycle, it became clear that “looking” and
“thinking” were so intertwined that it was
not possible to clearly separate these
phases.” (p. 89)
Resources for “Look” and “Think”
• Learning by Doing (DuFour, 2007)
• Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Lencioni,
• Interviews and group reflection sessions
• Team created survey
• Built in reflection time at each meeting
Moving Toward Action
• Effort to reflect more often
• Creation of team norms
• Commitment to taking minutes and posting
• Attending meetings on a more regular
basis and coming prepared
• Creation of an agendas ahead of time
• Structuring a plan to get into each other’s
Outcomes of the Study
• The major outcome of the study was the
overall improvement in the functioning of
• Attendance was improved, mutual trust
was developed, communication was more
consistent, and a new level of
collaboration was attained.
Conclusions of the Study
• The importance of the role of the principal
in facilitating PLC functioning
• The impact of changes in team
• The critical role of using rubrics as a basis
for reflecting on team processes
• The impact of size of team membership.
Thank you for supporting this
action research study!