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Why Don’t Professional Learning Communities Work?

Called “the most powerful professional development and change strategy available,” professional learning communities, when implemented well, lead to reliable growth in student learning.

In a nutshell, PLCs entail whole-staff involvement in a process of intensive reflection upon instructional practices and desired student benchmarks, as well as monitoring of outcomes to ensure success. PLCs enable teachers to continually learn from one another via shared visioning and planning, as well as in-depth critical examination of what does and doesn’t work to enhance student achievement.

For detailed background information, be sure to read the EducationWorld article Best Practices for Professional Learning Communities.

The potential of PLCs is well documented—for example, in a recent survey of Hopkins, MN educators, 81 percent said they agreed that PLCs helped them find the most effective instructional strategies. The problem is that implementation is often easier said than done.

When a school’s PLC isn’t working, common reasons include:

  • Insufficient access to timely data on which to base instructional decisions;
  • Poor infrastructure (especially lack of scheduled time for teachers to meet, or inefficient use of the limited time available);
  • Lack of teacher buy-in for the process (perception that the decision to implement a PLC was imposed upon teachers by administrators);
  • Lack of teacher ownership of the process (perception that administrators dictate what teachers do during their collaborative time); and
  • A building culture in which teachers tend to compete rather than collaborate.

Additionally, in this English study, obstacles to successful PLC implementation included staff resistance to change, central and local policies affecting resources and budgets, and staff turnover, especially at the leadership level.


Do’s and Don’ts for School Leaders

So what do administrators need to know before embarking on a PLC journey? Here are 10 helpful tips.


  1. Announce to staff that the school will be implementing the DuFour Model of PLCs, implying that a “recipe” is all it will take to be successful
  2. Assume everyone will be on board with the idea
  3. Assign staff members to groups or roles
  4. Tell staff members what to discuss during meetings
  5. Attend PLC meetings, unless invited for a specific purpose/reason


  1. Understand what you’re getting yourself into. The book Demystifying Professional Learning Communities: School Leadership at Its Best (2010) offers information, examples and case studies to clarify the concept of a PLC.
  2. Build staff consensus and excitement around the concept of PLCs before beginning the work. Hearing from other schools about their successes and challenges is important during this stage, as is listening—and taking seriously—the thoughts and concerns of your building’s staff.
  3. Facilitate a grassroots organizing effort, whereby staff form the community and decide what’s important to discuss. As teachers and support staff begin to feel true ownership of the process, priorities will emerge organically.
  4. Plan to monitor progress. The Professional Learning Communities Assessment-Revised (PLCA-R) is a survey tool for assessing, analyzing and diagnosing the effectiveness of professional learning communities. Using such a tool can help diagnose trouble spots and allow staff to strategize about ways of overcoming challenges—before they become major obstacles.

    The questionnaire consists of statements about practices that can occur in schools, and respondents use a 4-point scale to indicate the degree to which they agree or disagree with each statement. The PLCA-R reports scores along various dimensions, including Shared and Supportive Leadership, Shared Values and Vision, Supportive Conditions-Relationships and Supportive Conditions-Structures.
  5. Learn from the experiences of other schools. Foxdale Middle School’s story offers a great lesson about overcoming common PLC-related challenges, including lack of time for collaboration and the de-stabilizing effect of staff turnover and reconfigured staff roles.


Related resources

Best Practices for Professional Learning Communities
Building Trust in Collaborative Learning Communities
Co-Teaching Tips
Better Book Study Groups


Article by Celine Provini, EducationWorld Editor
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