Part 2: Assessing and Refreshing PLCs - Making mid-year course corrections

Professional learning communities (PLCs) are on everyone’s minds and in (nearly) everyone’s school districts, but this popular model can easily lead to an unproductive use of teacher time. As a company partnering with districts to assess impact, we decided to host a 45-minute panel-style webinar with a diverse group of educators to explore the question: how do district and school leaders assess and refresh their PLCs mid-year?

Want to start at the beginning? Check out Part One, where the panel explored examples of innovative districts that are building and maximizing time for PLCs within limited school days.

Question 2a: What are the specific outcomes you look for to determine if a PLC is effective and whether you need to make adjustments mid-year?  

Develop a logic model or rubric for your district’s PLC groups. Leslie Abbatiello’s team developed a protocol for the understanding the impact of the work they do in their partner districts supporting professional learning communities. They used these to assess implementation and identify areas of focus.

They see three defining areas in PLC practice, boiling down to the following:

Technical Components (fundamental pieces). These provide the foundation necessary to ensure time can be productive. If these pieces aren’t in place, it’s really evident that they’re not. It’s important to correct these issues immediately to keep PLCs on track.

  • Have you identified the right participants for the PLC?
  • Is the meeting time clearly and explicitly dedicated to PLCs?
  • Is there enough recurring time to allow for repeated and meaningful collaboration?
  • Do your participants have access to the data they need (whether that’s qualitative, quantitative, or in the form of artifacts like teacher work and student work)?

Procedural Components. This is where it gets more complex; are procedures in place to ensure PLCs are productive with their time? Good protocols shouldn’t stifle conversation but rather structure the time so that your teachers can be focused on meaningful conversations. The good news is that if PLCs are lacking in these areas, the issue can be immediately addressed with thoughtful facilitation.

  • Is there a discussion protocol in place that provides the roadmap for goal-focused conversations? Do all members seem familiar with the protocol?
  • How are discussions facilitated? Ideally, they are guided by a skilled facilitator, which could be an external person or a member of the team—a teacher leader who is sufficiently expert in using the process, for example.
  • Are discussions informed by data? Effective PLC teams encourage discipline in decision-making by using quantitative and qualitative data to prioritize discussion and generate solutions.

Aspects of Collaborative Engagement. These are customized by the individual PLCs; ACES works with the PLC to identify indicators of collaborative engagement in practice. Though these “look-for”s vary depending on the context and goals of the PLC, the point is to recognize how often these moments occur in order to ensure growth over time.

The three general tenets the team is looking for include:

  • Shared responsibility: are teachers invested in the success of the PLC? Is there a shared sense of “collective success” in which members proactively consider each other’s professional growth?
  • Teacher agency: are teachers empowered to act to improve practice?
  • Building social capital: are teachers building connections that encourage meaningful collaboration?  

Design PLC protocols and a rubric around Dufour’s 4 Questions. Colonial School District is in the seventh year of its PLC implementation, where PLCs have become the primary forum for professional learning. They initially dedicated PLC time to reinventing instruction with Dufour’s 4 critical questions, with a focus on analyzing student data.

The district provided PLC participants with an observational rubric and feedback tool to help teachers give each other feedback. This tool also made expectations for PLC time explicit and formed a foundation for assessing if time was being used effectively.

Use a buddy system for accountability and ongoing reflection. Dustin Andrus built a regional PLC of 40 tech-loving teachers focused on improving their tech integrations. Meeting four times per year face-to-face, they base their work on John Hattie’s research covering Visible Learning.

To assess progress over the course of a school year, the group set up a buddy system for shared accountability. Each teacher selects 1-2 of Hattie’s visible learning outcomes and creates an action plan for improvement,  then reflects on their progress towards their plans in their classrooms.

These reflections are submitted to each other via a virtual discussion board as well as in-person at their four annual meetings. The online discussion board encourages them to keep goals transparent while providing a space for discussion during the year as teachers share updates and student artifacts to demonstrate progress.

Dustin also collects qualitative survey data surrounding teacher confidence that is shared and discussed openly among buddies. The secret sauce to this method, according to Andrus, includes applying principles of visible learning in the design of the professional learning experience. Having teachers make their goals and reflections visible to the entire PLC in a digital environment, while also working with a buddy, creates a connected sense of shared accountability.

Question 2.b: How can leaders assess how near or far they’ve strayed from the intended outcomes set for their PLCs?

Use a logic model to make sure you’re doing the little things right. According to the logic model ACES put together (see above), there are some basic tenets of a PLC you can evaluate for to ensure the foundation is strong. See if your PLC groups all have those components.

Use qualitative feedback to guide cognitive coaching. Dustin Andrus’s approach to supporting teachers is largely based on helping teachers self-assess and redirect their focus using cognitive coaching. In order to help teachers self-reflect, he designs thoughtful qualitative surveys and PLC participants use their reflection data to guide conversations about personal progress. As the facilitator, he also uses this data to see what individual teachers are struggling with and use that to focus their time.

Highlight excellence and focus on action: Colonial noticed teachers were meeting outside the allotted 90-minute meetings— a great indicator that at a grassroots level, teachers value collaboration. They spent time collecting feedback to improve the entire structure of the PLC initiative but found the district was not seeing a shift in student outcomes as a result of PLCs, largely because the district guided teachers to spend too much time on planning and assessing, instead of action. To remedy, the district decided to reboot and focus on two major iterations.

  • Highlight Excellence: The district created an Excellence PLC to capture actions and instructional behaviors in high-performing teacher classrooms that are making a difference. This includes highlighting instructional excellence and examples of exemplary student work as well as providing a forum for feedback on what other teachers need to be successful. These celebrations pushed Colonial to develop new PLCs for teachers to explore best practices.
  • Focus on Action: At the end of the fourth year, the district decided to rebrand and reboot the PLC effort to focus on action. Using district-wide PD time, they emphasized the district’s commitment to PLC groups and led a workshop to 1) help each individual teacher reflect on what actions they need to take and 2) collect additional feedback about how administration could better support teachers in the following year.

ARTIFACT: The PLC Redesign Powerpoint used as part of their reboot. Slide 18 appears below:

Colonial School District shifted the focus of their PLCs to more explicitly push teachers towards action and student outcomes.

Put onus on buildings to iterate and own protocols. During their PLC reboot, Colonial did away with the top-down issuance of PLC protocols in favor of letting leadership teams and schools develop their own protocols based on the needs of their teachers.

ARTIFACT: A handout provided to building-level staff at the Colonial School District to guide the reboot of their PLCs.

Most importantly,

  • Teachers needed help taking action, so the district tied key initiatives together, helping teachers draw connections between the why and the how in a self-guided and reflective manner.
  • While the 4 C’s remain an integral component, PLC time is open to address and support other initiatives, like digital convergence, intervention, and differentiation.


  • Part Three, where panelists offer advice for creating alignment between high-profile district priorities and the everyday issues being surfaced in PLCs
  • JUMP BACK to Part One, where panelists offered examples of how innovative districts are building and maximizing time for PLCs within limited school days.

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