Professional Learning Communities Give Teachers Avenue to Improve Achievement

October 28, 2008

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Marion County Schools knew it had a problem when 40 percent of high school freshman in 2005 failed math.

In 2006, five of the county’s high school master teachers began working together as a Professional Learning Community to find a solution. They worked together to establish academies for teachers and students. Students who participated in the academy were given 120 hours of instruction, while the teacher academy provided educators with 30 hours of professional development. Two years later, the effort is paying off with the freshman math failure rate improving to just 14 percent.

“This project moved us out of our comfort zone,” said Diane Furman, project director of the Marion County 21st Century Mathematics and Science Partnership. “We worked together to change the culture of our schools to help students learn better.”

Kanawha County started Professional Learning Communities to help schools better meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Now they are a requirement for every school. Each community is expected to meet at least once a month.

“We removed teachers from working in isolation,” said Melanie Vickers. “When you do that, teachers feel empowered and student learning can only improve.”

Marion and Kanawha counties are just two examples of successful Professional Learning Communities at work throughout West Virginia schools. The concept has proven to be so successful that it has become a cornerstone of the West Virginia Department of Education’s efforts to improve teaching and learning in the 21st century.

Professional Learning Communities help teachers adopt new philosophies governing the way they work with children. Most significantly, there is a shift from isolated teachers using individual strategies for teaching a set of concepts in a certain amount of time to teams of teachers employing any number of highly targeted strategies until students get a firm grip on the concepts they need to master.

Hundreds of educators from across West Virginia were in Charleston this week to learn how they can establish Professional Learning Communities at their schools. Educators who have participated in Professional Learning Communities say the approach puts greater demands on their time, but the time it takes is well worth it because it provides another avenue to address student struggles.

“Research shows that a team approach to learning can provide the support necessary to initiate and sustain change,” said West Virginia Superintendent Steve Paine.  “Professional Learning Communities allow educators to work collaboratively in teams to achieve better results. Continuous, job-embedded learning for educators is the key to improved student learning.”

Professional Learning Communities can be organized in a variety of ways including by grade, by subject, or vertically across the school. Whatever the configuration, educators share planning time so that they can review student achievement data, identify why students are struggling and discuss interventions that will help them overcome obstacles. Professional Learning Committees help teachers develop a clear sense of mission and focus on student learning. At the same time, they give teachers a decreased feeling of isolation, foster shared responsibility and leads to fundamental, systemic change, exactly the type of change that the state Department of Education is striving for with its 21st Century Teaching and Learning program.


West Virginia has worked hard over the past few years to revamp its education system from preschool to high school. The state Board of Education has revised West Virginia Content Standards and Objectives to add rigor to its educational system and incorporate 21st century skills, including learning and thinking skills; information and communications skills; technology skills; and work place productivity skills.

"Now more than ever, West Virginia will focus on supporting high quality professional development for teachers and student assessments that align with real-world learning," Paine said. “Teaching students is no longer about how many facts can be memorized. They must be able to comprehend, problem solve and communicate solutions if they are expected to collaborate globally. Professional Learning Communities is one of the tools we can use to change our classrooms.”

For more information, contact the Office of Communications at (304) 558-2699.

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