Professional Learning Communities in Prison with Guest Presenters Sudie Whalen and Marian Thacher


I invite you to read Professional Learning Communities in Prison, authored by Sudie Whalen, Shannon Swain, Mariann Fedele-McLeod and Marian Thacher. On May 21st, 2019, Sudie Whalen  and Marian Thacer will be discussing their Student Success Initiative and share information about PLCs. 

The Student Success Initiative approached professional development through transformative correctional communication, data driven decision making and implementing PLCs. The PLC model is based on four critical questions: 

  • What do we want the student to learn? 
  • How will we know if they have learned? 
  • What will we do if they don't learn? And, 
  • What will we do if they already know it? 

Join the discussion and pose your question from our experts. Learn about the success in their professional development model, and discover how this can be implemented at your institution. 

Kathy Tracey



Sudie and Marian, 

Thank you for sharing your experience and expertise on Professional Learning Communities in Prisons. It appears this project began with the development of the Student success Initiative which focused on creating equity for all inmates receiving educational services and includes an emphasis on PLCs. Can you provide us with a bit of background on PLCs and why this approach was selected? 

I'm looking forward to learning more about your approach. 

Kathy Tracey

Thanks for inviting us to share our experience on the list, Kathy. The concept of Professional Learning Communities has been around for a long time, developed by the DuFours and their colleagues, and many teachers from the K12 system are familiar with it. The idea is that teachers and staff collaborate to focus on student learning. They share lessons, develop common formative assessments that enable them to compare results, and then they think together about how to improve learning outcomes across the program. As you can imagine, it takes time to develop the collaborative approach and there is a lot of team building initially. It's worth the time it takes, though, because the results have been significant.

In California we have been doing PLC training for adult educators for a number of years, so there are some schools where it's been in place for quite a while, and some where maybe it was going strong for a while and then there was a change of leadership or staff that slowed it down or even ended it for a while. It does take a commitment of time and effort to make sure the collaboration happens. We are lucky in California to have visionary and dedicated educational leadership in the prison system who determined to support the development of PLCs in all 35 California prisons. This was a new concept to many corrections teachers, and familiar mainly to some who had come from K12 and were excited about implementing the process in their new environment. As you saw in our article, we (American Institutes for Research) trained a team from each prison in the concepts and practice of PLCs. This was part of a larger vision that the Office of Correctional Education had for increasing student learning for inmates. My colleague Sudie Whalen can say more about the correctional education Student Success Initiative and the role that PLCs play.

While we did use the DuFour PLC model, PLCs have a bit of a long history dating back to the 1960s beginning with Susan Rosenholtz’s study on learning-enriched schools. You can read more about it here: History of PLC. PLCs, how we primarily see them implemented now, are typically based on the DuFour model that emerged in the late 1990s. 


The student success initiative had three specific focuses: informed use of data, Transformative Corrections Communication, and professional learning community implementation. It all began with a focus on equity for corrections education students across all 36 CDCR schools. The focus of the student success initiative was to assure students, regardless of which yard or prison they were in, could receive an education from teachers who were skilled at collaborative planning for standards and assessments, as well as make data-based decisions specific to instruction, and provide feedback in a positive manner. The PLC approach worked well in congruence with the data and communication pieces because a strong PLC in corrections needs all of those things to work well.


Thanks for sharing the history and purpose of both PLCs and the Student Success Initiave. One of the goals of the PLC appears to be focused on engaging all staff members. How did this project improve the connection between adult education, CTE, and library staff? What outcomes we're achieved and what barriers did you experience in this process?

It was somewhat of a challenge to engage all staff, because people were kind of siloed in their jobs, as we all are it seems. For example, the libraries in prisons are funded, I believe, to be law libraries where people can do research on their case, so the librarians didn't necessarily have a lot of contact with the instructors. So building those bridges was a goal. There are a lot of ways that the librarians can support the classes, and vice versa, but it took shining a light on the issue to come up with ideas. We spent some time with each group brainstorming about how the library and the classroom could support each other. Some of the ideas were that the libraries could order the textbooks and reading books the classes were using, the classes could bring their students for a tour of the library (which is more challenging than you might think in a prison environment where people can't just move around freely), they could agree on vocabulary words or maybe a math skill like adding fractions to highlight for the week, the teachers could help organize book carts for the library with books they want their students to read. In other words, there are a lot of possibilities, but it takes concerted focus, effort and support to make them happen. 

Another good synergy was between CTE teachers and basic skills teachers. Many of the skills taught in the prisons have a national certification that students want to pass, and that involves reading and writing, not just pipe fitting or brick laying, so there was motivation there to work together. In some cases, the education program was able to either coordinate or provide tutors for the CTE classes to address basic skill needs. But still, it takes time, focus and effort to make those things happen and to sustain the effort. None of these things happened overnight. 

I cannot stress the importance of distributive leadership and administrator buy-in enough. Not just in corrections, but in general. With distributive leadership administrators and state leaders looking to implement PLCs on this level need to adopt a simultaneously loose and tight approach. Optimally administrative control of the PLC process is loose enough that teams have some level of autonomy in determining instructional practices and how they will assess standards; however, the administrative control also needs to be tight enough to assure the teams are adhering to school, district, or state-wide initiatives and decisions. For example, if a state has adopted a specific set of standards we would expect the teams to use those standards but decide on which one(s) they want to begin unpacking and assessing via common formative assessments in order to support the state's goal of standards implementation.

There is a really great article by Trenton Goble (2012) that explains Leadership in the PLC and how administrators can support the PLC process. 

It is my opinion that lack of administrative support can completely derail PLC sustainability. It is not enough to allow teams to meet and say "we're a PLC school."  It's important to support those leading the implementation process and facilitating the PLCs, especially in the beginning. Additionally, if the administrators are too controlling of the process it becomes too much of a top-down situation and teachers will be less likely to want to take ownership of it. There were a number of schools within CDCR that really shined - they all had principles that were great at distributing leadership; they knew how to support the teachers and publically support the process without taking over. 

I'm curious to know if jail and prison programs in other states are implementing PLCs, and how it's going. I know Oregon was considering this, and Arizona had done some PLC work. Can any of you chime in about how that works or might work in your system?

In California, ABE, HSE, CTE, coaches, TV programming,  and Library services fall under the Office of Correctional Education (OCE) and are all part of the adult education process in prisons. For this reason, OCE really wanted to ensure all adult education staff was part of the PLC process. The most growth came from simply asking them to brainstorm how they could help and support each other. We saw quite a few instances of these brainstorm ideas come to fruition. For example, we saw Librarians doing books of the week based on what was happening in ABE classrooms and adding CTE textbooks to the library for students to use outside of class time. We saw coaches unpacking standards with HSE teachers and developing games to help enforce math standards. We saw TV specialists airing movies based on books after they had been completed in an HSE class as well as showing educational information to support what was happening in the classrooms. We saw ABE teachers assisting CTE students with math and reading. We started to see a lot of cross-pollination between the departments. None of these things happened because we told them to, we just asked the question, they took the ball and ran with it, but as Marian stated: "it takes time, focus and effort to make those things happen and to sustain the effort."