Professional Learning Communities in Corrections Education

The California prison system housed approximately 128,000 inmates in 2018, accounting for 9% of all state prison inmates in the United States. About 5,000 California inmates participate in adult education programs. Fifty-two percent of these inmates are in adult basic education, 17% of students are taking college courses either on site or via distance learning, 16% are taking career and technical education (CTE) classes, and 15% are taking high school equivalency or high school diploma classes.

Prison education programs have some unique characteristics that require creative thinking. To focus on increasing equity for all inmates receiving education services, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation created the Student Success Initiative, a three-pronged approach to improving instruction:

  1. Using the Transformative Correctional Communication approach to improve communication between teachers and inmates;
  2. Supporting teacher use of data to target instruction on student areas of weakness; and 
  3. Working with AIR to implement a professional learning community (PLC) in each of California’s 35 prisons.

AIR experts developed a four-day PLC Institute and piloted the training with all instructional and educational support staff at one prison. Based on the results of the pilot, the training was revised and adjusted, and then delivered regionally in the south, central, and northern areas of the state to PLC leadership teams from each prison. Participants focused on each of the seven aspects of building blocks, with interim assignments related to each:

  1. Mission, vision, values, and goals
  2. Collaborative teams and common formative assessments
  3. Distributive leadership
  4. Collective inquiry
  5. Action orientation
  6. Analysis of learning gains
  7. Results and continuous improvement orientation

AIR staff met with leadership groups for each position—basic skills instructors, career and technical education instructors, librarians, and others—to gather feedback on the PLC process and plan for future coaching and support at the institution level.