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Report: Data-Driven and Classroom-Focused Professional Development

Professional Learning

A look at the data with Elizabeth Combs of the Frontline Research & Learning Institute



When the Every Student Succeeds Act was signed in December 2015, educators working in professional learning (as well as in every other area of education) took note. In particular, the criteria defining effective professional development grabbed K-12 administrators’ attention.

The “new” definition of professional development wasn’t surprising —making sure learning is sustained, intensive, collaborative, and so on may not be easy — but the theory behind it isn’t new. But is it being practiced?

That question is at the heart of Bridging the Gap, a series of reports from the Frontline Research & Learning Institute. The Institute just released part 4 of the series, tackling the final 2 criteria in ESSA: “data-driven” and “classroom-focused.” Bridging the Gap looks at anonymized data from the professional development experiences of educators across the country and asks, “How close are we to this ideal?”

We spoke with Elizabeth Combs, Managing Director of the Frontline Research & Learning Institute to ask her what they found.

[Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.]

Tell me about the methodology you used in this fourth installment of Bridging the Gap. How has the Frontline Research & Learning Institute been looking at these criteria to evaluate the state of professional learning today?

ELIZABETH COMBS: We started with data from over 200 school districts, which represents more than 100,000 teaching professionals who have participated in over 3.2 million professional learning activities over the last five years.

We developed a set of definitions for each of the six criteria that are included in the ESSA definition, then identified what metrics we can use to help districts determine the extent to which the PD they're offering actually meets those criteria. Throughout the reports we identify [certain] districts where data pointed to high alignment for one or more of the criteria, and included them throughout the series to understand how districts can shift their professional learning programs to be more in alignment with best practice.

Let's start with the idea of professional learning that is “data-driven.” What do we mean by that?

EC: While these criteria are included in the [ESSA] definition, they're never defined. We took a stab at defining each of them in a way that can be measured. For “data-driven,” we defined it as professional learning that is based upon, and responsive to, real-time information about the needs of participants and their students.

What's important about this concept? We have data all over the place — in virtually every facet of our lives — why does this matter so much within professional learning?

EC: That's a great question, because it's a common area of confusion. What the criteria is not about is simply learning about or using data as part of a professional learning experience. It's about analyzing teacher and student data to identify specific areas of need or focus, and then participating in professional learning opportunities that directly support those needs. It's about using data to identify, “Where are the areas that my students need the most help, and what can I learn as a professional to support them in that area?”

What are sources of data that districts could use to drive professional learning?

EC: There's a lot of data available. The question is really, “What are the best sources [of data] that a district can use in the most effective way?” There are obvious ways of pulling data: assessments to identify areas where students consistently struggle. Teacher evaluation data to focus individual professional learning opportunities based on individual needs. And surveys, self-assessments, peer feedback, professional learning communities and conversations that can help in identifying teacher practice and areas of focus.

What did you find in your research? Have districts succeeded in providing data-driven professional learning?

EC: Unfortunately, the story isn't so great. We found that only eight percent of the professional learning that's being offered is data-driven. This is particularly concerning because it indicates that, while many of the professional learning opportunities that teachers engage in may be important, they're not necessarily being determined by their individual needs or the specific needs of their students.

What does professional learning that's not data-driven look like?

EC: Generally, professional learning that has been offered as a one-size-fits-all workshop would not be considered data-driven. Forward-thinking organizations are thinking through how to individualize or personalize professional learning so it's not one-size-fits-all, so individuals can engage in professional learning that meets their very specific needs.

Let's say I work in professional learning at a school district, and I'm trying to move our program in a more data-driven direction. What are some of the steps I should take? What are the questions I should be asking?

EC: I think the key is to start small — there are so many small steps a professional learning director can take, rather than trying to turn the Titanic by revamping their entire program. For instance, they can start by asking, “To what extent are professional learning activities that teachers are participating in selected based on rationale that includes data on their own, or their students', needs?”

Another question is, “To what extent is the data being used to select professional learning related to daily teaching activities or student outcomes?” Just asking those questions of participants at the point when they're enrolling in opportunities will help set expectations and start them thinking about how professional learning impacts their daily practice.
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You looked in depth at Greece Central School District in New York. They're a district that takes the ESSA criteria quite seriously, and as they've worked to realize a more data-driven model, you note that it has led to some changes that have shown promising results.

EC: They're doing some amazing things with their professional learning program at Greece Central. And they've seen many exciting results. One has to do with teacher retention, something that we might not generally think about in the context of an outcome from an effective professional learning program. Greece Central’s teacher turnover fell from 22% in 2014 to 18% during the '15-'16 year. That's such an important metric to think about, given the current teacher shortage and the challenges that districts are facing.

Let’s look the last criteria for professional learning in ESSA: “classroom-focused.” How do you define “classroom-focused” in Bridging the Gap?

EC: We refer to classroom-focused professional learning as learning that is related to the practices taking place during the teaching process and relevant instructional processes. In other words, “As a teacher, are you learning skills, concepts or strategies that are directly related to what and who you are teaching every day?” That might seem like an obvious concept, but if we go back to a one-size-fits-all environment of professional development, it's almost impossible to provide PD that's directly related to what everyone is teaching at the same time.

There's some encouraging news here, right? What did you find as you looked at the data?

EC: We found very encouraging news here. We found that 85% of the activities that were offered were aligned to the InTASC standards directly related to teaching practice. We define that to mean that 85% of activities offered were, in fact, classroom-focused.

Classroom-focused learning has obvious benefits —stronger teaching, better learning, more improved student outcomes, etc. — but you write that it can also help to clarify professional learning itself. How so?

EC: The explicit connection between a professional learning activity and the standard of practice to which it's aligned helps clarify the nature of that activity. This process results in clear expectations regarding the nature of the professional learning being offered.

What are the action steps for any district seeking to make professional learning more classroom-focused?

EC: There are many small steps that those leading professional programs can begin to implement. Simply providing teachers with the opportunity to observe master teachers, participate in mentoring and, of course, continue to ensure learning activities are aligned to teaching standards, will all help move this type of professional learning forward. Do you have any words of encouragement for educators who might look at their professional learning programs and say, "Based on the criteria that the Every Student Succeeds Act gives us, we have a long way to go”?

EC: Start small, take baby steps and measure progress. The goal of the entire Bridging the Gap series is to provide leaders with ideas about how they can better align their programs with a best practice definition of professional learning, and to give them tools and metrics to measure their progress. We believe that’s the greatest value we're offering through the reports: being able to document the extent to which all of the resources and efforts put into providing effective professional learning are making an impact, based upon a set of measurable criteria.

You can download Bridging the Gap, parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 at the Frontline Research & Learning Institute, as well as listen to the full interview with Elizabeth Combs at the top of this page.

Is your educator professional learning data-driven and classroom-focused? Want to make the connection from educator needs to personalized professional learning? Check out Frontline’s connected solution for teacher evaluation and professional development now.

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About Ryan Estes

Ryan works at Frontline Education writing, blogging and creating content to support those working in K-12 education.