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Paddling Through ESSA: 5 Next Steps for Professional Learning

Professional Learning

With one hand grasping tightly to summer and the mind dabbling in thoughts of back-to-school, we’re in that gray area that is late July. While in some regions kids will transform once again into students next week, others grin with the belief that Labor Day is still far, far away.

What did you learn or generate this summer that will help ensure that professional learning in your system fosters the best year yet for every educator and student?

Maybe you really dove into the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), internalized the new definition of professional learning and sorted through the implications for your organization. Maybe you’re ready to go with a clear vision, plan, expected outcomes and structures to measure application and student impact. Or, perhaps your robust intentions were somehow buried beneath beach towels and half-used bottles of sunscreen.

It’s not too late! The dog days are perfect for looking beneath the surface of ESSA.

According to ESSA, professional development should be:

  • provided for all educators
  • designed to enable students to succeed in core subjects and meet State standards
  • sustained
  • intensive
  • job-embedded
  • data-driven
  • classroom-focused

A few weeks ago, we explored 5 Essential Questions to Ask Now to Shape Professional Learning for Next Year. Now let’s consider the influence of ESSA in each area.

What data can we analyze to evaluate how effective our professional learning efforts have been over this past year?

ESSA states that professional learning must be data-driven and targeted to specific educator needs. But beyond that, it must also be regularly evaluated to determine whether or not it produces changes in practice. This is a broader conception of what it means to be “evidence-based.” Gone are the NCLB days of strict “scientifically-based research.” The current focus is on making sure that professional learning makes a difference in the classroom. The evidence can be very local — what’s proving effective in my classroom, school or district?

With that backdrop, have you decided how your building leaders will collect the kind of evidence they need to provide meaningful feedback to your teachers?

To what degree were our professional learning efforts aligned and coherent?

ESSA calls for PD that is part of broader school improvement plans — a systems approach that highlights the interactive nature of recruitment, educator development, retention, ongoing learning, and growth and advancement.  The goal is to build a unified approach for supporting excellent educators throughout the cycle of their careers.

Are you developing a strategic professional learning system that helps your district offices collaborate and share data to make decisions? Strengthen the connections between your system, building, and teacher goals to create alignment, so that coherence can flourish.

Did our job-embedded learning structures have the support needed to function effectively last year?

I’m especially delighted to see ample opportunity for educators to create their own learning paths under ESSA. This stretches us well beyond simply tracking completion, hours and credits. It’s about individuals, pairs and learning teams defining and working toward their learning goals — based, of course, on student needs from day to day, week to week and month to month.

It’s recognizing that most of the answers are within the building today — within coaching pairs, PLCs and in collaboration between educators, to name a few. As system leaders, we need to create settings for educators to access and apply those profoundly relevant insights and integrate a variety of supplemental just-in-time content and other resources as needed.

Did we effectively use technology tools to extend, enhance and document evidence of the effectiveness of professional learning? 

When it comes to professional learning, ESSA emphasizes transparency. Take a close look at your technology solutions. Do they make it easy to collect and report on multiple data points, including teacher qualifications, how professional learning is applied and the impact it has on teaching? If all educators and leaders can access this data, they’ll be better able to collaborate, and together can take responsibility for planning, monitoring implementation and reviewing outcomes.

What did innovation in professional learning look like for us during the last year?

The notion of flexibility is woven throughout ESSA, which opens the door to great possibility!

As you build on the work you did last year, you can give all educators a voice in their professional learning — goal-setting and individual learning plans can play a key role in this. As you engage your teachers, giving them greater choice and possibilities for innovation, what processes and tools do you have in place? Be sure that you have flexible mechanisms for state reporting, too.


ESSA’s clear definition of high-quality professional learning has created renewed opportunities for school systems, but the core tenets are not new. Many of us have been working for years to realize this “new definition.” Maybe the strength of ESSA is that it formalizes what our own action research and broader studies have shown to be effective. Maybe because these best practices have been written into “law,” they will better resist the ebb and flow of district priorities.

I hope that school and district leaders will be emboldened to make decisions around professional learning that pave the way for the greatest possible impact on educators and students.

Perhaps then it will become a little bit easier to loosen our collective grip on summer and move gracefully into the opening of the new year with confidence and inspiration.

About Juliet Correll

Senior Consultant

Juliet Correll is a dynamic senior leader dedicated to enhancing teaching and learning through more than two decades of working at the intersection of professional development and innovative technology. As a Learning Forward Academy graduate, with a Master’s from Teachers College, Columbia University, and an undergraduate degree in Elementary Education, Juliet has led all stages of development and implementation of large-scale teacher professional learning initiatives. Common threads include identifying student and educator learning needs, leveraging appropriate technology, incorporating effective adult learning designs, integrating team learning disciplines, monitoring application and assessing impact.