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Why Is Effective Professional Learning so Elusive?

Professional Learning

It happens to all of us, every day. Even though we know the “correct” course of action, we take the path of least resistance. We may even have a reasonable excuse. You know the drill: I know I should get up early to go to the gym. But it’s been a tough week at work — I deserve the extra rest. Then we’re surprised when we don’t get the desired results, because while the excuse may be valid, it doesn’t help us stay in shape.

The occasional excuse may be harmless, but avoiding challenging tasks keeps us from our goals. It results in frustration. It might even make us completely abandon our original goal. Yet all too often we repeat the same patterns again and again, wondering why we haven't arrived at our goals.

If envisioning our goals brings such a sense of fulfillment, gratification and success, why don't we ever seem to get there?

Renewed conversation around professional learning

You may have read "The Mirage" — TNTP's much-publicized report about the state of professional learning today. The recent Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) includes a "new" definition of professional development. Education is experiencing a new "era of accountability.” And we’ve seen a flood of articles and blogs with a focus on professional learning effectiveness. It’s clear that we understand the elements of effective professional learning, and we have for many years.  So while I applaud the dialog, I can’t help but wonder why we’re no closer to implementing those strategies.

By 1995 there was significant research on effective professional learning structures.  Thomas R. Guskey1 and M.G. Fullan2 both published research concluding that professional development should connect to teachers’ needs and concerns and seamlessly integrate into the school day (job-embedded).  That same year, Guskey noted that effective professional development is a recursive and continual process that takes place over time (sustained & intensive). Going back to 1983, Malcolm Knowles wrote about the benefits of collaborative professional development that is active and promotes sharing and discussion.3 The 2001 Learning Forward Standards (formerly NSDC Standards) included Collaboration, Design & Data-Driven among them (the current version of the standards may be found here).

All this sounds a lot like the "new" 2015 ESSA definition that calls for professional development to be:

  • Sustained
  • Intensive
  • Collaborative
  • Job-embedded
  • Data-driven
  • Classroom-focused

There’s no doubt that the goal is well-established. The problem is that after all this time, we’re no closer to meeting that goal than we were back in the 1980's.  Most professional learning opportunities our teachers participate in are short-term workshops with few of the learning designs we know are effective. 

Why isn’t professional development where it needs to be?

What are the excuses that are keeping us from reaching the goal?

Not enough funding?  For many districts, this probably isn’t the case. Consider:

  • Title II funding has been available for many years.

  • "The Mirage" report concluded schools are spending an average of $18,000 on PD annually — per teacher.

  • Our own Frontline Research & Learning Institute report on professionally related absences found that 10% of all employee absences each year are for professional development. That’s a lot of money and lost instructional time devoted to professional development that is, in most cases, ineffective.

Too busy?  Maybe.  But there is a direct connection between setting priorities and finding time.  Is implementing sustainable job-embedded professional learning a priority in your organization?

Lack of collaboration?  Very possibly.  That same Professionally-Related Absences report found that 43% of school administrators say that interdepartmental collaboration is rare — or nonexistent — in developing more effective means for facilitating professional development. 38% indicated some collaboration. Only 19% of school administrators indicated that there was heavy interdepartmental collaboration towards effective professional learning.  It takes a village.

Interdepartmental Collaboration in Developing More Effective PD


Not sure how to take that first step, and overwhelmed by the enormity of redesigning an entire professional learning program?  Probably.  Everything we know about reaching difficult goals begins with first taking small, successful steps.  Success breeds more success. Small, measurable accomplishments can help garner support from others, free up resources and even rearrange priorities.

These excuses — and probably many more — prevent us from implementing proven effective professional learning designs. They keep us from truly engaging teachers, supporting their ongoing growth and impacting student outcomes. Even worse, they may lead to frustration, ineffectiveness, teacher retention problems and even a culture of apathy.

Professional learning resources

The good news is that, along with the many articles and blogs on effective professional learning, there is an unprecedented number of vetted resources available through organizations like Learning Forward, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wallace Foundation.  These can help identify strategies that are working (either in-house or elsewhere), build implementation plans and measure progress.  We can start small, take one step at a time and build on small achievements. That will give us the opportunity to meet our goals and experience the sense of fulfillment, gratification, and success that we, our teachers and — more importantly — our students deserve.

What about you?

What does professional learning look like in your school or district? Does it live up to ESSA’s definition of being sustained, intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven and classroom-focused? If not, why not? What is preventing you from implementing PD that meets these criteria?

We want to hear about it. Join the conversation on LinkedIn , Twitter or Facebook.

1 Guskey, T.R. (1995). Professional development in education: In search of the optimal mix. In T. Guskey and M. Huberman (Eds.), Professional Development in Education: New Paradigms and Practices (pp. 114-131) New York: Teachers College Press.
2 Fullan, M.G. (1995). The limits and the potential of professional development. In T. Guskey and M. Huberman (Eds.), Professional Development in Education: New Paradigms and Practices (pp. 253-267). New York: Teachers College Press.
3 Knowles, M. (1983). Adults are not grown up children as learners. Community Services Catalyst, 13(4), 4-8.


About Elizabeth Combs

Managing Director, Frontline Research & Learning Institute

Elizabeth Combs began her career as an elementary school teacher and Director of Administrative and Instructional Technology at Patchogue-Medford School District before moving to Imperial Software Systems, a professional learning services company, where she eventually served as President. She then held positions at My Learning Plan Inc. as President and Chief Strategy Officer. 

With degrees from the State University of New York at Geneseo and Teachers College, Columbia University, Ms. Combs has a passion for leveraging technology to support educator growth and over two decades of experience developing solutions rooted in best practices for professional development.