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The Experts Are in the Room: Engaging in Effective Professional Development

Professional Growth

Frontline Research & Learning Institute’s first installment of a new report series, Bridging the Gap, analyzes anonymized data from Frontline Professional Growth in light of the Every Student Succeeds Act’s definition of effective professional development.

The findings are sobering.

As the report details, current offerings, by and large, fail to meet four of the six criteria for effective professional development. According to the data, 80% or more of offerings are not sufficiently sustained, intensive, collaborative or data-driven.

Time to scrap everything and start over, right?for 4 out of 6 criteria, 80 percent or more of the professional development offered and participated in by teaching professionals failed to meet the federal definition

Thankfully, not necessarily. We do face a lot of work in bringing the majority of professional development up to standard. But that doesn’t mean we must recreate entire programs. With a clear understanding of ESSA’s criteria for effective professional development, we can assess, revise and reorganize existing offerings as needed.

In many instances, educators and administrators are already engaging in high-quality, if one-off, professional development activities. What’s missing may be the “glue” that can connect many of these activities together. By auditing their current PD with the ESSA criteria and their own professional learning plans in view, school systems can assess where they stand with regard to the criteria, pinpoint which activities fall short on their own and determine whether any related activities fail to connect with one another.

We can also look at current thinking about best professional development practices in light of the criteria.

And we can all ask how observation cycles can help foster cycles of continuous improvement that embody the criteria.

Let’s take a closer look at where professional development falls short right now, according to the criteria Bridging the Gap identifies:

  • Sustained: taking place over an extended period; longer than one day or a one-time workshop.
  • Intensive: focused on a discreet concept, practice or program.
  • Collaborative: involving multiple educators, educators and coaches or set of participants grappling with the same concept or practice and in which participants work together to achieve shared understanding.
  • Data-driven: based upon and responsive to real time information about the needs of participants and their students.
Look Backward to Move Forward

Though recently-articulated by ESSA, these criteria are not new concepts, and a quick glance at past scholarship can help us find ways of meeting them. For example, a 2013 Learning Forward report,  Learning Plans: A Workbook for States, Districts, and Schools (Killion), outlines the strategic thought process, practical steps and tools for developing short- and long-term professional learning plans that, implemented properly, would meet all six criteria, let alone the four where we’re falling short.

We’ve long had access to practical, expert guidance on how to create and implement effective professional development programs. Let’s pause and reflect for a moment in light of the ESSA criteria:

  • Where have schools lost their focus on effective professional development because other initiatives have taken precedence?
  • Have we allocated enough time in the schedule to ensure that professional learning can be sustained over time?
  • Are schools conducting professional development activities but lacking the evidence or tools to prove they are happening?
  • How are we measuring the impact of our professional development activities to ensure that the learning is being applied effectively in our classrooms?
We’re in This Together

Many schools have conducted Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) since the early 2000s. A PLC has a distinct focus determined by the analysis of student data. Team members collaborate to implement a systematic approach that analyzes and implements research-based instructional strategies over a period of time, most likely over an entire academic school year. Sustained, intensive, collaborative, data-driven — doesn’t this meet all of the criteria? Perhaps this provides us with an opportunity to take inventory and reflect on whether and how we are following through and implementing PLCs with fidelity. Additionally, let’s ensure we are tracking their progress and our teams stay focused in a systematic way.

Observe and Learn

Maybe there are other activities already happening in schools that also may meet ESSA standards. Instructional coaches, peer observers and mentors often use an observation cycle or process when working collaboratively. They determine a focus area, participate in live or video observation to reflect on instructional strategies, align their comments and feedback to an observation rubric and then discuss whether or not they were effective. Most often they conduct another round of this process to try a different approach based on student outcomes from the lesson. This leads to another cycle. Again, doesn’t this meet all of the criteria? Do you have an effective way to track the goals, strategies and outcomes of these activities? Are you providing a survey to all who participated to see how you could modify and refine the practice to be more effective?

Pause and Reflect

The new ESSA Standards and this report can serve as catalysts that will encourage districts and schools to pause and reflect. How do we accurately track the wide-variety of professional development activities in our district? How do we measure the impact that our activities have on our student achievement? Do we align professional development plans, observation data and professional development activities to ensure that we provide the best support for our teachers and staff? And what types of tools are available to assist in order to streamline the process so we can focus on achieving instructional change and student achievement?

The experts, as they say, are already in the room. We know — you know — what effective professional development looks like, what it can achieve.  And by reflecting on what we already do well and what we can do better in light of ESSA, we can do more than just meet criteria.

We can thrive as learning professionals who together make sure every student succeeds.

Erik Drobey

For the past 15 years, Erik has worked to support educators and instructional leaders.