Professional Development for Teachers: What’s Important About ESSA’s Definition?

Professional Growth

With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), one sentence in particular has gotten the attention of educators who work in professional learning:

The term ‘professional development’ means activities that … are sustained (not stand-alone, 1-day, or short-term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused.

We spoke with a number of forward-thinking leaders in education to get their thoughts on the state of professional learning today, and posed the question, What’s important about this definition of professional development that ESSA puts forth?

I think professional learning has been so far away from that [new definition]. I think that teachers have received a lot of professional learning, but it hasn’t been based upon what the classroom and the  teacher really were looking for. Sometimes it has been a district initiative, like the flavor of the month. “This is the hot topic, we’re going to give it to all our teachers.” But how was that decision made that this professional development is what was needed?

What’s happening now is getting to really look at data and say, “What do we need to do to ensure that the instruction will help move that data?”

Alisia Moutry, Ph.D.— Alisia Moutry, Ph.D. President, 4AM Educational Consulting, LLC

It’s funny because I was reading it and it made me sort of laugh because I don’t really feel like it’s new. I’ve been doing this for 15 years and we’ve always talked about professional learning being job-embedded and sustained. I think sometimes what’s new or gets hyper-focused is the notion of data-driven. Sometimes I feel like people are so focused on the numbers that they forget that we’re in the business of educating children. I think data is certainly important, but lately, especially with a lot of new education laws, we get a little hyper-focused on the “data-driven.”

Marguerite Dimgba— Marguerite Dimgba Professional Learning Director, Greece Central School District, Greece, NY

What jumped out to me is the job-embedded aspect. “Job-embedded” would to me imply that instructional coaching is one of the ways that they expect for this to be carried out. I think instructional coaching is a really solid way for teachers to get some collaborative feedback. It tends to be a lot more real-time as well. Sometimes the data analysis, or the data-driven strategies, can be well after the fact. But job-embedded strategies tend to be real-time strategies, and collegial in nature, so that teachers are working with other teachers to improve their own practice.

David Weber, Ed.D.— David Weber, Ed.D. Director of Curriculum – Educational Programs, Hatboro-Horsham School District, Pennsylvania

The intention is to make professional learning impactful. That’s a good thing for certain. But how do we know if all of those attributes will make professional learning impactful? If you could operationally define and document those attributes, is one more powerful than the other? I don’t know. I think a lot of what is being said in ESSA regarding professional learning is still a bit speculative.

Dr. James Stronge— Dr. James Stronge President, Stronge and Associates Educational Consulting, LLC and Heritage Professor of Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership Area at the College of William and Mary

What I think is probably most important in terms of the new definition is that it’s aligned to the professional development standards that Learning Forward established. Having some alignment between what the definition is, and what the standards are, is a critical step in helping people embrace not only the definition, but also the standards, and helps people see how those two things work in tandem for the benefit of children.

The one characteristic that sticks out to me the most is the classroom-focused piece. Teacher training or professional learning just for the sake of learning, with no expressed interest in making sure that there’s some relationship to the classroom and how well students perform, is ludicrous.

Alan J. Ingram, Ed.D.— Alan J. Ingram, Ed.D. Education consultant and former Deputy Commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

As you consider professional learning in your own organization, what are your thoughts on this “new” definition? Will it change how you approach educator professional development? Does it leave anything out? Let us know on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.

You can also read the rest of the interview here.

Ryan Estes

Ryan is managing editor for the global award-winning creative team at Frontline Education. He spends his time writing, podcasting, and creating content for leaders in K-12 education.