Effective Professional Learning Strategies
(That Actually Work)
Every educator is familiar with professional learning — although historically, this has often meant workshops after school, expert-led seminars and going to conferences. In recent years, the focus has shifted away from putting in hours, and toward learning experiences that demonstrably improve teaching and learning.
So what differentiates effective professional learning from that which isn’t?
What Constitutes Effective Professional Learning?
Every educator is familiar with professional learning — although historically, this has often meant workshops after school, expert-led seminars and going to conferences. In recent years, the focus has shifted away from putting in hours, and toward learning experiences that demonstrably improve teaching and learning. So what differentiates effective professional learning from that which isn’t?
A quick and easy (we promise) legal primer provides some helpful context…
In 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced No Child Left Behind as the most recent reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The law enacts a shift from specific regulation of what is done in K12 to a standard for how it is done, leaving schools with more programmatic and fiscal flexibility and purporting a broader idea of academic success. With implementation resting squarely on their own shoulders, school districts have both the exciting opportunity and the weighty responsibility to make changes that truly work for them.
One area addressed by ESSA holds particular scope for effective change: professional learning (PL), or professional development (PD). ESSA lays out specific criteria for what effective professional learning looks like, but district leaders decide what they want to accomplish and must set out to make it happen.
According to ESSA, professional development should not only be provided for all educators and designed to enable students to succeed academically, it should also be:
The Difference Between Ineffective and Effective PD With ESSA
Historically, professional learning has tended toward the ineffective end of the PD continuum: teachers attend a workshop, lecture or meeting, passively listen and check it off the list of things that must be done. Once it’s over, they may never think about it again. On the other end of the continuum is a more dynamic professional learning experience, in which teachers are engaged in learning that will immediately and lastingly affect their pedagogical practice and enable them to reach students effectively. The question is, how does the move from one end of the continuum to the other happen?
As you think about the professional learning program in your school system, here are five essential questions to ask — and a look at how ESSA influences each.
What data analysis would allow evaluation of how effective professional learning efforts have been over the 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 this classroom, school or district?
With that backdrop, building leaders must decide how they will collect the kind of evidence they need to provide meaningful feedback to teachers.
To what degree were 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.
It’s important to develop a strategic professional learning system that helps district offices collaborate and share data to make decisions. This includes strengthening the connections between district, building and individual teacher goals to create alignment, so that coherence can flourish.
Did job-embedded learning structures have the support needed to function effectively last year?
ESSA allows ample opportunity for educators to create their own learning paths. This stretches them well beyond simply tracking completion, hours and credits. Effective professional learning is 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 and PLCs and in collaboration between educators, to name a few. System leaders 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.
Were technology tools effectively used to extend, enhance and document evidence of the effectiveness of professional learning?
When it comes to professional learning, ESSA emphasizes transparency. This often requires districts to evaluate their professional learning technology solutions. Do these solutions 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 has innovation in professional learning looked like during the last year?
The notion of flexibility is woven throughout ESSA, which opens the door to great possibility!
Giving all educators a voice in their professional learning — including in areas like goal-setting and by using individual learning plans — can play a vital role in this. Flexible mechanisms for state reporting are also helpful. One key question to ponder: “As we engage our teachers, giving them greater choice and possibilities for innovation, what processes and tools do we have in place?”
Does Today’s Professional Learning Rise to ESSA’s Standard?
Much (if not most) of the professional development offered today still leans toward the ineffective side of the spectrum. In 2017, the Frontline Research & Learning Institute published “Bridging the Gap,” a look at how professional development activities measured up to the criteria set forth in ESSA. While learning opportunities met some criteria more often, such as “classroom-focused” and “job-embedded,” other targets were frequently missed.
Why is Effective Professional Learning so Elusive?
Because ESSA includes a “new” definition of professional development, education is experiencing a new “era of accountability.” There has been a flood of articles and blogs with a focus on professional learning effectiveness, such as “The Mirage,” TNTP’s much-publicized 2015 report about the state of professional learning today. With all this publicity, it’s clear that the elements of effective professional learning are well understood and have been for many years. So while the ongoing dialog is commendable, it does raise a question: why are schools typically no closer to implementing those strategies?
By 1995 there was significant research on effective professional learning structures. Thomas R. Guskey [i] and M.G. Fullan [ii] 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 and intensive). Going back to 1983, Malcolm Knowles wrote about the benefits of collaborative professional development that is active and promotes sharing and discussion. [iii] The 2001 Learning Forward Standards (formerly NSDC Standards) included “collaboration,” “design” and “data-driven” among them (the current version of the standards may be found here).
There’s no doubt that the goal is well-established. The problem is that after all this time, success seems to be no closer than it was back in the 1980s. In most professional learning opportunities, teachers participate in 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.
- The Frontline Research & Learning Institute’s 2016 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.
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 report on professionally related absences found that 43% of school administrators say that interdepartmental collaboration is rare — or nonexistent — in developing more effective means for facilitating professional development. Another 38% indicated some collaboration. Only 19% of school administrators indicated that there was heavy interdepartmental collaboration towards effective professional learning.
Levels of Interdepartmental Collaboration Towards Effective Professional Learning
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 the implementation of proven effective professional learning designs. They inhibit 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.
Developing an Effective Professional Learning Strategy
Entire books have been written on professional learning strategy, yet below are some key points to keep in mind as you seek to improve your own PL program.
Reconsider How to Approach Teacher Evaluations
School leaders may not have considered that professional learning and teacher evaluations are two sides of the same coin. When teacher evaluations are used punitively, they tend to foster an atmosphere of distrust, and a teacher who goes into an evaluation in a defensive position is not likely to receive criticism as constructive. But when teacher evaluations are used as a tool to open communication, guide professional learning and support teacher growth, they have the chance to become a valuable resource.
District leaders can use teacher evaluations to start a conversation about how professional learning can support teachers in capitalizing on their strengths and addressing areas of need — and how even a current “failure” can be the springboard to success. When leaders and teachers share the goal of a constructive conversation, they can make real progress toward achieving the goal of improved education for each student.
Give Teachers “Voice and Choice” in Their Learning
One of the simplest ways, at least in principle, to both establish an atmosphere of supportive trust and implement effective professional development is to involve teachers in choosing their own PD. Rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach, consider whether professional learning opportunities are meeting each teacher’s individual needs, providing learning that evolves over the course of a career as the teacher evolves. Adopting a more flexible approach is a challenge, but one that will certainly reward the extra effort it requires.
Offer Professional Development for All Staff (Not Just Teachers)
Teachers aren’t the only educators in the district, of course. Bus drivers, monitors, security officers, cafeteria workers — they all play an important role in education.
One school district in New York, Greece Central, has discovered the value of having certified and non-certified staff alike pursue excellence through professional learning. As their Director of Professional Learning, Marguerite Dimgba, says “Teachers are obviously our big chunk of our time, our major focus, and they really have that direct link with students. But if you think about when a student wakes up in the morning, and they get on the school bus, that’s the first person who interacts with them…. Everyone is supported in the process no matter what their position is.”
How to Model a Professional Learning Program
There are many ways districts choose to offer professional learning, and in no way is this list comprehensive. But as technology continues to advance the ways in which it’s possible to learn, as well as to bring people together to learn, here are a few different models, both traditional and not-so-traditional.
Collaborative Model: In-Service Based Professional Development
Though school districts in our country spend approximately $18 billion dollars on professional development each year, the vast majority of it is delivered using traditional “in-service” experiences, which studies have shown yield little results for the participating teachers. [iv]
There are many reasons for this scarcity of impact, but one of the most obvious is the lack of personalization of in-service experiences. When large groups of faculty are brought together to participate in a single event, many in attendance will find that the event is not a good use of their time.
Let’s examine an example to highlight why this is an issue.
If the faculty of a school are gathered to discuss classroom management techniques, experienced teachers will likely mentally check out; they couldn’t have handled classrooms for a decade if they hadn’t already developed effective classroom management techniques. For those faculty, a focus on educational technology, student diversity (English Language Learners and students with special needs) or changing standards would likely be a better use of their time.
But inexperienced teachers do need the classroom management development. They might not be ready to focus on educational technology (or may already have proficiency in that area), or student diversity, or standards which haven’t “changed” for them because they are new anyway.
So why persist in using in-service workshops as a major form of professional development delivery for our educators?
One word: collaboration.
Most education experts who have focused on teacher effectiveness agree that teacher collaboration has a significant impact on teacher improvement. The benefit of bringing more- and less-experienced faculty together has been demonstrated through research, and most teachers will cite the influence of mentors as a major factor in the formation of the skills and techniques that have helped them to achieve success.
Targeted Model: Online Professional Development
It is clear why the addition of online professional development opportunities, whether asynchronous (self-paced) modules or synchronous webinars, could be seen as a solution to the question of how to provide personalized professional development opportunities for faculty.
If participants do not have to attend at the same time and place, they can seek out the opportunities they believe are the most important to their own improvement and success.
They can even be provided with opportunities based upon their own personal observation results. Just as educators are working to better differentiate learning experiences for our students, district leaders can do the same for their educators, who are also lifelong learners.
However, it is also clear that such targeted professional development resources, despite the fact that they allow for the personalization and targeting, could be seen as less collaborative.
Targeted and Collaborative Model: Flipped Professional Development
One emerging solution to help provide professional development that is both targeted and collaborative is to leverage online professional development using a “flipped” model, just like with students in the classroom. How would this work?
Part One of the Flip: Online and Asynchronous Content
Teachers can engage in professional development online and at their own pace. They select the topics of interest to them, those identified by observation as being useful or topics that are selected by a specific but relevant group such as their department or cohort (for example, math department, new teachers).
Part Two of the Flip: Engaging Professional Learning Communities in Discussion
After engaging with the content, educators will meet in professional learning communities. PLCs can be online or in person, but when they are structured so that they are within the same school or district, they will be most useful because the local details will be consistent: the student body, the environment, the grade level or department.
The more natural connection there is between the teachers, the more discussions will lead to the application of skills.
[ii] 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.
[iii] Knowles, M. (1983). Adults are not grown up children as learners. Community Services Catalyst, 13(4), 4-8.
[iv] Horn, M. B., & Goldstein, M. (2018, August 30). Putting School Budgets in Teachers’ Hands: What if end-users in the classroom made purchasing decisions? Retrieved July 9, 2019, from https://www.educationnext.org/putting-school-budgets-in-teachers-hands-end-users-classroom-purchasing-decisions/