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?
Supporting professional growth among your educators is a critical part of providing an outstanding educational experience to every student. But take a moment to reflect on professional development workshops you’ve been a part of throughout your career in education. Were they one-size-fits-all? Did they take place once in a blue moon? If these jog a memory, it’s likely the PD wasn’t very effective, and it probably didn’t make much of an impact in the classroom.
Professional development requires more than one-stop workshops, classroom observations, or offering feedback forms. It must be intentional. The recipe for true growth begins with an individualized learning process — one that gives educators a voice and choice, identifies strengths and areas for improvement, and promotes a collaborative learning culture.
In this piece, we’ll discuss the national landscape of professional development, best practices for an effective professional development program, resources for getting started, and more.
“Every great student deserves a great teacher, not by chance, but by design.”
- Fisher, Frey, Hattie, 2016
K-12 Professional Development Over the Years
Before we get into the nitty gritty of K-12 professional development, let’s take a look at where it started and how it’s evolved over time.
- Massachusetts Secretary of Education Horace Mann works to develop a system of training teachers throughout the state.
- Teachers College, Columbia University, NY, is founded with a focus on teacher preparation and the support of all children and all aspects of their well-being.
- President Lyndon Johnson signs the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which among other things, authorizes funds for professional development and other school resources
- Professional Learning Communities begin to take hold and represent a shift away from the sit-and-get model.
- NSDC's Standards for Staff Development are published.
- NSDC embarks on a 2-year project called “Evaluating Staff Development: Demonstrating Impact.”
- A year for big strides in professional development
- No Child Left Behind is signed by George W. Bush, calling for "highly qualified teachers" and all professional development funded through the law to include activities that “are not one-day or short-term workshops or conferences.”
- Joellen Killion releases the first edition of her book Assessing Impact, helping to shift the conversation around professional learning toward the impact on instruction and student outcomes.
- NSDC publishes Standards for Professional Development, the second iteration of the standards.
- President Barack Obama signs the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, providing $4.35B for the Race to the Top Fund. Among other things, Race to the Top incentivizes teacher evaluations based on multiple measures and tied to targeted professional development. Many states enact new legislation around teacher evaluations
- NDSC changes its name to Learning Forward to reflect a greater focus on educator growth to impact student outcomes. Less emphasis is placed on "seat time" and more on demonstrating outcomes and impact.
- The 3rd version of NDSC’s (now Learning Forward) standards, the Standards for Professional Learning, are published.
- President Barack Obama signs the ‘Every Student Succeeds Act’, which defines 6 key criteria for effective professional development: sustained, intensive, job-embedded, collaborative, data-driven and classroom-focused.
- The Frontline Research & Learning Institute publishes "Bridging the Gap,” showing that professional learning has a ways to go to meet the criteria laid out by ESSA.
- Learning Forward releases a newly revised Standards for Professional Learning, offering districts the latest insight into high-quality, effective professional development.
How the language around professional learning has evolved over timeRead now
What is Professional Learning for Teachers?
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 is described as the activities that:
“(A) are an integral part of school and local educational agency strategies for providing educators with the knowledge and skills necessary to enable students to succeed in a well-rounded education and to meet the challenging State academic standards; and...
“(B) are sustained, intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused.”
[S.1177, §8002 (42)]
ESSA’s 6 Standards for Professional Development
You’re likely already familiar with ESSA’s six standards for professional development, but for a refresher, it’s worth revisiting. The following definitions were defined by the Frontline Research & Learning Institute, and although your district may have differing definitions, the most important thing is that you have an aligned view amongst your department.
Taking place over an extended period; longer than one day or a one-time workshop.
Focused on a discreet concept, practice or program.
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.
A part of the ongoing, regular work of instruction and related to teaching and learning taking place in real time in the teaching and learning environment.
Based upon and responsive to real time information about the needs of participants and their students.
Related to the practices taking place during the teaching process and relevant to instructional process.
Ineffective vs Effective PD With ESSARead now
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. The Frontline Research & Learning Institute recently 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. Overall, less than 20% off district professional learning activities meet ESSA’s federal criteria.
According to the Frontline Research & Learning Institute’s national 2022 findings, school districts only met the standards (on average) as follows:
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.
- TNTP’s “The Mirage” report concluded schools are spending an average of $18,000 on PD annually — per teacher.
- According to Frontline Research & Learning Institute’s report on professionally related absences, 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.
The National Landscape for Professional Learning
Before diving into best practices, it’s important to understand what the current landscape of K-12 professional learning looks like. Why? Because understanding this foundation and working off of these building blocks will ultimately help drive a highly effective professional development program.
Here are three key major takeaways as outlined by Learning Forward’s Chief Learning Officer, Paul Fleming:
The role of leadership is crucial:
According to recent research from Vanderbilt University and Jason Grissom, high quality principals can contribute nearly 3 months of additional math and reading learning for students in their schools. “The principal makes it more likely the student gets the exposure to strong teaching’. This may also be driven by principals “engaging in instructionally focused interactions with teachers” and “facilitating productive collaboration and professional learning communities.”
Evidence-based and data driven:
Learning Forward identified that there is an “increasing interest and responsibility to use evidence based professional learning models and strategies to support educator growth and performance.”
Every student should have access to high quality learning. According to Learning Forward, “the current global crisis lays bare the long-standing structural and societal inequities that are barriers to high-quality teaching and learning for all children.”
PD Fast Facts
- According to Deloitte, organizations with a strong learning culture are “92% more likely to develop novel processes and function 52% more productively, with engagement rates up to 50% higher.”
- A D2L survey found that 71% of teachers are interested in on-demand learning, and 91% of teachers are interested in learning “targeted to each teacher’s specific unique needs”
Interested in watching the full on-demand webinar or downloading the presentation deck?Access now
The Do’s and Don’ts of Professional Learning
As educators seek to refine practices and improve student achievement, it is important for educational leaders to provide access to high-quality professional development that offers a timely response to individual needs. Each learning opportunity should demand thoughtful consideration to ensure it is the most appropriate option to support teacher growth.
Leaders should analyze situations, collaborate with key stakeholders, and evaluate anticipated results. Just as it is crucial for teachers in the classroom to engage in self-reflective practice, it is also important for those who organize professional development. The key question to answer: do the offerings provided truly meet the needs of teachers and staff?
You likely already have ESSA’s standards for professional development locked in, but there are other strategies that can support your efforts. Below are five things to enact and five things to avoid in order to ensure your district’s professional development meets the needs of your entire school community: teachers, staff, and students alike.
DO give teachers ‘voice and choice’ in their learning
Professional learning shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all. Note the importance of providing learning opportunities that address teacher’s individual unique needs. Giving teachers a voice in their learning will help to promote their agency and growth.
According to NEA, 20% of teachers “indicate that they have no input in their professional development”
DO align professional development to strategic goals
Do you use the term “data-driven” to describe effective professional learning? When proposing PD activities, teachers should identify how those activities align to the district’s strategic action plan in order to receive credit for them. Then, following each activity, require teachers to submit feedback.
DO offer PD for ALL staff
Teachers aren’t the only educators in a school district. Bus drivers, monitors, security officers, cafeteria workers – they all play a significant role in K12 education. Certified and non-certified staff should pursue excellence and growth through professional learning. Afterall, you never know where your next great educator will come from!
“The most important thing about talent development is that all employees need to feel valued, they need to be respected and their voices need to matter. The more we invest in them, the more payback the school system gets, and the more productive our operations are.”
- Mark Benigni, Meriden Public Schools
DO provide professional learning based on classroom observation results
Put on your forward-thinking goggles and view teacher observations as opportunities to collaboratively work toward greater teaching practice. Observations can also help districts understand if and how well teachers are implementing new practices, whether there are barriers to implementation, and what might be getting in their way.
DO apply learning to practice
The work doesn’t stop once a teacher completes their learning activity. Actively work with teachers to ensure that professional development for teachers makes a difference in their classroom.
“I’m not evaluating you and your knowledge after having taken this course. I want to know, ‘Did this course have a change on your practice? Did it have any impact on student learning? What’s the evidence you have on the student learning piece?’”
- Marguerite Dimgba, Director of Professional Learning, Greece Central
Engaging, collaborative, and relevant learning opportunities represent the best of what professional learning can do for teacher growth. But…there’s also a flip side. Everyone decries those stay-for-two-hours-after-school-and-sit-in-a-large-room-and-passively-listen workshops. Still, most teachers are quite familiar with well-intentioned learning experiences that fail to address their needs. When it comes to implementing a professional development strategy in your district, these are the top six things to avoid:
DON’T ignore your teachers
Teachers are the “boots on the ground” in your school district. More than anyone, they have their finger on the pulse of the student body, they look at the data and know the student needs in their particular building, and they know the areas where they need to grow as educators.
Professional development is often more about connecting resources and enabling teacher-driven professional growth than about telling people what their PD should look like. And not only each teacher, but each building likely has different needs as well. The larger the district, the more important it is to take a targeted approach to professional learning.
DON’T forget to set quantitative goals for each building
Consider asking every school to provide a certain number of hours of professional learning per month. This can take the form of faculty meetings, PLCs, after-school professional development and full faculty in-service days, as well as instructional coaching.
Giving schools this responsibility can also contribute to each building’s autonomy, especially if instructional leadership teams that are comprised of teachers are tasked with planning learning opportunities that teachers want, need and request.
DON’T work without a map
“If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.”
- Zig Ziglar
Backward design isn’t a new concept for you. What are your desired outcomes? Student achievement is probably at the top of your list. And while teacher quality correlates to student outcomes and sets the stage for students to thrive, in professional learning it’s better to focus your outcomes on teachers developing specific qualities or capabilities that have been shown to be supportive of student achievement.
Additionally, your district probably already has specific initiatives and desired outcomes. So how do you support these goals as well as offer learning that teachers need and want? One way is to slice up the pie of a teacher’s professional development to give time to each of these. If teachers are responsible for participating in 30 hours of PD each year, you might consider setting guidelines like this:
DON’T disregard short-term needs
Anyone who is close to a teacher has seen the demands of the job. Educators are already working long hours, grading papers at night and planning lessons for the next day. Even when teachers are fully invested in professional learning opportunities, it’s critical to offer valuable learning that is applicable to their classroom immediately.
Professional learning that’s not relevant to what teachers face here/now/tomorrow/this week? That can simply be overwhelming.
DON’T neglect to track impact
It’s vital to make it simple for teachers to craft their own professional learning plans to help them meet their defined goals and address their needs. Online professional learning management systems can provide catalogs of filtered professional learning opportunities, allow teachers to give feedback on what they’ve learned, and reflect on their learning and craft action plans. Districts can use all of this information to help determine what professional learning opportunities to offer in the future, and tailor already in-progress learning experiences to maximize learning.
Want to know if your PD is or isn’t working?Listen now
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 togetherto 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.
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 teachersdoneed 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.
Ideas for Getting Started: Teachers and Non-Certified Staff
Whatever model you end up implementing in your district (or maybe it’s a mix of all three!), here are some additional ideas to supplement your efforts.
Many schools have found that mentoring programs for new or struggling teachers can reduce turnover. So why not create a mentoring program for non-certified employees? A mentor can provide individualized support, encourage learning, and improve performance.
Learning lunches are an opportunity to sit down with your classified staff and go over training topics that can be covered in a relatively short amount of time. The face-to-face contact is great for discussions and questions and eating as a group can foster a sense of community
Measuring the Effectiveness of Your PD Program
With best practices and creative ideas in your pocket, the next step to implementing a comprehensive, individualized learning program is to think about how you’re going to measure the effectiveness of each standard. The two most important aspects of measuring standards are identifying key metrics and benchmarking those metrics to guarantee continuous growth and improvement within your organization. Let’s take a look!
Keep in mind, no matter what set of metrics your district uses, it’s important to ensure they come from easily-accessible data that’s available in your professional learning management system. Afterall, you don’t want to measure something that takes a massive amount of time, resources, or effort to tell if your PD is on track or off track.
Here are some ideas for key metrics rooted in data to measure your program’s effectiveness on staff learning and student achievement:
Activity enrollments consisting of more than 3 meetings
Average length of PD (in hours)
Enrollment in an activity with a collaborative format
Activities offered within the school system
Activities offered aligned to a data-driven format
Activities aligned with classroom-focused InTASC standards
What you can you do with these metrics to measure effectiveness? Check out these visual graphics below to help determine not only where you are today with your professional learning program, but to also help you set a goal for where you want to be moving forward. Whatever the case, it’s critical to measure your district’s trends over time and to benchmark your district’s results against national results.
And once you’ve input metrics, your goal, and the national benchmark, you will be on track toward effectively measuring your district’s professional development progress:
Designing High-Quality Professional Development ProgramsGet the play-by-play
School Systems That Have Successfully Implemented PL Plans
Providing effective professional learning isn't easy. There's a reason so many educators hold graduate-level degrees. Teaching and learning are as complex as they are rewarding. And the stakes are never higher than when it comes to supporting and promoting teachers as they continually stretch toward excellence.
Every leader in K-12 wants students to have the best teachers possible (of course!). It’s why so many school systems place such an emphasis on professional learning, on growth-focused evaluations, on promoting coaching and peer collaboration. But supporting teacher growth at scale isn’t easy. Every school is different, and every teacher has his or her own areas of strength and areas for growth. States have divergent requirements for professional learning and teacher evaluations.
Here are four districts that display impressive innovation in professional learning, and what their Directors of Professional Learning have to say about their respective programs:
Check out the full spotlight on Council Rock School District for more insight and ideas on creating a culture of growthRead now
Effective Professional Development Tools
Now that you have the right strategies and best practices for implementing an individualized, comprehensive professional development program, check out these three different types of professional learning tools to support your organization’s efforts:
Provide personalized professional learning for teachers
- Offer a catalog of goal-aligned learning opportunities Provide relevant learning experiences for all teachers and employees with online/virtual courses, in-district workshops, out-of-district events, conferences and more.
- Use evaluation results to drive learning, and track its impact on the classroom Identify areas where teachers need additional support to provide relevant learning opportunities and use impact forms to assess classroom outcomes.
- Engage your employees in the learning process Enable employees to take an active role in their professional growth by setting up individual professional development plans and making activity proposals.
Conduct growth-focused evaluations for teachers
- Observe and provide feedback Impact student outcomes through a collaborative observation process and actionable feedback.
- Evaluate all employees – not just teachers Complete evaluations for all district employees: teachers, counselors, paraprofessionals, administrators, custodians, cafeteria staff, bus drivers, coaches, office staff, and more.
- Get detailed reports aligned to your district’s rubric Identify areas of strength and challenge according to any rubric you use, license permitting.
Equip staff to become masters of their craft
- Create interactive online learning experiences for your staff Design learning opportunities to engage your staff in a virtual world or as part of a blended approach by leveraging collaboration and assessment-building tools, micro-credentials, courses, videos, other resources.
- Provide educators space to collaborate and grow Complete evaluations for all district employees: teachers, counselors, paraprofessionals, administrators, custodians, cafeteria staff, bus drivers, coaches, office staff, and more.
- Enable self-directed learning and growth Provide educators and staff with a diverse array of professional development opportunities to address their individual needs and interests.
Looking Ahead to Next Year: 5 Tips for Evaluating Your PD ProgramRead now
10 Questions to Ask Potential Vendors
When looking for potential professional growth tools with vendors, keep in mind… not all of them are created equal. Here are 10 questions to ask vendors about their professional management software:
- Does the system enable you to use the rubric of your choice?
- Does the tool allow for different classifications of employees to be valued?
- Do you need a system to manage formative or summative evaluations — or both?
- Does the system allow for collaboration among peers and mentors and mentees?
- Does the evaluation system link to relevant learning opportunities?
- Does it enable you to align professional development to your strategic goals and track progress on those goals?
- Does the system allow for educators to propose professional learning opportunities that are of interest to them?
- Does it allow for benchmarking against national data?
- Does the system allow educators to self-select learning and attain competency-based micro-credentials?
- Does the solution link to your absence system to enable automatic substitute requests and track PD-related absences?
Want a printable version of this buyer’s guide? Download here
Your Path to Individualized, Comprehensive PD
Ready to better support continuous educator improvement with individualized professional learning? Frontline Professional Growth can help!
Over 2,000 districts use Frontline Professional Growth to streamline evaluations and customize professional learning for teachers.
Our solutions are designed to help districts meet the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) mandate to provide professional development that is sustained, intensive, job-embedded, collaborative, data-driven and classroom-focusedSupport great teaching for student success