Federal Impact on Professional Development

Type: Article
Topics: Advocacy & Policy, Leadership Development, School Administrator Magazine

November 01, 2016

Stephanie Hirsh and Arne Duncan
Stephanie Hirsh, executive director of Learning Forward, with Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education at the time. (Photo courtesy of Learning Forward).

When I was a school board member in a suburban school district near Dallas in the ’90s and ’00s, I took a particular interest in the role of professional development in our 36,000-student district.

At board meetings, I would regularly ask about our district’s efforts to support the growth of the professional staff. The superintendent at the time appreciated discussions about the support we were providing educators, rather than focusing on issues that had less potential to impact student success.

She was aware of the research about the effects of quality teaching on student performance and viewed professional growth as one of the most important levers available to raise the quality of teaching in the school district. She took seriously her role in raising the instructional capacity of teachers and principals.

What It Means

Today, fortunately, such conversations about this critical responsibility of the public school system are much more common. Almost a year ago, the latest version of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act was signed into law. The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, offers exciting new possibilities for supporting the kind of professional learning and professional learning systems that build educators’ capacity to serve all students.

Let’s start with the definition of professional development included in the law.

Under No Child Left Behind, the previous version of the law, there wasn’t a formal definition of professional development, but rather a list of more than 15 activities that could constitute professional development. Such activities, laid out in 2001, included opportunities that gave “teachers, principals and administrators the knowledge and skills to provide students with the opportunity to meet challenging State academic content standards and student academic achievement standards” or that “improve classroom management skills” or “are not one-day or short-term workshops or conferences.”

Flexible Measures

The current full definition has many similar phrases. In fact, if you do a side-by-side comparison of the ESSA definition and the NCLB description of professional development, you would discover few wording differences. The real distinction, as we understand it, is the possibility of the new law to offer a more effective vision for professional learning.

In ESSA, the critical part of the definition reads as follows:

“The term ‘professional development’ means activities that— (a) are an integral part of school and local educational agency strategies for providing educators (including teachers, principals, other school leaders, specialized instructional support personnel, paraprofessionals, and, as applicable, early childhood 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 (not stand-alone, one-day, or short term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused … .”

This definition details that professional development is to serve all educators in their pursuit of the knowledge and skills they need to ensure students meet challenging academic standards. Professional learning is to be sustained, intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven and classroom-focused. These elements are what teachers and researchers tell us are most important to improving educator practice and ultimately student results.

After outlining the key elements of professional development, the ESSA definition goes on to state that professional development “may include activities that …” The use of the word “may” means that while systems must adhere to (and allocate funding to meet) the new definition of professional development, they still have the flexibility and authority to select the learning designs and activities that are most appropriate for the educators they serve. In other words, the first part of the definition is a requirement, while the second provides flexibility.

Common Characteristics

Professional development as defined in ESSA is happening across the country in some of our nation’s most effective and most improving school systems. Even before ESSA’s passage, these systems recognized the importance of building professional learning approaches that support ongoing continuous learning for educators.

Whether they are called professional learning communities, learning teams or action research strategies, these school districts recognize the importance of ensuring teachers have regularly scheduled, substantive time to invest in cycles of continuous improvement.

In such learning environments, teachers, principals and instructional coaches together examine data to determine student learning needs; define their own learning agendas; implement new practices with support; monitor and assess the impact of their new practices; and refine and reflect as they tackle student learning challenges.

In the Fort Wayne, Ind., Community Schools, principals collaborate on a shared understanding of how to support teacher growth through their feedback conversations. In Santa Fe, Texas, learning teams collectively identify both student learning goals and educator learning goals to shape aligned learning for all.

In other places, superintendents have identified and invested heavily, both in dollars and staff time, to build the capacity of principals, teacher leaders and instructional coaches to implement the kind of ongoing professional learning cycles called for under ESSA.

ESSA’s Promise

If we look at how ESSA can help district leaders build fully aligned learning systems, we see encouraging potential in upcoming regulations and federal guidance. The documents guiding the implementation of ESSA encourage states to view professional development as an integral element of the state’s strategy for achieving high academic standards for students.

Preliminary regulations and guidance documents encourage states and school systems to detail their plans for professional learning as part of their consolidated plan for funding. This is critical because high-performing districts identify professional development as a key strategy for achieving the goals in their strategic plans. The authority to take this action will encourage districts to think systemically, develop a coherent theory of action and negate the pressure they often receive to use Title II to fund independent and often fragmented programs in favor of a coherent strategy for elevating all educators to proficient teaching.

Consolidating all available federal funding, notably Titles I, II, III and IV, for professional development to serve one vision will enable a district to determine how it will address the needs of all students and their teachers and have the funding to accomplish their goals.

Leadership’s Duty

During my time on the school board, the superintendent realized I was going to focus on professional development, so she took a greater interest in the subject. She worked with her instructional leadership team to refine a districtwide instructional framework, set clear priorities for teacher learning, establish procedures to ensure professional learning met school board-adopted standards for professional learning and introduce a process for approving any new initiatives that would increase expectations for teacher learning.

With a coherent professional development vision and strategy, everyone got on the same page and everyone then could support the changes the system needed to make.

More widely, the role of the superintendent in leading aligned, coherent and ambitious learning is central to creating a high-performing school system. First, the superintendent is the chief learner, seeking continuous improvement in the district’s processes for leading improvement and change.

Just as important, he or she creates a learning system that provides the conditions and resources necessary for effective learning among all employees. No one else in a school system is better positioned to advocate and make the decisions needed for this transformation.

Cultural Priorities

As someone who has worked with many superintendents over recent years, I believe the priorities for building a learning system and culture are these:

  • Setting and/or adopting standards for professional learning to guide planning, implementation and evaluation of all professional development;
  • Ensuring educators have the data they need to drive their professional development decisions;
  • Setting expectations that time is created and protected for collaborative learning;
  • Facilitating the adoption of an instructional framework to clarify what students and adults will learn;
  • Budgeting and monitoring resource use so learners have what they need to improve;
  • Providing training so principals and instructional coaches can support the implementation of learning cycles at the school level;
  • Facilitating strategies to identify and support teacher leaders to lead daily learning; and
  • Modeling the practice of and commitment to continuous learning.

The Every Student Succeeds Act gives states and local districts the flexibility and authority to make such moves. It will benefit us all to act on this opportunity while the legislative iron is hot.


Stephanie Hirsh

Executive director of Learning Forward in Dallas, Texas. E-mail: Stephanie.hirsh@learningforward.org