With today's educators subject to so many daily demands, it's easy for them to lose focus. Often their days are spent accomplishing tasks that require time and effort but have little or no impact on their success or the success of their students. When educators are forced to take this "doing everything correctly but nothing effectively" approach, student achievement suffers.
Doing everything correctly but nothing effectively also compromises the results of professional learning. Organizing professional development that increases the learning of educators and their students requires thoughtful data gathering and analysis, realistic planning, rigorous implementation, conscientious follow-up, and serious evaluation. Given the competing demands being placed on educators, it's no wonder that expedient, event-centered professional development is such a temptation. Scheduling a session and securing a speaker, consultant, or video is much easier than organizing deep learning experiences that are appropriate and useful.
School system leaders must keep professional development focused on what matters most--authentic learning. They can do this by posing four basic questions to guide the organization's professional learning:
"What do the performance data of our students reveal about the learning needs of our teachers and principals?" While professional development can serve many purposes in a school system, its most important purpose is to increase the knowledge and skills educators need to help students learn what is necessary to meet academic standards. Understanding the gaps in students' learning should inform the content of educators' professional development. This works best when educators use data from the students they teach, rather than when the school system prescribes one-size-fits-all professional development based on a study of system-wide data.
"How are we organizing professional development so it causes our educators to take greater responsibility for their students' learning?" When school system leaders identify a problem, and use professional development to address it, teachers and principals are usually passive participants. They don't own the problem and may not commit to solving it. It is important to organize professional development in ways that engage educators in understanding more about their students' learning needs and how the educators' practices relate to those needs. If educators take responsibility for student performance and hold themselves accountable for it, they will more likely engage in and use professional development to increase student learning.
"How are we organizing professional development so it causes our educators to learn from each other's successes, and collaborate to learn from experts elsewhere?" In all school systems, some teachers are much more effective than others. For their subject or grade, the achievement gap among their students may even be much less than in other classes. Professional development that draws on the expertise and experiences of these educators will in most cases be more relevant, credible, and cost-effective than contracting with an external consultant.
"What is the evidence that our professional development is increasing educators' effectiveness in ways that also raise levels of student performance?" Professional learning has limited value if educators don't develop new learning relevant to their students' needs, and if they don't apply that learning to benefit their students. Yet few school systems systematically document whether and how professional development increases what both educators and students "know and can do." Collecting and publicizing evidence about the results of professional development is essential to improve and sustain it.
School system leaders can help focus professional development by asking these questions again and again--and demanding solid answers.
Distinguished Senior Fellow, Learning Forward