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Improving Schools Requires a New Vision for Professional Learning

Regular readers of Education Week know that each issue includes several commentaries in which authors offer their unique perspectives on how schools should change. Of course, Education Week is not the only source of what amounts to a running record of proposals for re-forming public elementary and secondary schools. Editorials, blogs, and opinion columns abound in print and electronic media. And each month sees the publication of position papers or policy briefs that include recommendations for improving the organization, operation, and results of public schools.

Many of these proposals devote attention to the effectiveness of teachers and principals. There is consensus that improving the performance of these educators is critical to increasing student achievement. Some proposals acknowledge an approach for improving the effectiveness of educators--professional development. This refers to intentional, on-the-job learning by educators currently employed by school systems. If you believe that the learning of students is not likely to increase significantly unless educators become more proficient in their craft, then professional learning is an essential tool--perhaps the only tool--that can simultaneously raise the performance levels of educators and the students they teach and lead.

Professional development can and does occur in many different ways, for many different purposes, but proposals for school reform often cite what researchers and experts now consider critical components of effective professional learning. These include:


  • Most learning experiences of educators should occur at their schools, with their professional colleagues.

  • Educators' learning should be driven and focused by their analysis and understanding of their students' learning needs.

  • Educators should meet, collaborate, and learn in small teams to develop new knowledge, skills, and behaviors that are responsive to their students' learning needs.

  • To advance their learning, educators should identify, seek, and utilize appropriate expertise that is internal or external to their school or school system.

  • Educators' learning experiences should be deep and sustained.

  • Educators should have the support necessary to effectively apply what they learn, and assess its effects on their students.

This is the new vision for professional learning, but it is easier to describe than to bring to fruition. Among many people it is a vision dimly perceived. While the professional development organized by some school systems and schools include elements of this vision, they do not characterize the learning experiences of most K-12 educators.

Any serious effort to improve schools, and the learning of students who attend them, must address the need to change professional development as we now know it. Many educators do not seek and apply extant knowledge about how to craft effective professional development because there is a widespread belief that all types of adult learning experiences are equal, and will produce comparable results. There is an assumption that teachers' passive participation in lecture-style professional development is just as valid as teachers' active engagement in small group, collaborative inquiry. Educators can satisfy requirements for professional development by participating in courses and workshops that have no direct application to the critical learning needs of their students. Moreover, the underlying message of many professional development experiences is that entertainment is synonymous with learning, participation equals application, and results don't matter. In other words, most any activity labeled "professional development" is acceptable.

It is not surprising, then, that many educators responsible for professional development choose the path of convenience and superficiality rather than act on what is known about how to conceive, organize, implement, apply, and assess effective professional learning.

It is true, of course, that many states and school systems adopted or adapted Learning Forward's (then the National Staff Development Council's) Standards for Staff Development. The Standards advanced the thinking and practice of many professional development leaders and had a positive impact on state policy. Some states incorporated the Standards into requirements for funding professional development, but the results are unclear. To what extent, how, and with what results have local school systems and schools used the Standards to significantly improve day-to-day professional development practices? On the other hand, to what extent have states inadvertently compromised the potential impact of the Standards by merely folding them into the states' pro forma, compliance-oriented cultures of administration?

Next month, Learning Forward will publish its new Standards for Professional Learning. It will be important to keep a watchful eye on how states and school systems leverage the Standards to improve practice and whether, in fact, practice improves.

Hayes Mizell
Distinguished Senior Fellow, Learning Forward

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The opinions expressed in Learning Forward's PD Watch are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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