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Commitment Is Vital to Professional Learning

What would it take for you, as an education leader, to say you "Strongly Agree" with the following statement:

Professional learning is the primary strategy that school systems have to ensure that all educators continue to improve their effectiveness.

This is just one belief I shared with school and system leaders yesterday at a meeting sponsored by the Wallace Foundation. Along with my Learning Forward and CCSSO colleagues, we explored how to leverage professional learning to increase principal effectiveness.

I also asked what it would take to say you "Strongly Agree" with this statement:

Skillful leaders create and sustain a culture of learning.

As we figure out how to best ensure the success of the Common Core, our shared vision is the transformation of student learning. I believe that requires transformed classroom and leadership practices - which in turn demand transforming professional learning. And essential to transformed professional learning are leaders at the classroom, school, system, and state levels.

Transformed professional learning is particularly important when we recognize that implementing Common Core isn't the only big initiative going on in American schools this year. We have a range of new evaluation systems for both teachers and principals.

There is a lot of attention on both of these initiatives, and in the best case scenario, the implementation of new evaluation systems is tied to successful implementation of Common Core.

With the less desirable alternative, these initiatives are operating on parallel pathways, asking educators to juggle multiple demands. In many cases, they make daily choices -- today I work on Common Core, and tomorrow I worry about my evaluation.

Of course it is unrealistic to say educators will only have one new thing to implement each year. However, we can be realistic in our commitment to create connections among our many expectations. How we frame professional learning within a system can create those connections. I'd ask you to consider leaders' roles in creating and benefiting from those connections.

We can look at three purposes of professional learning and consider how they are all equally important to achieving the ultimate goals of improved practice and results for all students. In our best case scenario, they are part of - and help to strengthen - a coherent, aligned system. In the alternative case, they exacerbate fragmentation.

Individual development is the first purpose. Leaders guiding educators through the evaluation process is one example of individual development. Team or school development is a second purpose. Learning with colleagues promotes the spread of best ideas from classroom to classroom and school to school. The final purpose for professional learning is program improvement. Leaders make decisions about program improvement, for example, Common Core and evaluation systems, at the state, system and school levels.

Many leaders are involved in the design and implementation of this professional learning, wrestling with how to ensure fidelity, scale, and impact. The success of such initiatives depends on leadership.

Ultimately, however, I'd say that most important to the success of all of our connected initiatives is leaders' commitment to effective professional learning. That's why I continue to ask my colleagues to envision a world where they "Strongly Agree" in its possibilities.

Stephanie Hirsh
Executive Director, Learning Forward

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