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Leverage ESSA to Improve Professional Learning in Your District

Stephanie Hirsh image
Stephanie Hirsh

Lately when I talk to district leaders about professional learning, our conversation often turns to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Given the influence that the federal education law has on how districts plan and allocate resources, they are interested in Learning Forward's view on implications for professional learning.

Our discussion often begins with Title II. Its new goal is stated as "improve student academic achievement" and it offers four sub-goals. Learning Forward focuses on the first and second: "increasing the ability of local educational agencies, schools, teachers, principals, and other school leaders to provide a well-rounded and complete education for all students" and "improving the quality and effectiveness of teachers, principals, and school leaders."

Learning Forward believes that achieving such goals requires school districts to build professional learning systems that establish visions, build leadership capacity, align resources, develop individual and team subject matter and pedagogical expertise, and measure to learn and improve. The continuous improvement process inherent in such systems ensures that ongoing reflection and assessment inform each action and contribute to the ultimate goals of excellent teaching and learning for all educators and their students.

The new definition of professional learning offers a clear direction for achieving these goals as well .The definition specifies that professional learning is an "integral part of school and local education agency strategies for providing educators ... with the knowledge and skills necessary to enable students to succeed in the core academic subjects and to meet challenging state academic standards." Professional development is also described in ESSA as "sustained (not stand-alone, 1-day, and short-term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, classroom-focused...."

In my view, district leaders who prioritize building systems for professional learning will be best positioned to leverage ESSA to achieve excellence and equity in every school.  

Here I offer several questions for district leaders to consider as they approach this opportunity.

  1. How does our district's vision for professional learning align with and support our vision for student learning? Support for educators will be most effective when districts establish a clear plan for how professional learning will integrate with the many other elements and strategies for operating a school district. Learning Forward's Standards for Professional Learning are a good start for any district undertaking the work of establishing a vision for professional learning 
  2. What resources and structures do we have in place to ensure that our teachers and school leaders have daily opportunities to learn?  Scheduling time for embedded learning and allocating money and people to support professional learning are among a leader's top priorities in implementing an integrated learning system. Districts may use federal resources to advance this agenda.
  3.  How do the leadership practices of our district and school leaders sustain and support a learning culture? Leaders do much more than provide resources. They advocate for learning and their words and actions establish a climate for learning. They also prioritize building their own knowledge and skills.
  4.  How do we monitor the impact of professional learning in our district and support its continuous improvement? The point of professional learning is to help educators achieve their goals for students. Districts have a responsibility to know if that is happening and to make shifts to continuously improve.
  5. How can we leverage ESSA's provisions and funds to strengthen our approach to all of the questions above? Districts typically use Title II funds to support independent professional development initiatives and programs. I would encourage district leaders to think about tapping available federal funds across titles as well as local funding to support a fully coordinated learning system.

Share your solutions and challenges with us. Let us know how we can help you. Achieving the promise of ESSA is not possible without investing in the people responsible for them. 

Stephanie Hirsh
Executive Director, Learning Forward

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