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Leverage Professional Learning Wins in ESSA for Better Learning Systems

Stephanie Hirsh image
Stephanie Hirsh

For years, Learning Forward has advocated for a new vision for professional learning, built on the foundation of the Standards for Professional Learning. At the heart of this vision, every teacher is a member of at least one learning team that meets several times a week to learn and problem solve together. These learning teams engage in ongoing cycles of learning and improvement that are data-driven and skillfully facilitated, often by a teacher leader or instructional coach. The learning cycles result in more powerful lessons and assessment to drive improvement in teaching and learning. These team learning experiences build collective responsibility and ensure that educators share best practices and expertise across classrooms so all students experience great teaching every day.

This vision of powerful professional learning becomes a reality when schools, districts, and states recognize and embrace their responsibilities for creating the learning systems that support this important work. I am more optimistic today that we can make that happen. Our K-12 federal education law provides the foundation for achieving this vision.

More than a year ago, Learning Forward was excited to celebrate a significantly strengthened definition of professional development in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). We'd been working on this effort for many years. Then, as the U.S. Department of Education wrote regulations and guidance to support implementation, we found ourselves in new territory in terms of advocating for more effective professional learning systems. Thanks to the engagement of the Redesign PD Partnership and expert support of EducationCounsel, we are able to celebrate a win on this step as well.

A better definition in law

By our count, Congress included the term "professional development" 79 times in ESSA. I was unable to find a single educational challenge outlined in the law that Congress doesn't expect professional development to help address. At the same time, some authors of the law remain skeptical about professional development; therefore, ESSA provides more flexibility in terms of how states and local school systems may allocate dollars traditionally reserved for professional development.

Learning Forward, its state and provincial affiliates, members, and stakeholders have invested many years strengthening professional learning practice and considering how to leverage legislation to improve its quality and outcomes. At the federal level, we chose to focus on strengthening the definition of professional development in legislation and support decision making attached to the allocation of professional development resources. We believe that a more powerful definition of professional learning will drive better decisions about how to allocate resources. The definition provides the foundation for our shared vision of professional learning.

This new, more powerful definition calls for professional development that is "sustained (not stand-alone, 1-day, or short term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused ..."

Take note -- these words don't describe better workshops or programs. They describe the kinds of support all educators need to improve their practice daily and deliver better outcomes for students.

A better system to support effective professional learning

Just as important as a definition of professional development is the recognition that effective professional learning does not happen in a vacuum. Rather, professional learning leads to improved outcomes for all learners when it is embedded in learning systems that establish and maintain the conditions essential for helping individuals improve their performance. Ensuring states and districts recognize the importance of these systems was the second priority on our legislative agenda.

While we would have preferred to see tougher words requiring learning systems in regulations, we were delighted that the consolidated application includes some critical questions that states must address. For example, the application asks states to "provide a description of the educator growth and development systems" if they intend to use Title II funds for professional development that is "consistent with the definition of professional development" in the law.

Our hope is that such questions will promote reflective conversations among state leaders and their stakeholders and that these groups will take time to reflect on the successes and challenges of the past and how things will improve in the future. We hope that they will look for opportunities to reduce fragmentation, eliminate silos and department competitiveness, and create one cohesive, comprehensive learning system. From there, they will collectively determine what actions they can take that will most successfully advance equity and excellence, the dual goals of ESSA.

We hope that the state systems they put in place and the questions they ask of local school systems will ensure that all educators -- not just some -- experience the support they need daily to ensure that all students -- not just some -- experience quality teaching every day. We also hope that states use local applications as an opportunity to help districts reshape their thinking around professional development to take action toward a powerful vision.

Next implementation steps

So what's next? Stakeholder engagement is a key pillar of ESSA, and real stakeholder engagement must last throughout the life of the law. We can't expect that all our goals will be achieved simply because the definition of professional development is included in the law or that relevant questions made it into the state application. We must be vigilant in ensuring that the intentions behind both are understood and honored.

I encourage you to stay alert, watch your state and district actions, and volunteer to serve on advisory groups. If no such volunteer opportunities exist, advocate for the organization of one. For the very bold, I suggest launching your own professional learning watchdog group.

Whatever you decide to do, we are here to support you and eager to share your best insights and successes with your colleagues across the country. It will take our collective action to enable this new law to achieve all that it should.

Stephanie Hirsh
Executive Director, Learning Forward
@HirshLF

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