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Reaching Consensus on Effective Professional Learning

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By Stephanie Hirsh, Executive Director of Learning Forward

Last July, Learning Forward released the Standards for Professional Learning, and these standards belong to the field, not to any one organization. Representatives from 20 professional associations and the U.S. Department of Education convened for more than a year to collaborate on revising the standards. The contributors came together because each shared an interest in effective educator professional learning and they acknowledge the importance of professional learning as a core part of education reform efforts.

When they came to the first meeting, they did so because they were already in agreement about two important ideas. First, all stakeholders were in unison on the ends each contributor's organization seeks to achieve — increased success for every student. Secondly, they agreed that professional learning was not fully delivering on its promise of improving educator practice and student learning. While each contributor had multiple examples of extraordinary professional learning they provided, they acknowledged that most educators lacked sufficient opportunities to participate in the kind of professional learning that would make a difference for students. With these fundamental areas of consensus established, the work began.

Over a period of 15 months with input from representatives of each association and other advisors worldwide, the task force members used research, their own practice and positions, and previous standards to identify the fundamental attributes of effective professional learning. Representing the contribution of each member of the task force, the final standards achieve consensus on the fundamental characteristics of effective professional learning. The resulting standards create a shared vision that inspires, educates, and informs all education stakeholders about effective professional learning.

The task force made two significant decisions. The first was to establish the purpose of professional learning for educators and to communicate it clearly and powerfully to all education stakeholders. This decision resulted in the new stem for the third revision of the standards. Each standard begins with the statement, "Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students..." This stem requires educators, schools and school systems, and decision- and policy makers to hold professional learning accountable for producing results in terms of effectiveness and results.

The second significant decision was the use of the term professional learning to replace staff development, used with previous editions of the standards, or the more common term professional development. After much deliberation among the task force and beyond, the new term was accepted. The primary rationale for using professional learning versus professional development was to distinguish educator learning as a continuous process of learning that occurs daily and career-long from the development practices or strategies that schools, districts, and other organizations use to support the learning.

The task force was shaping a new mental model of educator learning. While task force members acknowledged that changing the mindset of educators or elected officials would not be easy, they agreed that the newly revised standards provided the opportune time to begin introducing the idea that effective educators engage in continuous learning, not just a few times a year when days are provided. They made it clear in their discussions that professional learning could no longer be defined by a narrow set of practices such as workshops, courses, or relegated to occasional times within the school year such as inservice days, but rather must be the professional responsibility of all educators to engage in continuous improvement.

The resulting seven standards provide a succinct way to describe the critical attributes of professional learning that will produce results. The standards work in tandem with one another in synergy rather than as distinct elements, some of which might be appropriate for certain situations and other for different ones. Each attribute is vitally important to the overall success of the professional learning.

As the field moves from knowing about the professional learning standards to implementing them, professional associations, educators, decision- and policy makers, and other external agencies have a responsibility to study the standards within their own organizations and with their staff and constituents, integrate them deeply and with fidelity into the professional learning they provide, and teach others how to improve professional learning for educator and student success.

To our contributors and others who believe professional learning is fundamental to all reform in schools, I encourage you to embrace these standards as more than 20 organizations have already done. Daily, school districts and states are revising their standards for professional learning. They need look no further than the consensus standards and adopt them as their own — they were developed by your stakeholders, peers, constituents, members, and representatives.


Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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