Is your current professional learning (PL) program aligned with the federal definition of professional learning?

Can you measure your progress against your organizational goals?

How does your organization stack up to the rest of the nation?

The Frontline Research & Learning Institute set out to answer these questions in our four-part Bridging the Gap report series. We started with building a common understanding of the criteria recognized by Learning Forward and ESSA as measurements of effective professional learning (PL): sustained, intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused. Next, we paired each criterion with metrics and data collected from more than 200 school districts across 27 states over the last five years. While these are not the only metrics districts might measure, it gives us a starting point for measuring the effectiveness of professional learning.

The startling findings suggest that 80 percent or more of PL falls short of criteria for effective professional development (PD). This knowledge and the comparison against national norms provides a baseline from which schools can develop a strategy for improvement.

So, what can we learn from national data on PL effectiveness? And more importantly, how can you use the findings to measure your own program effectiveness and determine strategies for improvement? Let’s take a closer look.

Defining sustained PL
Sustained PL takes place over an extended period of time, which includes activities with more than three meeting dates or with start and end dates more than seven days apart. According to our data, only 13 percent of PL enrollments met this definition. But, growing sustained PL can happen with incremental changes like the ones being made by Pitt County (NC) School District.

Since 2014, the district has been steadily working to increase the average length of time its 1,600 faculty members spend on individual PL. They first focused on whether educators had adequate time to develop key competencies necessary to improve instruction for the district’s mostly minority student population. From there, the district began offering a variety of learning designs and extended individual learning opportunities. For example, they augmented initial activity by adding follow-up sessions with an instructional coach or principal, provided initial induction training for new teachers, and added ongoing, weekly reflection to identify lessons learned. Teachers and principals in the district have reported thinking differently about the design and utility of their PL, leading to improvements in satisfaction with learning experiences that can clearly have in-classroom impact.

Defining intensive PL
Intensive PL is focused on a discreet concept, practice, or program. Establishing school or districtwide goals is essential to achieving truly intensive PD. Leaders must also be clear with educators about their skills targets and set goals for each individual’s improvement.

When it comes to measuring intensity, our data shows the average time enrolled in any particular PD activity is about 4.25 hours, far less than what research says is the minimum for developing competency. While this time commitment is not conclusive, it establishes a target range that can guide efforts in your district.

Defining collaborative PL
Among the six criteria, collaborative is the most well-known but widely overused and misunderstood. Collaborative PL is about people working together to achieve a shared understanding of a concept or to develop the same skillset. Districts can create more collaborative learning experiences by clarifying what collaboration means relative to learning priorities for the school, district, and individual educator.

They’ve done that at Harrison (NY) Central School District, where teachers worked together with school and district leaders to reimagine PL. Core to their program are study groups and educator-developed curriculum that is coherent within and across grade levels. This approach offers deep collaborative opportunities and exposes educators to peers with whom they otherwise may not work.

Defining job-embedded PL
Just because PL takes place during the school day or in the learning environment doesn’t make it job embedded. It is job embedded if it relates to a specific educator learning outcome, is purposeful, directly connects to the work the educators are doing, and can be practically implemented into instruction.

Defining data-driven PL
Data-driven PL is based upon and responsive to real-time information about the needs of the participating teachers and their students. Our research findings show only eight percent of PL meets the definition.

Are your PL opportunities aligned to educator evaluation data? Are you capturing the impact and effectiveness of various types of PL on both participants and students? Ground your use of the data in these questions.

Defining classroom-focused PL
Classroom-focused PL has been well-adopted in 85 percent of PL enrollments. Still, it’s useful to understand how so much professional learning has achieved a strong classroom focus and also unpack the ways data organization can help improve quality. The work of establishing specific teaching standards of practice has had a clear and decisive impact on the extent to which PL activities meet with the quality criterion. Because we know what the expectations are and can collectively agree upon them, we can easily understand whether PL activities align. Additionally, we know that the disciplined practice of articulating the purpose of a given learning activity helps assure that alignment.

For more information, download the Bridging the Gap report series and learn more about improving PL in your district.

About the Author:

Elizabeth Combs is the managing director for the Frontline Research & Learning Institute.