Special Report
School & District Management

School Districts Update Professional Development

By Michelle R. Davis — April 25, 2017 7 min read
The Grant Wood Area Education Agency, based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, offers training to instructional coaches in how to support adult learners. At a recent workshop, Jill Nunez, center, a coach in the Cedar Rapids district, shares thoughts during a small-group breakout session with Stephanie Whitaker, right, with the Morning Sun district, and Jenny Davis, left, with Keokuk schools.

In Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine school district, teachers can personalize their own professional learning by earning microcredentials in areas that interest them. In Florida’s Lake County school district, ingenious scheduling models allow teachers to collaborate more often. And on the other side of the country, California’s Long Beach Unified district has developed new methods to collect evidence on the effectiveness of the professional development it offers teachers.

School districts are moving toward a menu of professional learning options that get creative about improving teacher practice. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law in December 2015, established a new definition of professional learning that makes it clear districts should move away from the quick-hit type of generalized workshops that take teachers out of the classroom. The law instead prioritizes PD that is woven into the school day and allows for educators to cooperate.

In some districts, this work was going on years before the language in ESSA caught up. But elsewhere, the new ESSA definitions around PD are forcing states, districts, and schools to reconsider and revamp their efforts to improve teacher practice.

Professional development had long been under fire for being expensive and ineffective.

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“Ultimately, everybody wants to ensure great professional learning for their educators,” said Stephanie Hirsh, the executive director of Learning Forward, a membership organization that works to improve professional learning in schools. “But in many cases, [districts] never investigated what that really means.”

Having ESSA spell out just what professional learning should look like makes it hard to continue with the same old offerings, particularly in states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards or something similar, Hirsh said. “You’d have to be living in a hole not to know that professional learning for teachers has to change,” she said.

Part of ESSA Focus

ESSA, which replaced the federal No Child Left Behind Act and takes full effect in the 2017-18 school year, defines high-quality professional learning as sustained, intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused. It expands the reach of PD activities to other educators who work with students—including principals and paraprofessionals. The new law also calls for programs and interventions—including those aimed at improving teacher practice—to be “evidence based,” though the law provides a variety of evidential standards that range from promising to strong.

Learning Forward has already been working with 22 districts in a PD Redesign Community of Practice to improve both the relevance and measurement of the impact of professional development. These districts, including the 75,000-student Long Beach Unified district, received grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for their work.

In Long Beach, officials developed what it dubbed “myPD”—a personalized system of delivering professional learning experiences, said Nader Twal, the program administrator for the district’s innovative professional-development initiative. The digital platform builds a “360 PD profile” that helps match teachers with resources to best help them and their students. That might mean online learning, a series of videos, or face-to-face coaching, Twal said.

As part of the system, the district is working to develop ways to evaluate the effectiveness of the PD it delivers—a nod to the evidence ESSA calls for. Rather than just relying on exit surveys to gauge whether teachers “liked” the information shared, the myPD system embeds assessments into its system. So a week after a PD experience, the system pushes out an assessment to determine what new strategies a teacher has tried, what was successful, and what didn’t work.

“We chose to go deep on measuring impact,” Twal said. “We needed to build a deep understanding of how everything connects.”

But the district is still figuring out how to connect evaluation of that PD to student achievement, he said.

Part of the customization ESSA calls for is giving teachers more of a voice in their own advancement, said Robert Avossa, the superintendent of the 183,000-student Palm Beach County, Fla., district. Avossa is part of a group of superintendents working to improve professional development in partnership with AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

To that end, Avossa has created a PD program of thirds—teachers pick one-third of the PD they experience, the school leadership chooses another third, and the district decides on the remaining third.

And instead of bringing in outside experts, the PD is most often run by the district’s own teachers and educational leaders—a trend underway across the country.

Allowing teachers to choose their own learning has more impact, Avossa said. “To move the needle on the metrics that matter, people need to feel ownership,” he said.

Developing PD In-House

In addition, Avossa is working to keep teachers in their classrooms so the PD is as job-embedded as it can be. The district was spending more than $7 million annually on substitutes to fill in for teachers who were out of class for training. Now Avossa is planning to return some of that money to schools to support teachers in the classroom.

“Don’t always look for the magic bullet outside the building,” he said. “First look at the experts in your own building.”

Holly Boffy, the program director of teacher development for the Council of Chief State School Officers, said she is seeing districts across the country doing just that—tapping into their own experts and educators instead of hiring companies to come into the district to do training. While Boffy said many districts had already been working toward improving PD offerings, the language in ESSA “institutionalizes it.”

That’s what Superintendent Patricia Deklotz is trying to do in the 4,100-student Kettle Moraine district with a microcredentials program based in part on work by Digital Promise, a nonprofit group focused on innovation in education. Digital Promise has created a platform containing more than 200 of these bite-sized PD offerings, and Kettle Moraine allows teachers to earn those or in-house versions, often created by local teachers.

A teacher might earn a microcredential, garnering him or her a digital badge to display, on anything from using data effectively to aligning standards and assessment. In Kettle Moraine, teachers can also earn hundreds of dollars on top of their base pay for these badges.

“I loved the fact that I could allow teachers to personalize their own learning and recognize that learning in an immediate way—not waiting years for a sufficient number of credits to accrue,” Deklotz said. “It’s not just recognizing seat time but through a demonstration of application.”

But many districts are still looking for the perfect PD recipe. In the 2,000-student Blaine, Wash., school district, educational leaders decided a systemwide focus on literacy was needed, including professional learning.

Opportunities for Collaboration

The district has worked on collaboration among teachers, has done some traditional-style pullout PD, and is finding that classroom hands-on, experiential learning seems to work best for teachers, said Stacy Thomas, the executive director of teaching and learning in Blaine. But she said since ESSA’s adoption, she’s also been talking more about the evidence of effectiveness around PD.

“We have to keep learning and adjusting how we’re going to support teachers,” she said. “I don’t want to paint a picture that we’ve got it all figured out.”

Another area that ESSA emphasizes is collaboration. Professional learning communities and common time to plan and work together are crucial for success. At the 41,000-student Lake County schools in Tavares, Fla., the district has developed at least six distinct scheduling models to boost collaborative time for teachers, said Amy Cockcroft, the district’s director of professional and personalized learning.

One school increased class sizes slightly so every teacher could have two planning periods a day, she said. Other schools have staff members, including coaches, guidance counselors, and media specialists, give lessons that allow teachers time for collaboration. One elementary school created “Wonderful Wednesday,” permitting one grade level each week to have the entire day for planning—which meant other grade levels had to forfeit their planning periods that day, she said.

“You have to be really deliberate,” Cockcroft said. “We’re trying to create a culture of learning where we’re not only asking our students to learn, but we want to learn, too.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2017 edition of Education Week as Districts Give Professional Development An Overhaul

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