IT Infrastructure & Management Opinion

6 Components of a Comprehensive Professional Learning System

By Learning Forward — February 27, 2014 4 min read
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Stephanie Hirsh

With the release of Remodeling Literacy Learning Together: Paths to Standards Implementation from the National Center for Literacy Education, we have more strong evidence that when educators engage frequently in meaningful collaboration, their power to change practices and help more students at higher levels increases significantly.

The report, based on a national survey of educators, investigates the implementation of Common Core standards and the role of collaboration in building educators’ capacity to help students achieve them. Chief among the findings were that educators report that working with other educators is the most powerful form of preparation and that they need more time to do so.

What is the school system’s role in supporting such capacity building? System leaders have the responsibility for building a comprehensive learning system that ensures the development and support called for in this report is available to all educators.

While such systems are complex, we have found that six specific components are essential to building and sustaining them.


District leaders have a responsibility to articulate the role professional learning plays to ensure every student is experiencing great teaching every day. Such systems embrace a vision captured by the phrase, “At school, everyone’s job is to learn.”


Standards for Professional Learning define the essential conditions for ensuring effective professional learning that improves educator effectiveness and results for all students. Adopting or embracing standards is a system’s guarantee that educators will experience only the highest quality professional learning.

The seven standards are equally essential for ensuring the vision becomes a reality. For example, while a district may already be using learning communities as a structure for ongoing collaboration, if that learning isn’t informed by multiple sources of data and tied to specified outcomes, the educators involved may be collaborating about the wrong thing.

Definition of professional learning

In a high-functioning district, everyone knows what effective professional learning looks like. They understand that daily, job-embedded learning with colleagues is what helps them to develop knowledge and skills to use and adjust instructional strategies and differentiate teaching for all learners.

The educators represented in Remodeling Literacy Learning Together clearly understand this already — 73% respond that this type of learning is most useful for achieving standards implementation. Establishing such a definition of professional learning systemwide is the district leader’s responsibility.

Ongoing assessment and evaluation

Professional learning as a line item in budgets is so often an easy target for school communities. And unfortunately, we hear about far too many examples of bad professional development. When districts measure quality, effectiveness, and impact of their professional learning, they can be accountable to their communities and their students and continue their cycle of improvement to ensure greater results.

Roles and responsibilities of stakeholders

Teachers, principals, central office staff, state and regional agency staff members, and external assistance providers all have significant contributions to make to the professional learning system. Unless system leaders help all of those stakeholders to understand what they are, districts risk inefficiencies and missing pieces.

Just as important, for each role, districts have the responsibility to provide enough support so that these educators are well prepared to fulfill their duties. However, outlining responsibilities doesn’t mean that teachers aren’t taking charge of their learning. As this report points out, the teachers who have the opportunity to develop lessons, draw on the expertise of peers, and purposefully examine student work are those making the most strides.


This is the element that everyone expects districts to provide by default. However, it isn’t enough to maintain an appropriate budget and staff for professional learning. Systems must also lead the way in making time for professional learning. The kinds of collaboration that respondents in this report find most valuable for learning require structures that allow them to meet during the school day. It is alarming to read that 50% say they don’t have enough time to work with colleagues.

The bottom line: Districts make it happen

Establishing such systems isn’t simple. However, transformative school improvement requires districtwide change. The school districts that have figured this out are reaching and sustaining high levels of performance for all students. Long Beach, Calif., and Gwinnett County, Ga., for example, have a track record built on more than a decade of commitment to the kinds of professional learning educators responding in this report understand they need. When such commitment is sustained through multiple leaders, across multiple initiatives, and in many buildings, a comprehensive system of learning is the driver.

NCLE is a coalition of more than 30 education organizations, including Learning Forward, united to support schools in improving literacy learning. Learning Forward members were included as respondents in the survey that informed this report.

The concept of a professional learning system is explored more fully in Comprehensive Professional Learning System: A Workbook for States and Districts, a resource created as part of the Transforming Professional Learning Initiative.

Stephanie Hirsh
Executive Director,Learning Forward@HirshLF

The opinions expressed in Learning Forward’s PD Watch are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.