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Report: Classroom-Focused Professional Development

Professional Growth


When the Every Student Succeeds Act was signed in December 2015, educators working in professional learning (as well as in every other area of education) took note. In particular, the criteria defining effective professional development grabbed K-12 administrators’ attention.

The “new” definition of professional development wasn’t surprising —making sure learning is sustained, intensive, collaborative, and so on may not be easy — but the theory behind it isn’t new. But is it being practiced?

That question is at the heart of Bridging the Gap, a series of reports from the Frontline Research & Learning Institute. We spoke with Elizabeth Combs, Managing Director of the Frontline Research & Learning Institute to ask her what they found.

[Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.]

Tell me about the methodology you used in this fourth installment of Bridging the Gap. How has the Frontline Research & Learning Institute been looking at these criteria to evaluate the state of professional learning today?

report criteria Data-Driven and Classroom-Focused Professional DevelopmentELIZABETH COMBS: We started with data from over 200 school districts, which represents more than 100,000 teaching professionals who have participated in over 3.2 million professional learning activities over the last five years.

We developed a set of definitions for each of the six criteria that are included in the ESSA definition, then identified what metrics we can use to help districts determine the extent to which the PD they’re offering actually meets those criteria. Throughout the reports we identify [certain] districts where data pointed to high alignment for one or more of the criteria, and included them throughout the series to understand how districts can shift their professional learning programs to be more in alignment with best practice.

Let’s look at one criteria for professional learning in ESSA: “classroom-focused.” How do you define “classroom-focused” in Bridging the Gap?

Elizabeth Combs: We refer to classroom-focused professional learning as learning that is related to the practices taking place during the teaching process and relevant instructional processes. In other words, “As a teacher, are you learning skills, concepts or strategies that are directly related to what and who you are teaching every day?” That might seem like an obvious concept, but if we go back to a one-size-fits-all environment of professional development, it’s almost impossible to provide PD that’s directly related to what everyone is teaching at the same time.

classroom focusedThere’s some encouraging news here, right? What did you find as you looked at the data?

EC: We found very encouraging news here. We found that 85% of the activities that were offered were aligned to the InTASC standards directly related to teaching practice. We define that to mean that 85% of activities offered were, in fact, classroom-focused.

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Classroom-focused learning has obvious benefits —stronger teaching, better learning, more improved student outcomes, etc. — but you write that it can also help to clarify professional learning itself. How so?

EC: The explicit connection between a professional learning activity and the standard of practice to which it’s aligned helps clarify the nature of that activity. This process results in clear expectations regarding the nature of the professional learning being offered.

What are the action steps for any district seeking to make professional learning more classroom-focused?

EC: There are many small steps that those leading professional programs can begin to implement. Simply providing teachers with the opportunity to observe master teachers, participate in mentoring and, of course, continue to ensure learning activities are aligned to teaching standards, will all help move this type of professional learning forward.

Do you have any words of encouragement for educators who might look at their professional learning programs and say, “Based on the criteria that the Every Student Succeeds Act gives us, we have a long way to go”?

EC: Start small, take baby steps and measure progress. The goal of the entire Bridging the Gap series is to provide leaders with ideas about how they can better align their programs with a best practice definition of professional learning, and to give them tools and metrics to measure their progress. We believe that’s the greatest value we’re offering through the reports: being able to document the extent to which all of the resources and efforts put into providing effective professional learning are making an impact, based upon a set of measurable criteria.

Get the Bridging the Gap series here  

Elizabeth Combs

Elizabeth Combs began her career as an elementary school teacher and Director of Administrative and Instructional Technology at Patchogue-Medford School District before moving to Imperial Software Systems, a professional learning services company, where she eventually served as President. She then held positions at My Learning Plan Inc. as President and Chief Strategy Officer. With degrees from the State University of New York at Geneseo and Teachers College, Columbia University, Ms. Combs has a passion for leveraging technology to support educator growth and over two decades of experience developing solutions rooted in best practices for professional development.