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Measuring the Impact of Professional Learning at Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools

Professional Growth

By Kevin Schuttinger, Ph.D., Director of Teaching and Learning at Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools

Located on the southern edge of the greater Minneapolis area, Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools is home to nearly 9,000 students. With its commitment to environmental education and STEM, district and community leaders want to ensure that students have high-quality instruction to reach their potential as contributing and productive members of the ever-changing global community.

Focus of Inquiry

The district team joined the Frontline Research & Learning Institute and Learning Forward’s initiative, Measuring the Impact of Professional Learning, to ramp up the effectiveness of educator learning. The team wanted to seek and use input from teachers about their learning so they could better use the limited time and resources in ways that would produce the greatest impact on leader and teacher practice and student learning.

With a new districtwide initiative, the Laker Learning Plan, as the driver, district leaders used the PDSA cycle to identify both their strengths and opportunities. The Laker Learning Plan details how to change students’ school experience, and is centered on the principles of personalized learning. Clarifying the district’s core instructional practices and then implementing them in every classroom became the focus for both the district and building leadership teams.

The key question for the district’s participation in the initiative was how to determine what did or did not exist that was necessary to advance purposeful personalized learning in every classroom, and to build active engagement among teachers in professional learning to build their capacity to transform classrooms into environments where each student experienced personalized learning. The district team sought to use the data they would gather to create a professional learning plan that would ensure success in implementing their vision of high-quality instruction.

District and school leadership teams led a series of chalk talks over a six-month period to identify the core elements of effective instruction. District leaders first engaged in the chalk talk process, after which building leadership teams added their contributions. Next, every teacher in the district added his or her voice to the work when the chalk talk process was replicated in each school. Structuring the needs evaluation process to engage virtually every instructional staff member led to two important outcomes:

  • It produced an enormous pool of data and it engaged all staff in expressing their views.
  • It increased buy in for the new teaching and learning framework, and also for the professional learning plan to implement the framework.

District leaders used semantic analysis, a process of finding trends and themes among the qualitative data, to make sense of the volume of data. Major themes that emerged about high-quality learning experiences included:

  • student-centered
  • standards-based
  • responsive to student needs
  • engaging
  • purposeful

The clustered data were then benchmarked against research and best practices in leading school systems for content validity and for clarity of description. The process allowed district leaders to weave into the description of the student-learning experience other major district initiatives, such as culturally relevant teaching and standards-based grading, that were often viewed as isolated initiatives.

With a clarified view of what quality learning experiences are, the district set out to plan and evaluate the professional learning necessary to support deep implementation. As with many districts, past professional learning had been spread across a wide array of areas and was without a common focus or clear alignment with district and school goals. With a stronger focus and greater clarity of intended outcomes, professional learning now could be planned, implemented and evaluated for its impact on educator practice and student success.

Challenges Encountered

Along the way, district and school leaders encountered challenges. Maintaining momentum of this effort amid the daily demands of educating students was a challenge that confronted district leaders nearly every day. As with many initiatives, potential pitfalls were that the routines of daily work often overwhelm people, and that energy and efforts for what does not yet exist in practice are lost in favor of dealing with the day-to-day work of schools.

Creating concise and meaningful descriptors of the core elements of student learning experiences, so they were both clear and accessible, was another challenge that required wordsmithing, researching and reading other’s similar frameworks. Creating a graphic display of the core elements that served as a reference took time and thought, and became a way for ongoing assessment and conversation about the elements.

The plan for professional learning to meet the multiple needs of staff emerged as leadership teams worked through the challenges. Some elements of the plan included:

  • Book studies with leadership teams
  • Supporting principals and peer coaches to use what they were learning
  • Helping teachers gain more capacity to release control to students
  • Encouraging professional learning communities within schools to integrate personalized learning principles into instructional planning

The district applied for external grant funds to further its efforts in professional learning and implemented a districtwide platform to support student-centered learning and professional learning. District leaders engaged with other districts to study how they were implementing innovations, and learned from their interactions with leaders of other districts engaged in the Measuring the Impact of Professional Learning initiative. Through the process, district leaders recognized that a core part of professional learning they needed to address was the mindset of educators to value student-centered and student-driven learning.

Next Steps

Over the past two years, leadership teams used a needs evaluation process to understand its current state, and to clarify expectations for student-learning experience. The product of their thoughtful needs evaluation and planning will launch in the fall of 2019 as the new teaching and learning framework is implemented. Qualitative data suggest that there is positive energy and excitement, yet the district leaders enter the next phase with their eyes wide open. They acknowledge that the transition will be a seven- to 10-year process of continuous learning, adapting and monitoring. They have more work to do to plan for ongoing evaluation of their progress and results for both educators and students. They intend to go slowly to make deep changes, and to hand off responsibility to school leadership teams and instructional coaches to support desired classroom-level changes.

To support the ongoing evaluation, the district is developing self-assessment tools for aligning instructional competencies with the framework. They are adapting their current instructional walkthrough tool to include elements of personalized learning to gather data in order to assess progress of implementation and clarify additional professional learning needs. The evaluation focus now emphasizes formative evaluation to measure progress toward the long-term goal as a means to inform decisions at the district and school levels for additional supports.

Lessons Learned

As district leaders look back at their engagement in the Measuring the Impact of Professional Learning initiative, they identified several lessons learned.

Bring people along. Including the fingerprints of everyone was crucial to shaping the framework so it belonged to everyone and aligned with the strategic directions. Teachers on the ground had a voice in what is going on. They were able to contribute their ideas and identify their needs and challenges. Their engagement acknowledged the complexity of teaching and the enormous efforts required for student success.

Learn together. As leadership teams both at the district and school level learned together, read, studied research about teaching, and interacted with educators in other districts about their work, they continued to build common knowledge, a clear vision, and a deeper understanding of their needs. Learning together as leaders empowered them lead the change.

Take time. Some might be critical of the nearly two-year investment Prior Lake-Savage Area School leaders spent in study, needs evaluation, benchmarking and clarifying their vision. Yet doing so established the baseline, common understanding of where they are going, what they want to achieve and how they plan to get there.

Have a long view. What is important to success is the realization that change takes time. It begins with knowing what the change is, and then understanding what is needed to achieve success. Leaders understand that they can’t let the tail wag the dog.

Integrate initiatives. Deep change in students’ school experiences, and particularly the implementation of personalized learning, requires changes in multiple areas of the education system. These multiple changes can appear to be isolated initiatives without an evident connection. Building strong connections and a graphic display of how the multiple parts of the education system work together to support student success keeps the focus on one main priority, student success, rather than multiple ones.

Kevin Schuttinger

Kevin Schuttinger, Ph.D., Director of Teaching and Learning at Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools