Research and Reflections, Standards-Alignment Information, Tools and Resources

Not Your Mom’s Professional Development

What needs to change in professional learning design

Recently I asked my mom, a special education paraprofessional for 30 years, what she thought about the professional learning she received as an educator in the 1980s. She described sitting in impersonal auditoriums for “faculty trainings” where everyone, regardless of which subjects they taught, which grades they supported, and what unique student needs they were trying to meet, listened to the same presentation. Because these workshops had to apply, at least a little, to everyone in attendance, they focused on generic topics like “lesson planning” and “differentiated instruction,” but they never drilled down to the subject- and student-specific questions my mom had. These workshops were one-and-done: people went in, listened politely, left, and sometimes tried a thing or two they’d heard.

I then reflected on my own experience as a teacher in the early 2000s. The school provided curriculum and professional learning–but I was often handed a bunch of printed strategies, materials, and ideas that I then had to stitch together into something that would meet the specific interests, strengths, and needs of my students. The internet wasn’t as advanced, so searching for subject-, topic-, or grade-specific content was time-consuming and often fruitless. In my school we didn’t have coaches, so we teachers often banded together when it came to trying to apply what we were given to our lesson plans.

It’s now 2020 and things have changed. College-and-career-ready standards and the increased availability of high-quality instructional materials mean that many teachers have a strong understanding of what their students need to know and be able to do in their classrooms–and they already have the materials they need to provide that instruction. They aren’t trying to haphazardly piece a program together like I did. Teachers are savvier. The internet is ready to provide answers (some helpful, some the opposite of helpful) to any question you could come up with as a teacher. There’s a renewed focus on research (and the evidence it provides about what works in teaching) and an intensifying intolerance for the fact that for too long our classrooms haven’t been equitable–they’ve privileged certain learners while ignoring the needs and contributions of others. So what does that mean for what professional learning should be today?

Student Achievement Partners embarked on a project to find out what present-day professional learning needed to include to meet the needs of today’s teachers. We knew that not all professional learning needed to look the same, but we also knew that certain things needed to be true for it to be effective for today’s teachers and ultimately students.

We started by speaking with more than 50 teachers and professional learning providers to hear what they were saying about present-day needs. We heard that today’s teachers know about the potential positive impact on students of materials aligned to college- and career-ready standards, so they want professional learning that focuses on those things! They want to know why they should believe what they’re hearing; why they should take the time and effort to change their practice; and what research-based evidence points to this as more than just “something else to try.”

Just like my mom and I experienced, teachers today have specific questions and need tailored support–they aren’t satisfied with one-size-fits all approaches. Today’s teachers need different support than my mom and I did because their realities are different. If a teacher has a high-quality, standards-aligned curriculum, generic lesson planning guidance isn’t valuable to them–they need support on how to best deliver the rich, complex lessons, and ensure all students have access to them. The internet is so much better than it was when I was a young teacher, making it important for teachers to understand research-based practices so that they can better filter the resources that are available to them with a single click. There’s also more concern and information available about supporting student needs and creating more equitable classrooms. So teachers know to ask questions as specific as, “How can I get feedback about whether the questioning strategies in my 6th grade math class engages all of my students, especially my ELL students?”

These same teachers said that, usually, the professional learning they received didn’t match what they needed. It didn’t answer the questions they had or address the needs of their students; it didn’t build upon the foundation of the materials they used, and it didn’t help them take action or create the conditions for ongoing support and iteration to continue to improve their practice. Their professional learning experience sounded all too similar to my mom’s and to mine.

How do we break the cycle of misspent time and unsatisfactory support? As Student Achievement Partners spoke with teachers about their experience, we simultaneously delved into more than 200 different studies, reports, and rubrics to see if what research claimed was effective. It turned out that it matched perfectly with what we heard teachers requesting. It was true that there were some non-negotiable elements that needed to be present regardless of the professional learning format (coaching, learning communities, workshops, etc.), topic, subject or grade being addressed. These non-negotiables became the Principles for High-Quality, Standards-Aligned Professional Learning:

Principle 1: Professional learning must be content-focused. Professional learning builds teachers’ content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge necessary to teach the concepts of their discipline.

Principle 2: Professional learning must be teacher- and student-centered. Professional learning promotes collective responsibility for students’ learning and cultivates a dynamic culture for adult learning.

Principle 3: Professional learning must be instructionally relevant and actionable. Professional learning is anchored in the instructional priorities of teachers’ daily work and is sustained in a coherent system of collaborative planning, classroom practice, observation, feedback, and continuous cycles of inquiry grounded in evidence of student learning.

The Principles articulate what needs to be true based on a synthesis of existing knowledge about professional learning, while leaving space for a diversity of structures to match the needs of a local setting. We see these Principles as an opportunity to examine our professional learning practices and make adjustments that reflect the most effective practices and the evolving nature of instruction in today’s classrooms. We invite you to read the Principles and their defining descriptors, and ask yourself what you can do to advocate for, design, or deliver better professional learning. To help you take the first step in changing the professional learning landscape, we’ve created role-specific lists of actions you can take.

It is time to raise the bar for professional learning. Too many teachers are saying the same things my mother said about her professional learning decades ago. We must do better.


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About the Author: Rachel Etienne is the Executive Vice President of Professional Learning at Student Achievement Partners. As an ELA/literacy specialist, Rachel created and curated online curriculum and professional learning resources and facilitated large-scale training and communities of practice for instructional leaders and teachers across the country. Prior to joining the team, Rachel had a range of experience in literacy education as an elementary classroom teacher and literacy coach in a large K-12 school district, parochial and charter school networks, and adult education programs. Rachel holds a bachelor's degree in Education from Eastern Michigan University.