There are two things you need to know about teacher “professional learning.” It almost always sucks. And it’s hardly ever about the curriculum teachers use. There’s a third thing worth knowing, too: Despite an estimated $18 billion spent annually on “PL,” there’s very little evidence that it’s effective. One report found that professional development tends to improve student outcomes very little, despite an average cost of $18,000 per teacher per year. Moreover, what scant evidence exists tends to evaluate the quality of professional development entirely on teachers’ perceptions: If teachers think their PD is effective, then it’s effective.
A new initiative is taking up the challenge of reviewing and rating professional learning in a more rigorous way, centered on the adoption and use of “high-quality instructional materials” (HQIM), and with the ambition of becoming something like the EdReports.org of professional learning. Louisiana-based Rivet Education has quietly published a “Professional Learning Partner Guide” aimed at increasing states’ use of high-quality instructional materials (HQIM) and aligned professional development for teachers.
In 2017, I reported and wrote a piece for Education Next on Louisiana’s effort under then-state chief John White to incentivize the adoption and implementation of rich and rigorous curriculum, and to use that as the pivot around which everything else revolves: assessment, professional development, and teacher training.
Rivet is the brainchild of a pair of veterans of that Louisiana work, Litsy Witkowski and Annie Morrison. “We saw the impact that our work on curriculum and instruction, and professional learning had in Louisiana,” Morrison tells me. “But most importantly, I think we saw this theory of change that we embraced in Louisiana that state agencies should define quality and they should define that quality across multiple pieces, assessment, standards, materials, professional learning, and they can incentivize their use in ways that don’t take away local control.”
Despite a burgeoning interest in HQIM, efforts to place curriculum at the center of school improvement efforts still appear to be the exception, not the rule. A 2020 RAND report noted that evidence is “mixed” on the extent to which curricula influences teacher practice and student learning. “A key reason is the role and work of the teacher in curriculum implementation,” the report noted. “Teachers are better positioned to use curricula well in their classroom lessons if they work within an instructional system in their school and district where standards, curricula, assessments, professional learning, and evaluation are all in alignment and working together to help teachers engage students in standards-aligned classroom practices.”
This was the logic behind Louisiana’s initiative and Rivet’s effort to evaluate and rate professional learning providers included in their Partner Guide. The two dozen or so recommended providers successfully met various “gateways” to merit inclusion. Applicants submit learning materials like training presentations, handouts, guidebooks, course syllabi, and coaching notes. Rivet’s reviewers evaluate the materials to determine if the organizations offer “significant evidence of robust, HQIM-aligned professional learning services.” Those that meet the criteria are profiled in Rivet’s “Professional Learning Partner Guide.”
Neither is Rivet a voice in the wilderness here. The Carnegie Corporation recently published a paper urging a shift to anchor professional learning in HQIM. “Traditional teacher professional development often takes the form of a lecture-heavy workshop disconnected from the day-to-day lessons that teachers lead,” the report noted. “By contrast, curriculum-based professional learning is active, ongoing, and focused on improving the rigor and impact of teachers’ lessons.”
These are welcome and overdue initiatives. But there should be no illusions about the complexity of the work. It’s a far steeper challenge than reviewing curriculum materials, which are comparatively static. The number one provider of teacher professional learning is not TNTP, ANet, or any of the two dozen other outfits that get the thumbs up from Rivet. It’s schools and districts themselves. Next come local universities, independent consultants, curriculum vendors, and the inevitable parade of camp followers with something to sell.
Also, while curricular materials arrive in classrooms as written, there are many more moving parts in professional development, which is generally delivered in person by individual trainers with a range of abilities, personalities, and skill. What has made Ed Reports successful is that it has established standards for quality in instructional materials and exerts an influence on curriculum developers to do what it takes to earn its top ratings. That’s much harder to do with PD providers because the pool of providers is vast and disorganized compared to the relatively small universe of publishers. There aren’t enough recognized, quality providers with sufficient capacity to constitute a “market” of quality providers at present.
But without question, there is room to encourage professional learning organizations to improve their services, or merely reorient PD to focus on curriculum, rather than pedagogy at large or the latest initiative from a school district. Arguably, the greatest leverage offered by Rivet’s Practice Guide is to raise districts’ own view of what professional learning should look like, and to raise sophistication about high-quality implementation of curriculum. This has been a bit of a blind spot for too long even among curriculum advocates, who can be guilty of promoting the idea (or allowing it to go unchallenged) that merely adopting “HQIM” is enough. As David Steiner of Johns Hopkins noted in this space not long ago, “We have built a system that not only fails to support the sustained use of demanding curriculum—but actively produces powerful disincentives to its use.”
Joanne Weiss, who co-leads the Instructional Materials/Professional Development Network at the Council of Chief State School Officers, which now includes thirteen states and was inspired by Louisiana’s curriculum-focused initiative, says, “I can project myself into a happy future where these vendors and PD providers have helped a district build their capacity, with the right structures in place and the right people leading PD.” Then you wouldn’t necessarily need a standing army of first-rate PL providers. But for now, it’s the linkage between high-quality materials and professional learning that’s the breakthrough idea. Says Weiss, “If we don’t get teachers who are trained in skillful use of instructional materials, there’s no silver bullet here.”