Editor’s note: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently launched “The Acceleration Imperative,” an open-source, evidence-based resource designed to aid instructional leaders’ efforts to address the enormous challenges faced by their students, families, teachers, and staff over the past year. It comprises four chapters split into nineteen individual topics. Over the coming weeks, we will publish each of these as a standalone blog post. This is the third. Read the first and second.
Ongoing professional learning for educators that is well designed, based on the science of learning, responsive to teachers’ needs, curriculum-centric, and aligned with school-wide priorities is the bedrock of positive school culture. There’s simply no way any school can implement high-quality curricula and research-based instructional practices, or address students’ unfinished learning and mental health needs, without it.
Most professional learning should be tied directly to the high-quality curriculum a school, district, or network has chosen. Administrators also should schedule frequent opportunities for observation and feedback on teachers’ instructional practice by peers, coaches, and school leaders, using established frameworks and grade-level expectations for student achievement. In addition, during shared professional learning time in subject or grade-level groups, teachers should focus on developing deep content and curriculum knowledge by studying curriculum, planning and practicing lessons, anticipating misunderstandings, and carefully examining student work.
- Link professional learning and curriculum work together. When purchasing a curriculum, also arrange for professional development services from the curriculum developer or a training organization that specializes in supporting educators to use that specific curriculum. Our contributors and reviewers point to leading organizations such as SchoolKit, Teaching Lab, Instruction Partners, TNTP, and Leading Educators. Rivet Education is a trusted source of reviews for major professional learning providers.
- Many schools have created professional learning communities (PLCs), but these structures and times are not always used well. Avoid “PLC Lite” by building regular PLC time into the weekly schedule, providing skilled facilitators to lead those sessions, and establishing agendas that focus on curriculum study and candid discussions of student progress, including detailed reviews of work samples and data analysis.
- Schedule time for teachers and instructional coaches to observe other teachers or watch videos of their lessons and offer feedback, and normalize that as part of grade-level PLC work. In particular, coaches or PLC facilitators should ask questions and push teachers to think deeply about their instruction and impact on student learning.
- Ensure school or district leadership and decision-making is aligned to goals for ongoing professional learning and curriculum implementation. This could mean reassigning a staff member to handle oversight, or partnering with an external professional learning vendor to support change management, provide leadership development, or troubleshoot logistics. In all cases, maintaining a coherent approach to professional learning, using the school’s curriculum as a guide, is key
Components of Strong Professional Learning
Strong professional learning focuses on what Richard Elmore terms the “instructional core”: the relationship between the content, teacher, and student. Each component of the core affects the others. To improve student learning at large, schools can raise the level of the content that students are taught, increase the skill and knowledge that teachers bring to that content, and increase the level of students’ active learning of the content. This framework establishes the imperative of putting what happens in the classroom at the very center of professional development efforts.
When a school has a high-quality curriculum to focus on, it also has a “North Star” for professional learning. High-quality curriculum supports a teacher’s content knowledge and pedagogical skill, builds on the science of learning to present content and activities in a coherent way, and clarifies expectations for teaching and learning. Given the infinite array of possible outcomes to any given lesson—which vary with each student’s level of preparation, how they are doing on a given day, and so forth—teaching is ultimately a series of hundreds of in-the-moment decisions about execution and response. Curriculum-based professional learning focuses those decisions and helps to ensure that, over time, they are made with increased intentionality and consistency.
Another vitally important feature of effective professional learning and schools is making time for thoughtfully structured PLCs. Numerous studies document their teacher-perceived benefits, and some also demonstrate positive student outcomes, including increases in academic achievement. By far the most compelling use and rationale for PLCs is the opportunity for teachers to collaboratively interrogate and intellectually prepare to teach the curriculum, as well as identify what is or is not working and why. PLC structures also can support observations by peers or instructional coaches. This is akin to Japanese lesson study, which provides teachers the opportunity to plan, teach, observe, and critique their practice with colleagues.
Some districts and networks can serve as examples of this approach to curriculum-based, collaborative professional learning. For example, under the LEAP program at DC Public Schools, teachers meet weekly with trained leaders to unpack and rehearse lessons from the district’s Common Core–aligned curriculum, and are regularly observed and given feedback from an instructional coach.
There is a strong base of research supporting our professional learning recommendations. In a 2009 article, Thomas Guskey and Kwang Suk Yoon summarized findings from more than 1,300 studies that looked at impacts of professional development on student learning. The research indicated several characteristics of effective efforts. These include a focus on content, with activities that “were designed to help teachers better understand both what they teach and how students acquire specific content knowledge and skill,” and on careful adaptation of varied instructional practices rather than a single set of “best practices.” Effective development also involves outside experts, without whom teachers tended to focus on practices they already considered effective, rather than those shown to produce results.
In addition, a 2017 research brief by Linda Darling-Hammond, published by the Learning Policy Institute, cites seven features of effective professional development, based on a review of thirty-five studies over the last three decades:
- Content focused
- Incorporates active learning using adult learning theory
- Supports collaboration, typically in job-embedded contexts
- Uses models and modeling of effective practice
- Provides coaching and expert support
- Offers opportunities for feedback and reflection
- Of sustained duration
The Carnegie Corporation of New York recently released a challenge paper about the importance of curriculum-based professional learning that builds on this research. It calls for decision-makers at the system and school levels, curriculum designers, professional learning facilitators, and school-based personnel to begin to align their systems around such a vision.
Transformative professional learning may create a high level of cognitive dissonance, disturb teachers’ equilibrium, and must include the time and support they need to reflect on and revise their thinking. This happens as teachers gain new evidence about what works with their students through using the curriculum materials, which prompts changes in practice and, ultimately, beliefs and assumptions.
This type of “transformative professional learning” appears to be a defining characteristic of effective elementary schools, based on the strength of the arguments for a high-quality, content-rich curriculum. It can support teachers as they develop mastery with that curriculum and ensure that school leaders and outside experts “walk the walk” as they lead their team.
Briars, D. and Resnick. L. (2000). Standards assessments—and what else? The essential elements of standards-based school improvement. Los Angeles, CA: The National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing.
Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M., and Gardner, M. (2017). Effective Teacher Professional Development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.
Dogan, S., Pringle, R., and Mesa, J. (2016). The impacts of professional learning communities on science teachers’ knowledge, practice and student learning: A review. Professional Development in Education, 42(4), 569–588.
- Reviews empirical studies on the impact of PLCs on the practice and knowledge of K-12 science teachers, specifically examining changes in disciplinary content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge, and found that PLCs can help teachers increase both types of knowledge.
Elmore, R. (2002). Bridging the Gap between Standards and Achievement: The Imperative for Professional Development in Education. Washington, D.C.: Albert Shanker Institute.
- Student learning depends on the relationships established between a teacher, their students, and the content, which is defined asthe “instructional core.” Attention to all three is essential for improved student outcomes.
Guskey, T., and Yoon, K. (2009). What Works in Professional Development?Phi Delta Kappan, 90(7), 495-500.
Jackson, C. K., and Makarin, A. (2017). Can Online Off-The-Shelf Lessons Improve Student Outcomes? Evidence from a Field Experiment. National Bureau of Economic Research.
- The impact of implementing a high-quality curriculum increases when coupled with professional development. While the impact occurs for all teachers, it is largest for the weakest teachers.
Killion, J. (2008). Assessing Impact: Evaluating Professional Development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin and Learning Forward.
- Professional learning can be designed and executed to produce changes in adult knowledge, skills, behaviors, practices, attitudes, aspirations and beliefs (KASAB).
Reeves, D., and DuFour, R. (2016). The futility of PLC lite. Phi Delta Kappan, 97(6), 69-71.
Short, J., and Hirsch, S. (2020). The Elements: Transforming Teaching through Curriculum-Based Professional Learning. Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Somma, V. (2016). The impact of lesson study on teacher effectiveness. Doctoral Dissertation. St. John’s University (New York.) ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Takahashi, A. and McDougal, T. (2016). Collaborative lesson research: maximizing the impact of lesson study. ZDM, 48, 513–526
- Looks at some cases of where Japanese lesson study went wrong and right in the U.S., recommends a more “America-friendly” version called Collaborative Lesson Research, and presents details and preliminary results from a three-phase model of school-based CLR at 15 urban U.S. schools.
Taylor, J., Getty, S., Kowalski, S., Wilson, C., Carlson, J., and Van Scotter, P. (2015). An Efficacy Trial of Research-Based Curriculum Materials With Curriculum-Based Professional Development.American Educational Research Journal, 52(5), 984-1017.
- Highly effective professional learning positions teachers to further their expertise in content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and pedagogical content knowledge.
Thompson, C., and Zeuli, S. (1999). “The Frame and the Tapestry: Standards-Based Reform and Professional Development” in Teaching as the learning profession. Handbook of policy and practice. Darling-Hammond, L. and Sykes, G., eds. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Learning to teach in new ways requires teachers to examine their current assumptions and beliefs about content, how they teach that content ,and how their students learn best.
Wiener, R., and Pimentel, S. (2017). Practice What You Teach: Connecting Curriculum & Professional Learning in Schools. Aspen Institute.
Willems, I., and Van den Bossche, P. (2019). Lesson Study effectiveness for teachers’ professional learning: a best evidence synthesis. International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies. 8(4), 257-271.
- Review of research describing Lesson Study as a powerful professional development approach as a result of its positive impact on teachers’ professional learning in terms of knowledge, skills, behavior, and beliefs.
Vescio, V., Ross, D., and Adams, A. (2008). A Review of Research on the Impact of Professional Learning Communities on Teaching Practice and Student Learning. Teaching and Teacher Education: An International Journal of Research and Studies, 24(1), 80–91.
- A review of research; the collective results suggest that well-developed PLCs have positive impacts on both teaching practice and student achievement.