A Higher Standard for Professional Learning

Learning Forward outlines the contexts in which strong, coherent professional learning systems support school improvement.

Topics: Professional Learning, Professional Standards

A foundational tenet of Learning Forward’s Standards for Professional Learning is that research informs the standards. Because school leaders are committed to ensuring that plans and strategies are based on evidence, the standards reflect the best available knowledge about the ways in which professional learning leads to improved outcomes for educators and students.

Ongoing professional learning is essential to improved and equitable outcomes for educators and students. But only with evidence-based professional learning can school leaders guarantee that the programs they use reflect the best knowledge available about the ways in which educators can advance student learning.

To support school leaders who are committed to ensuring that their plans and strategies are based on evidence, research is the foundation of Learning Forward’s Standards for Professional Learning. And research about the standards themselves found that aligned programs and policies result in improved outcomes for educators and students alike.

In December 2021, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) released the results of a meta-analysis of 48 studies examining the impacts of 52 teacher professional learning programs. The meta-analysis found “consistent evidence that program alignment with the Learning Forward Standards for Professional Learning is associated with improved teacher instruction and student achievement outcomes.” Further, study findings “demonstrate that investments in professional learning can yield meaningful improvements in student achievement.”

“The standards establish a clear pathway for the development and implementation of high-quality, equitable professional learning that is both sustainable and reflective in practice,” says Amy Shaver, principal of Boones Mill Elementary in Rocky Mount, Virginia.

Conditions for Success

Although the standards are intertwined and interdependent, school leaders see themselves most often having an effect in the “Conditions for Success” area. This frame includes four standards: Equity Foundations, Culture of Collaborative Inquiry, Leadership, and Resources. These are the contexts in which strong, coherent professional learning systems thrive and support all learners to continuously improve.

Equity Foundations. The Equity Foundations standard lays the groundwork for processes and practices that ensure that all learners benefit from professional learning. Learning Forward’s commitment to equitable outcomes for all students is guided by the premise that when more educators experience high-quality professional learning, more students have access to high-quality teaching and learning.

Research emerging over the last decade highlights the positive effect of professional learning that includes equity-related content, including strategies to appreciate educator and student backgrounds as assets that should be incorporated to improve the learning culture. Additional research on professional learning and culturally responsive teaching reveals that bridging cultures in schools can improve teaching and learning, help describe the features of equity-focused professional learning, and offer ideas on the assessment of instructional design and quality.

Culture of Collaborative Inquiry. The Culture of Collaborative Inquiry standard is of critical importance to principals, since they are responsible for modeling, establishing, and advocating for a school culture that values continuous improvement and learning. Standards affirm the importance of educator collaboration in improving individual and collective educator practice and a learning culture.

While there has long been evidence that collaboration among educators leads to improved outcomes for teachers and students, recent research supports collaboration that focuses on instruction and day-to-day practice. Research also demonstrates how collaborative structures become even more effective when they are infused with an inquiry approach, address a combination of individual and collective learning, and build capacity for teacher voice and agency.

Leadership. The Leadership standard has evolved over the years as the role of the principal has been examined more completely. Research has long affirmed the role of the principal in successful program implementation, confirming that effective school leadership is associated with better outcomes for teachers and students.

A research synthesis supported by The Wallace Foundation, “How Principals Affect Students and Schools: A Systematic Synthesis of Two Decades of Research,” reveals that principals have an even greater impact on student outcomes than previously thought. In addition to key findings about impact and reach (see sidebar), the study says “it is difficult to envision an investment in K–12 education with a higher ceiling on its potential return than improving school leadership.”

Resources. The Resources standard focuses on how important it is to strategically allocate and monitor time, human resources, funding, and technology, and to attend to equity when making resource decisions. Resource allocation and monitoring is perhaps more important than ever as schools face tight budgets, teacher turnover, and increasing demands. Over the last five years, Learning Forward has redoubled its efforts to help educators document the strategic allocation and impact of professional learning resources—especially Title II funding—to strengthen the argument about the benefits of long-term investment in professional learning systems.

Principals have a pivotal role in resource allocation, continuously making evidence-informed, strategic decisions about where to spend time and money. Tracking time as a resource demonstrates to parents, colleagues, and communities that time allocated to professional learning makes a positive difference for students and educators.

One of the key issues confronting public education today is the need for a diverse, well-trained, and stable teacher-leader workforce that’s equitably distributed across all states, communities, districts, and schools. A high-quality professional learning system aligned to the Standards for Professional Learning can inform and accelerate policies and practices intended to solve such equity challenges; they set the bar for high-quality professional learning for every educator that in turn can help each student engage in high-quality learning.

Urgent Needs

The challenges of the past three years have heightened the urgency for comprehensive professional learning systems. Educators at all levels are working harder to meet the needs of their students despite daunting conditions. In conversations with school, district, and state leaders, Learning Forward hears that they want to equip themselves and their colleagues with the knowledge, skills, and behaviors needed to accelerate student growth and reduce the opportunity gaps that can derail the most underserved students. They also understand that they can’t do this work alone or in silos.

Many principals express a common hope: To be part of a collaborative, supportive system in which everyone is rowing in the same direction toward common goals, undergirded by equitable and evidence-based policies, programs, and practices that accelerate excellent teaching and student outcomes. The Standards for Professional Learning and the tools that accompany them can provide direction and guidance on steering the boat.

Principals play a pivotal role in implementing standards. That’s why Learning Forward developed Action Guides for principals, as well as for multiple other roles, that outline key responsibilities grouped by the standards frames. Action Guides can be used to raise awareness about effective professional learning systems and to develop collaborative efforts focused on implementation.

The principal’s Action Guide is not meant to be an all-inclusive checklist, but rather to drive critical actions to achieve school goals and priorities. The responsibilities outlined complement and support those of educators in other roles, often embedding collaboration because principals share school leadership and perhaps some of these responsibilities with assistant principals, leadership teams, and others. Under Conditions for Success, they include:

  • Create a school culture in which professional learning connects to each student’s opportunity for and access to rigorous learning.
  • Create a vision for how professional learning enables educators to achieve school and system goals.
  • Create schedules that include time for job-embedded learning for all educators in a school.
  • Advocate for the adoption of Standards for Professional Learning at the system level.
  • Prioritize and model learning as a leader.
  • Principals have additional responsibilities in the Rigorous Content for Each Learner and Transformational Processes frames of the standards:
  • Learn about student and family contexts and life experiences and their potential impact on teaching, learning, and interactions
    at school.
  • Develop or contribute to policies that provide high-quality curriculum and instructional materials and aligned assessments.
  • Leverage inclusive professional learning practices in the school, removing barriers that result from historical or systemic inequities.
  • Set professional learning goals for staff that are tied to student needs.
  • Sustain learning with opportunities for practice, feedback, and follow-up with coaches and team leads.

“Effective school leadership is the key to students’ academic success,” says Noline Martin, assistant principal of Richardson Independent School District in Richardson, Texas. “I had no previous training in professional learning. Yet, I wanted to be an effective leader who provides all the conditions necessary to have my teachers and students experience success. The Standards for Professional Learning have become my go-to leadership tool.”

Paul Fleming is chief learning officer at Learning Forward.

Elizabeth Foster is vice president of research and standards at Learning Forward.