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Archived Messages from the Director of LF

By Stephanie Hirsh

Stephanie HirshToday President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Stephanie Hirsh, executive director of Learning Forward, offered these comments on the law:

"Learning Forward's focus in this new law is its improved definition of professional learning. We've long advocated for a definition of professional development in federal policy that aligns with our Standards for Professional Learning. We concentrated our advocacy energy on this element of the legislation because that definition applies to the references to professional development that appear throughout the law."

"I am pleased that the definition of professional development says at the outset that educator learning is an integral local strategy for building educator capacity to help students succeed with high academic standards. Just as important, the definition says that professional development must be 'sustained, (not stand-alone, 1-day, and short-term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, classroom focused....'" Our standards have outlined these elements for close to two decades. Sadly, the professional development that many educators in our country experience doesn't include these components, nor the other conditions and structures essential to professional learning that ultimately helps the students in our schools."

"Interestingly, perhaps the most important word in the rest of the definition is 'may.' The law lists many types of professional learning that 'may' be what an educator experiences; we're glad the wording recognizes that educators will need to determine precisely what that learning is. In our vision for effective learning, educators will identify their needs collaboratively and locally, based on the needs of their students, and in a cycle of continuous improvement."

"Finally, when it comes to actually implementing meaningful professional learning, educators require so much more than what is articulated in the definition in the law. I urge education leaders and stakeholders to be bold in demanding the resources and conditions that support professional learning and in holding themselves accountable for doing their part to build educator capacity to meet all students' needs."

December 18
ESSA Includes Improved Definition of Professional Development

Earlier this week, the House of Representatives passed the Every Student Succeeds Act by a 359-64 vote. While there is much to explore and discuss in the bill, Learning Forward's advocacy efforts related to the reauthorization of ESEA have concentrated solely on professional development.

We believe that ensuring a clear and specific definition of professional development in federal policy, one that aligns with our Standards for Professional Learning, lays the groundwork for states, districts, and schools to create professional learning that has impact. The definition of professional development that appears in the bill is important because it applies to every example of professional development mentioned in the bill.

Overall, we are satisfied with the definition that is included in Every Student Succeeds Act, though we believe that effective professional learning requires more than what the bill describes.

We're pleased with the first part of the definition. It begins: Professional development means activities that "(A) are an integral part of school and local education agency strategies for providing educators (including teachers, principals, other school leaders, specialized instructional support personnel, paraprofessionals, and, as applicable, early childhood educators) with the knowledge and skills necessary to enable students to succeed in the core academic subjects and to meet challenging State academic standards; and (B) are sustained (not stand-alone, 1-day, and short-term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, classroom-focused...."

While there are additional ways to improve upon this part of the definition -- it would be ideal to move away from thinking of professional development as "activities" rather than a continuous learning journey -- it is affirming that the key words included within it tie directly to Learning Forward's Standards for Professional Learning. Congress has affirmed that educators' professional development must be collaborative, job-embedded, sustained, classroom-focused, and data-driven. The definition is also significant because it so clearly focused on school- and classroom-level professional learning.

The legislation continues with this phrase: Professional development "may include activities that ..." followed by a long list of professional learning elements, experiences, and topics. For example, professional development may include activities that "improve and increase teachers' knowledge of the academic subjects the teachers teach."

The placement of the "may" is significant. Everything before "may include" is essential and officially part of the definition. Everything after "may include" is dependent on the context and needs of the local educators planning and implementing professional learning. To define professional learning too tightly would overlook the differentiated needs of educators and could contribute to schools and systems addressing adult learning through one-size-fits-all solutions. We trust educators to use the key words before the "may" to assess their needs and design their learning objectives and processes, then identify the priorities that best fit their circumstances among those listed after the "may."

As education leaders and policymakers make sense of the bill once it moves into law, which is expected to happen next week, we are hopeful that in implementing the definition of professional development, they will also consider the following:

  • Evaluation of impact must be a part of any professional learning, as it is part of so many other school improvement elements outlined in the legislation.

  • The cycle of continuous improvement is the ideal vehicle for making so much of this definition come to life in schools. Through collaborative, continuous problem solving, teachers examine data to understand what student and adult learners need, set professional learning goals and determine learning strategies, apply their new learning with ongoing support, and assess the impact of what they've applied in their classrooms.

  • Clearly defining the professional learning roles and responsibilities of educators throughout the system helps ensure meaningful implementation and collective accountability for results.

  • While the definition of professional development in the bill describes that educators gain "knowledge and skills," intentionally addressing changes in practice is essential to achieving better results for students.
Defining professional learning meaningfully in policy is one key step. But the definition doesn't equate to implementation. The hard work of planning, facilitating, implementing, sustaining, and evaluating professional learning happens every day in states, districts, and schools.

As always, Learning Forward is eager to provide educators the support they need to create learning that meets this definition and aligns to the Standards for Professional Learning. Please let us know how we can continue to do so.

By Stephanie Hirsh

Learning Forward's mission and vision statements serve as guideposts for the organization. Over the last several months, we've been re-evaluating these guiding statements. We believe that our vision needs to speak to a broader audience and make a powerful statement about why professional learning is so important. Likewise, the mission needs to provide more clarity about our work.

At our Annual Conference in December, Learning Forward revealed these new statements.

Our new vision statement is, "Excellent teaching and learning every day." We wanted a vision that represents our collective desired future -- what Learning Forward efforts are meant to accomplish. When asked to describe what Learning Forward is about, we can say: "We're an association committed to excellent teaching and learning every day."

But how do we make that possible? Learning Forward's new mission represents the organization's role in making the vision a reality. The new mission is, "Learning Forward builds the capacity of leaders to establish and sustain highly effective professional learning."

This statement represents our commitment to ensuring excellent learning for every educator every day. We will use our resources to help you build capacity to do the important work you need to do. We will focus our programs, services, and resources to help you to build, launch, and establish programs and systems of professional learning.

And we will apply that same diligence to helping you implement, monitor, evaluate, and sustain those programs, processes, and systems.

Updated Resources for Standards for Professional Learning

» List of Professional Learning Standards
» Resources for Standards for Professional Learning
» Facilitating Change