On Mirages and Movements: Confessions of a Professional Development Leader

The recent TNTP report, The Mirage, revealed a secret that I’ve long avoided admitting out loud – that most teacher professional development (PD) efforts do not appear to have a measurable benefit to teacher or student learning.

I suspected this to be the case five years ago when I coordinated systemwide PD for a large school district. It was this suspicion that prompted me to request a transfer to an assistant principal (AP) position. And it was that experience of leading professional learning at a turnaround middle school that confirmed my doubts. What I had once believed about high quality PD simply didn’t bear fruit.

Given that I’ve wrestled with this realization for several years now, I have a response to the three recommendations offered by the TNTP report.

TNTP Recommendation: Redefine what it means to help teachers improve

Response: Shift emphasis from high quality professional development to validated professional learning

When I was a PD coordinator, our departmental team led workshops for other curriculum supervisors on how to provide high quality PD. We were steeped in the standards for professional learning and adult learning theory, but standards alone don’t lead to impact. As an AP, I quickly understood that the barometer for professional learning isn’t the quality of a workshop but the impact on student learning. We made a shift from emphasizing high quality PD to engaging in validated professional learning. You can read the details here, but to sum it up – we learned that initially we were doing PD on the wrong things really well. It wasn’t until we analyzed the impact on student learning that we were able to adjust professional practice in a meaningful way.

While standards for professional learning outline characteristics, validated professional learning is the process of articulating, applying, and analyzing how professional practice impacts student learning.

TNTP Recommendation: Reevaluate existing professional learning supports and programs

Response: Shift from the 30,000 foot view to focus on the classroom perspective

One of my proudest accomplishments as a PD coordinator was leading the development of an online platform to align and evaluate systemwide PD for the district. We captured data from alignment to systemwide goals, teacher participation, and application of adult learning principles. We carefully designed our survey system according to Guskey’s five levels for evaluating professional development.

Knowing what I know now, I recognize our platform’s limitation. Our systemwide platform was great at seeing the 30,000 foot view, but it was unable to capture evidence of impact in the classroom. It’s like when you look down from a plane, you can see far and wide, you can see big landmarks, but you can’t see the people.

When I led professional learning at the school level, the teachers and I focused on measuring impact from the classroom perspective. We went beyond collaboratively planning implementation; we also co-designed assessment of student learning. We crafted the measures that would guide us in examining whether or not all of our professional learning efforts were leading to results for student learning. If we had only focused on the 30,000 foot view, we would have never made pivotal adjustments. The true measure of professional learning isn’t the participant survey given at the end of a session (that – in fact – is just the beginning). It’s the classroom view, the evidence of impact on student learning, that shows whether or not professional learning made a difference.

TNTP Recommendation: Reinvent how we support teaching at scale

Response: Shift from depending on external expertise to cultivating internal capacity

The most common form of professional development is to bring in an expert who presents for a few hours or a day or two. Then teachers depart to make the ideas work in their classrooms.

I fully admit my role in perpetuating this mirage. I present at PD workshops…a lot, and I’m good at it. But validated professional learning isn’t about me as a presenter; it’s about teachers and students as learners. We need to put teacher voice back into teacher learning. By teacher voice, I don’t mean for everyone to choose which workshop they “sit and get.” By teacher voice, I mean cultivating and capturing the articulation of how this professional practice impacts student learning.

Shifting from dependence on external expertise to cultivating internal capacity is easier said than done. One major challenge is that internal people keep changing. They get promoted, they move or resign, then all of their expertise moves or resigns with them. A recently popular approach has been to place an instructional coach in every school, but what supports are we providing for these coaches? Guiding a validated professional learning process is rigorous work, and there isn’t a how-to book to turn to. Making this shift requires a platform that honors teacher voice and builds a library of professional learning resources that are tailor-made by individual school communities and focused on classroom impact.

Why Validate Professional Learning?

This idea of validated professional learning is inspired by Eric Ries’ concept of validated learning in the lean startup movement. The goal of validated learning is to avoid wasted time – time spent working on the wrong thing. Likewise, validated professional learning seeks to reduce wasted time for teachers and students. How many hours do teachers waste sitting in PD that is irrelevant to their classroom experience? (Unfortunately, when professional learning is relevant, many teachers may have already tuned out.) How many minutes do students spend listening to lessons that they already know or lessons that lack attention to prerequisite skills? As a parent, I’m keenly aware that my son will only be 8 once. He won’t get this time back, and the precious hours he spends in the classroom impact his outlook on life and learning.

We owe it to our teachers and students to honor their time and to commit to validated professional learning. For the last five years, that has been my mission. And I hope that Lessoncast may provide the platform to replace the mirage with a movement.