In 2016, The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future—a national commission of educators, scholars, and political and business leaders—wrote a report on transforming the teaching profession to usher in a new era of student-centered learning. They did so with great hope that, after more than a decade of No Child Left Behind, changes in education would be dictated not by politics but by what works based on evidence and the professional judgment of educators. The report, What Matters Now, contended that by having more say in their professional learning, leadership roles, and school culture, educators could remake their own jobs and their schools from the inside out, through the process of continuous improvement.

The report argued that moving forward, diversity would not be an unsolvable problem in current industrial-era education, but would become the driving reason for transformation. Diversity and a focus on child development would help make education more relevant and supportive of students with different academic, social, and emotional abilities. The report noted that technology would make classrooms more open to the outside world and make personalized learning a reality by providing relevant instruction to support all students.

The authors of What Matters Now envisioned that learning would be interdisciplinary and would emphasize what young people can do through real-world demonstrations of knowledge that encourage critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving. Meanwhile, new connections between developers, researchers, and practitioners could speed the pace of innovation.

Rather than invest in expensive, large-scale, lengthy scientific studies to show mixed or marginal learning gains, knowledge derived from the learning sciences—particularly improvement science—could give educators useful knowledge about what strategies work, under what conditions, for different types of students. Soon, they argued, research/practitioner partnerships would refine learning tools and teaching practice through regional or national practitioner networks organized around complex problems—much as schools organize learning teams.

Teachers are taking on new roles as leaders, learning designers, facilitators, advisors, and content curators. But one of the biggest barriers to transformation of teaching and learning is the need for professional development (PD) aligned both to the individual teacher and to overarching district needs. A key lever of change will be giving teachers the tools and the collective authority to manage resources for their own learning.

Features of Effective Professional Development

To transform teaching and learning, teachers need PD that helps them in the classroom, gives them a voice in feedback and reflection, models good practice, takes place over a significant period of time, and goes beyond hearing a lecture from an expert on a topic at a professional meeting.  In a June 2017 report from the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) titled Effective Teacher Professional Development, authors Linda Darling-Hammond, Maria E. Hyler, Madelyn Gardner, and Danny Espinoza reviewed research to identify the key factors of effective PD.

They found from the research that effective PD:

  • Is content focused
  • Incorporates active learning utilizing 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 refection
  • Is of sustained duration

Not surprisingly, this list closely aligns with what teachers say they want from professional development. Analysis of research on teacher preferences indicates that teachers want professional learning opportunities that:

  • Are interactive, engaging, and relevant for their students
  • Show them a more practical way to deliver content
  • Are teacher-driven
  • Are sustained over time

Professional Development Challenges and Tradeoffs

The LPI report also recognized that even the best-designed programs can fail. Key reasons that they fall short include:

  • Inadequate resources, including necessary curriculum materials
  • Lack of a shared vision about what high-quality instruction entails
  • Lack of time for implementing new instructional approaches during the school day or year
  • Failure to align state and local policies toward a coherent set of instructional practices
  • Dysfunctional school cultures
  • Inability to track and assess the quality of PD

Significantly, the report further notes that “Implementing PD well also requires responsiveness to the specific needs of teachers and learners, and to the school and district contexts in which teaching and learning will take place.”

Many of the factors that limit the success of PD initiatives play themselves out in how districts fund and select programs, which currently are limited by resources, staff time, district expertise, and priorities.

Tight budgets for PD often prompt districts to make decisions about what PD is required by placing significant and necessary attention on key priority areas, such as addressing teaching and learning issues in math, reading and literacy development. Effective PD in these areas is not cheap—requiring site visits by national experts and significant training of district and school staff—and must be introduced with fidelity.

As a result, resources may be available to round out PD offerings, but not to address the comprehensive needs of the entire teaching force. Also, while PD programs offer time for reflection, monitoring accountability is largely done through survey information about teachers’ perceptions of the effectiveness of each program. There is often no capacity to give multiple choices of learning programs to teachers, supplement them with just-in-time coaching, and learn from teacher reflections to determine which teachers are mastering needed skills and what further supports each individual teacher needs.

Benefitting From Technology

New technology and tools can help to overcome the barriers of cost, district training capacity, convenience, and accountability that limit the scope, quality, and customizability of PD.

Cognia’s Trusted Partner LINC provides states, school districts, and schools access to LINCspring, an online platform that provides hundreds of “playlists” of searchable resources for particular PD topics and live support from coaches to support blended and hybrid learning. These tools, resources, and support help stimulate incremental shifts in policy, behavior, and practice—and are designed to lead to improved engagement and significant gains in achievement.

Trussville (AL) City Schools was among the first districts to fully integrate the key elements of LINCSpring. Located 15 minutes northeast of Birmingham, the district educates 5,500 students across three K–5 elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. The district worked with Cognia to introduce the platform during the COVID-19 pandemic when its leaders were concerned that they could not offer face-to-face professional learning opportunities.

“We needed something that was customizable and in which teachers could access learning cycles that meet their needs. Because of social distancing, we had to get really creative and think outside the box to be able to continue to provide high-quality professional learning,” said Dr. Lisa Berry, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

What was particularly attractive about Cognia’s new professional learning platform, district officials say, was that it was customizable and could allow greater insight into what was happening with individual teachers. In ways not possible before, the district could:

  • Pick and choose the playlist of learning modules
  • Align them to each of the district’s indicators (expectations) for effective educators
  • Give teachers choices about what they would learn
  • Receive (and give) feedback about exactly what was happening with each individual teacher

“The ability of the program to provide learning differentiated by topic and aligned to teacher and school needs has been crucially important,” Dr. Berry said. “Cognia’s partnership meets teachers where they are. It offers the flexibility for them to learn at their own pace and the autonomy to implement it into the curriculum when it is appropriate. The program equips teachers to better enhance student learning experiences, and teachers really appreciate having flexibility.”

As of this writing, the U.S. Department of Education provides ESSER funding for a variety of education needs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among their uses for these funds, districts can use them to provide technology-facilitated PD. For more information on how we can help visit Cognia’s ESSER funding page.

In the next edition of The Source, we will examine how Trussville City Schools, in Alabama, partnered with Cognia to implement comprehensive PD for its entire teaching force.

Sheppard Ranbom
Sheppard Ranbom is contributing editor of The Source. He is an award-winning education writer whose work has appeared in numerous education trade publications, daily newspapers, and magazines, and is the author or editor of dozens of definitive reports on education. For the past 24 years, he has been president of the Washington, DC-based education public affairs firm CommunicationWorks, LLC.