Teachers and leaders are the most significant in-school factors influencing student achievement. Students learn about content and develop skills in the context of meaningful relationships with educators, learning experiences that are relevant and engaging, and environments that are positive and culturally affirming. Educators’ knowledge, skills, and practices are therefore of paramount importance. Their capacity determines the success of other critical educational inputs, like a high-quality curriculum and college and career initiatives.
The Power of Professional Learning Standards for Educators
Professional learning for educators at all levels is the best way to ensure that educators can meet all students’ needs so that every student thrives. Students’ needs are constantly evolving, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, and research on the brain and learning continues to develop rapidly. Educators need to evolve with them. In order to be career-long learners who are continually improving their practice, educators need to evolve alongside their students’ needs.
But not all professional learning is created equal. We’ve learned a great deal over the last several decades about how to support educators’ development by nurturing cultures of collaborative inquiry, fostering leadership that builds educator capacity, and creating structures to ensure equitable access to learning and support for all staff.
To help build a systematic approach to high-quality professional learning, Learning Forward created the Standards for Professional Learning. Learning Forward is an organization dedicated to ensuring that all educators engage in excellent professional learning to ensure all students excel. The driving belief behind our standards is that, when introduced in schools and districts through a comprehensive, systemic approach, the standards will improve professional learning, which will help improve teacher practice, and in turn positively influence student learning.
Like other school leadership organizations, accrediting agencies, and subject matter expert groups, we update the standards on a regular basis to reflect the most current education research, be responsive to the changing needs of educators and learners, and better connect standards to school improvement.
Just as Cognia announced standards to deepen every school’s commitment to the learner in and out of school by emphasizing student voice and agency and taking into account the circumstances students face outside of school, Learning Forward integrated the latest research and current professional learning needs and considerations in our most recent revision in 2022.
During a two-year revision process, Learning Forward sought input from professional learning specialists, educators, researchers, school leaders, and others. We conducted a survey of the field, established a research advisory council, conducted focus groups, and hosted an extended comment period for stakeholders to comment on a draft of the standards. Our goal was to make the standards useful to a broad range of learning professionals while grounding them in best practice and research.
Comprehensive research conducted by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) bears out the standards’ connection to best practice. AIR conducted a systematic literature review and analysis of how professional learning containing features aligned with each standard were associated with instruction and student achievement outcomes. AIR also examined the overall average effects of professional learning in studies on instruction and student achievement, and analyzed the extent to which changes in teacher outcomes explained changes in student achievement.
Their research found that professional learning aligned with the standards is positively associated with high-quality instruction and student achievement and, moreover, that the improvements in student achievement can be explained through the improvements in instruction. The research report notes that the effects are not only significant but probably larger than the studies’ methodology was able to estimate.
Why the standards are especially important today
Aligning professional learning with the standards always has been important to guarantee that educators’ learning time is well-spent and that students benefit. But a number of recent educational trends have underscored the need for professional learning that is grounded in what we know works.
In the context of persistent teacher shortages, more teachers than ever before come to the profession from diverse preparation pathways, including alternative certification pathways that prepare new teachers at the same time they are serving as full-time classroom teachers. As a result, many new teachers have not been trained in or learned about key aspects of teaching before taking responsibility for a class of students. High-quality professional learning is especially important for these teachers.
There also is growing evidence that high quality professional learning can help stem teacher attrition, which remains a chronic and worsening problem. This is particularly true for teachers of color, who leave the field at a higher rate (18%) than white teachers (15%). Teachers of color said that improving professional learning (41%) and leadership development (41%) are the two best strategies for teacher retention—far more significant than higher salaries (22%). This may be due, in part, to the fact that a commitment to professional learning demonstrates an investment in teachers’ careers and success.
Standards are important because, for all teachers, access to high-quality professional learning is more limited today than we would like. For example, the 2022 American Instructional Resources Survey showed that while most teachers engage in professional learning, it is not always the most effective type. Teachers receive substantial opportunities to be part of collaborative learning, but more than half say they do not receive any form of coaching—the kind of job-embedded professional learning that is most valuable because it provides opportunities for follow-up and sustained attention to the intended learning. Similarly, more than half of teachers say that they have only limited access to experts in subject matter knowledge, supporting English-language learners, and students with individual education plans. And teachers consistently report that they want professional learning to be more tailored and responsive to their needs and feedback.
Standards guide leaders to make professional learning time meaningful. When used at the system level, they can ensure coherence across schools, years, and administrative changes so that access to high-quality learning is guaranteed for everyone, not a matter of happenstance.
How the standards are making a difference
We have seen significant evidence of the standards’ impact in real-world examples of how they inform and provide structure for professional learning systems, and how those systems, in turn, lead to positive outcomes for teachers and students. These are some of the results we have observed.
Transforming reading results. Noline Martin participated in Learning Forward’s Academy, our flagship learning experience grounded in the standards, when she was an assistant principal at Thurgood Marshall Elementary in Richardson, Texas. She focused her work during the academy on learning how to improve literacy rates at her school, where only 19% of third graders were reading at grade level a few years ago. Using what she learned and the way the standards were modeled, she set up a book study with K-3 teachers, developed professional learning communities that united teachers and staff around literacy instruction methods, and created opportunities for teachers across grades to look at reading data together and identify changes in practice and outcomes. Thurgood Marshall’s third graders have since made huge strides: for the last two years, over 83% met or exceeded the school’s growth goals in reading.
Implementing statewide teacher mentoring in Louisiana. To ensure that new teachers had the tools and support to succeed from year one and improve retention, the Louisiana Department of Education launched a program in 2014 offering new teachers three years of support from an expert mentor. In 2016, Louisiana’s education agency selected Learning Forward to design and facilitate a mentor teacher training program to prepare and support those expert teachers to become skilled mentors, guided in part by the Standards for Professional Learning. The program ultimately became mandatory, and a 2022 report on the initiative revealed that teachers who participated were seven percentage points more likely to stay in the same school district for at least three years. Furthermore, mentors reported that they saw improvements in their own practice and in their students’ performance.
Investing in teacher recruitment and retention. The state board of education in Missouri established a commission focused on teacher recruitment and retention and has directed nearly $55 million in recruitment and retention grants. Local education agencies reported using those grants for a range of strategies and supports that include high-quality, standards-aligned professional learning in the form of mentoring and leadership opportunities and creating a culture where teachers feel appreciated and valued, in addition to instrumental supports like higher salaries. While preliminary results for teacher retention have been quite positive, a similar statewide multi-year investment in professional learning for school leaders has had a dramatic impact. At a time when many principals are leaving the profession, 98%of Missouri principals who participated in a comprehensive professional learning program for principals have been retained in their positions, compared to 78% of their peers who did not participate.
How school systems can use the standards
Many states, provinces, and districts have adopted the Standards for Professional Learning and are applying them in a range of ways and in combination with our professional learning supports. For example, among its other direct services, Learning Forward works with district leadership teams to develop a comprehensive professional learning plan to ensure that all teachers have access to high-quality, relevant, and sustained professional learning that supports them in improving their practice. Throughout the development of a comprehensive learning plan, district staff conduct focus groups and survey educators at all levels to learn firsthand how professional learning occurs in schools, obtain feedback on the current system, and gather input on the development of the plan. The desired outcome is a plan for professional learning that provides coherence from central office to schools so that educators at all levels are working together toward a shared vision of quality teaching and learning.
In addition, districts can assess how well their system is aligned to the Learning Forward standards using the Standards Assessment Inventory (SAI), a 30-minute online teacher perception survey that provides data about the professional learning teachers are experiencing (no knowledge of the standards is needed to take the SAI).
|Rigorous Content for Each LearnerStandards within the Rigorous Content for Each Learner frame describes the essential content of adult learning that leads to improved student outcomes.
Standards within the Transformational Processes frame describe process elements of professional learning, explaining how educators learn in ways that sustain significant changes in their knowledge, skills, practices, and mindsets.
Conditions for Success
Standards within the Conditions for Success frame describe aspects of the professional learning context, structures, and cultures that undergird high-quality professional learning.
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