Bridgng The Gap

Launching a civil discourse on improving teacher and leader professional learning

T he public discourse surrounding professional learning has, for many years, been characterized by a combination of disgust and paralysis. Educators, the narrative goes, are subject to “development” experiences that are high in neither quality nor relevance. And those rare professional learning activities that are helpful are neither sustained nor supported by leadership. Observing such a bleak portrait may cause even the most stalwart optimist to question the utility of professional learning. Cynics may conclude it an expensive waste of precious time. An alternative perspective on professional learning and its potential for transforming classrooms is nevertheless possible. Achieving it, however, requires a détente between believers and cynics — at least one long enough to explore the strengths and weaknesses of the field, establish some shared understanding of how to make it better and map a clear pathway to improvement.

featuring // Frederick Brown, Deputy Executive Director, Learning Forward / Margie Johnson, Business
Intelligence Coordinator, Metro Nashville Public Schools

authors // Elizabeth Combs Managing Director, Frontline Research & Learning Institute; Sarah Silverman, Ph.D.

Our contributors included two school district veterans. Frederick Brown, deputy executive director at Learning Forward, has been a leader in designing and facilitating cutting-edge learning experiences for school and district administrators for 15 years. Margie Johnson is business intelligence coordinator at Metro Nashville Public Schools. Most recently, Johnson has focused on building educators’ capacity to use data for making informed decisions and leveraging collaborative expertise for supporting student success. Both Brown and Johnson have in-school experience, first as teachers, then in many different administrative leadership positions.

“Without everyone on board and committed to the vision for improvement, it is likely not only to fall short but to stop making any progress at all.”

Measuring Effectiveness

We also asked Brown and Johnson what they would measure as an indicator of effectiveness if they could measure any aspect of a professional learning system. In addition, we wanted to know whether they quibbled with any of the metrics we selected and how they recommended improving them. Johnson said she would “avoid setting definitions and metrics autocratically.” For her, the specific definitions and metrics are important — but less important than the collective buy-in and support of the community that ultimately bears responsibility for learning and improving. Her ideal approach includes a collaborative inquiry model that results in mutually agreed upon definitions and metrics.

Brown observed that the best systems are aligned systems and that ideal definitions and metrics are aligned with the standards for professional leaning. He pointed out that schools and districts could also evaluate their alignment using the standards assessment inventory created by Learning Forward. In terms of quibbling definitions, he raised concerns that measuring “intensive” in accordance with the amount of time spent on a single topic was tantamount to measuring seat time. “In reality, many hours of poor quality may be just as ineffective ­— or worse — than little time spent in high quality learning activities,” Brown said. “A superior metric may also incorporate quality in some way.”

With these tools in hand, perhaps more schools and districts can make the improvements for which so many teachers have hoped.

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the best systems are aligned systems and that ideal definitions and metrics are aligned with the standards for professional leaning.

It is so important to make sure that there are clear metrics when considering how to measure progress against standards.