More important than ever: Professional learning that drives instructional change

Do you know if your professional learning is serving your teachers well? How about your students?

This year has reminded all of us just how valuable each moment a teacher spends with a student can be. While it will take a long time to understand all of the effects of COVID on education, the two questions that have always been at the heart of instruction are unlikely to change: How can teachers quickly and effectively identify what students know? How can they tailor their instruction based on that information to help all students reach their potential?

NWEA professional learning provides teachers and administrators the tools to answer those questions. We believe every educational service provider should be able to clearly describe how the professional learning they offer serves students. Since early last year, our team has undertaken a process to more clearly understand the relationship between:

  • High-quality professional learning offerings rooted in best practices
  • Positive outcomes for participants, schools, and districts
  • Alignment among curriculum, instruction, and assessment
  • Improvements in student outcomes

As we plan for the fall—and the even steeper opportunity gaps students are facing—it becomes ever more critical to help teachers understand what students know and can do, and strike the right balance of growth and proficiency to drive their success. Our theory of change, described below, is one way we drive focus on our mission at a time when so much seems in flux.

1. High-quality professional learning offerings rooted in best practices

We rely on best practices in professional learning, teaching and learning, and effective school systems to know we’re providing the best development opportunities possible. More specifically, we rely on the Standards for Professional Learning articulated by Learning Forward,  the InTASC Model Core Teaching Standards developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers, and ESSA’s call for professional learning that is sustained over a long period and that is job-embedded, data-driven, classroom-focused, and aligned with both evidence and the academic goals of schools, local education agencies, and states.

The elements that are core tenets of all three sets of standards—empowering professional learning communities, applying active learning techniques, offering frequent opportunities for feedback and reflection, and regularly using research and data—form the core of our professional learning practice.

2. Positive outcomes for participants, schools, and districts

The opportunity for professional learning to affect outcomes for students relies on how teachers and leaders change from participating in it. By measuring impact, we can see how offerings lead to changes in student outcomes or, if they don’t, we can see where we need to improve. We use surveys, walk-throughs, and other methods to evaluate the effectiveness of our professional learning, and we follow Thomas Guskey’s levels of impact:

  • Participants’ reactions: How satisfied participants are with all aspects of their professional learning
  • Participants’ learning: What knowledge and skills participants gain
  • Organizational support and change: How leadership advocates for and supports implementation of what educators learn
  • Participants’ use of new knowledge and skills: How participants use what they learn

3. Alignment among curriculum, instruction, and assessment

We believe that to change how students learn, building teachers’ knowledge and skills is not enough. Administrators must support teachers in applying what they learn. Our professional learning focuses on building alignment between curriculum, instruction, and assessment. We look for the following:

  • Effective use of the MAP® Suite of assessments to plan instruction, guide differentiation, and help students take ownership of their learning
  • Assessment literacy so educators can identify, use, and analyze assessment data for instructional purposes
  • Assessment literacy so students and their support systems, particularly their families, are empowered to take ownership of their learning
  • Effective use of formative assessment to bolster day-to-day monitoring of students’ progress
  • Data-informed decision-making by teachers and administrators, including combining assessment data with other forms of data on students to make effective decisions
  • The use of high-quality academic content standards to drive equitable, differentiated instruction

Alignment does not mean a system focused just on growth or just on proficiency. As our own Abby Javurek wrote, this is a false dilemma. Within an instructional year, month, and day, students should have the opportunity, through a variety of learning experiences, to interact with grade-level content, be exposed to grade-level expectations, and be provided individualized supports that meet them where they are.

4. Improvements in student outcomes

Professional learning has the ability to fundamentally change many of the ways students experience school, from the attitudes of their teachers to the level of ownership kids take of their learning and their overall feelings of well-being. Measuring the impact of professional learning on student outcomes is a difficult undertaking, but we believe in the power of appropriately designed professional learning to produce positive changes in student assessment scores of the substantial magnitudes recorded by Linda Darling-Hammond and colleagues.

We look for the following to determine if professional learning has had a positive effect on student outcomes:

  • Improvement in achievement measured by the MAP Suite
  • Improvement in achievement measured by state summative assessment scores
  • A portfolio through which teachers provide evidence of classroom practices related to assessment use

Learn more

To learn more about our approach to professional learning, read our white paper, browse our course offerings, and see us in action in our YouTube webinar series, Empowering students as independent learners.

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