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ESSA Redefines Professional Development for Teachers. Are You Ready for This Shift?

By Dennis Pierce

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the nation’s new education law, redefines the standards for high-quality professional development for teachers and K-12 leaders.

Why is that important? At least one national observer says the law could have a significant impact in moving schools away from the one-day workshop model that has dominated professional development for years and toward a new, more personalized—and more highly effective—approach.

ESSA’s predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, described professional development for teachers in very general terms. Under NCLB, professional development was defined as activities that improve teachers’ knowledge in the subjects they teach, allow them to become highly qualified, and advance their understanding of instructional strategies.

ESSA updates this definition by stating: “The term ‘professional development’ means activities that … are sustained (not stand-alone, 1-day, or short-term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom focused.” (S. 1177, Section 8002, page 295, paragraph 42)

In other words, professional development should be an ongoing process that is seamlessly woven into a teacher’s experience throughout the year, the law says—and not just a series of unconnected, “sit and get” workshops.

In drafting ESSA, lawmakers have acknowledged that “the conferences and the one-day seminars that have been the norm for years are not very effective,” said Megan Wolfe, government relations manager for ASCD, a professional organization of superintendents and other K-12 leaders.

“All the surveys that we conduct with our members show that’s not really what helps educators,” Wolfe added. “What they want is for their schools to provide this kind of job-embedded learning, with opportunities to collaborate with colleagues throughout the year, so they can begin to apply their learning immediately in ways that are meaningful and relevant.”

There are two other terms that show up repeatedly within ESSA to describe the kinds of professional development activities the law should fund: “personalized” and “evidence-based.”

For example, under Section 2103, the law lists “providing high-quality, personalized professional development that is evidence-based” among the activities intended for funding under Title II, Part A: Supporting Effective Instruction. (S. 1177, page 127, paragraph E)

And in describing the Teacher and School Leader Incentive Fund program (Section 2212, page 133, paragraph 2.A.ii), which supports projects that develop performance-based compensation systems in high-need schools, ESSA describes this as an acceptable use of grant funds: “Developing or improving an evaluation and support system that … provides teachers, principals, or other school leaders with ongoing, differentiated, targeted, and personalized support and feedback for improvement, including professional development opportunities designed to increase effectiveness.” (emphasis added)

Just as students benefit from opportunities for personalized learning, teachers and school leaders do as well, the law implies—and it directs funding to professional development activities that are grounded in research and targeted to educators’ specific needs.

This marks a big shift from how most schools currently offer professional development for teachers. According to a Gates Foundation survey, 80 percent of teachers say they participate in workshops, the most common form of professional development—and they spend an average of 20 hours per year in these workshops.

ESSA intends to change that. The law could have a big impact in moving schools to a more sustained, personalized, and evidence-based approach, Wolfe said—but ultimately this will depend on how it is implemented.

If there is no oversight in place to make sure these guidelines are followed, “what we’ve seen historically is that states and school districts fall back on the easiest thing to do, which is what they’ve always been doing,” she noted.

According to a spokesperson from the U.S. Department of Education, the updated description of professional development within ESSA “represents one of many opportunities in the new law for improved support of teachers and school leaders.”

Taking advantage of these opportunities requires concerted efforts to make appropriate changes, the spokesperson said, and federal officials are in the process of developing plans—with input from a variety of stakeholders—for how they will support states and districts in implementing the law.

The former Editor-in-Chief of eSchool News, Dennis Pierce is now a freelance education writer and reporter. He has been reporting on education issues for nearly 20 years.