Consensus on Essential Characteristics of Effective Professional Learning

By Barbara Cambridge, National Council of Teachers of English; Joellen Killion, Learning Forward; Efrain Mercado and Sherida Britt, ASCD on behalf of thirteen organizations that support professional learning

Effective teaching and learning, not standards, prepare students for college, careers, and civic life. The Common Core State Standards and other rigorous college- and career-readiness standards, however, can contribute to effective teaching and learning by pointing to the centrality of educators in generating ever higher levels of student achievement. To support these higher levels of student achievement, schools and districts must support effective professional learning. Thirteen professional associations and education organizations have reached consensus about essential characteristics of effective professional learning.

Research from nearly three decades confirms that the form and content of and the conditions for professional learning matter in its effectiveness. Maximizing Professional Learning to Support Student Learning, a recent statement by these 13 organizations, recognizes that in order to implement standards educators need ongoing opportunities to learn in ways not yet common in many schools. Just as students are expected to learn in new ways, educators’ professional learning must shift to engage educators in constructing knowledge through collaborative, job-embedded inquiry about and reflection on their own practice.

Professional learning that brings educators together to learn with and from each other differs from the more traditional approach marked by someone from outside the school determining what and how educators learn, with little or no support for transferring learning into practice. In collaborative professional learning educators learn as a part of their routine practice. They draw from their collective and individual experiences, from other resources, from their students’ learning, and from analysis of and reflection on their work to construct knowledge in communities of practice. Peer learning increases the relevance of professional learning and simultaneously builds a culture of continuous improvement within schools that supports risk-taking and collegiality among educators.

The content of educator professional learning at this time in American K-12 education must necessarily focus on the new standards and the pedagogical shifts needed for implementation. Collaborative professional learning embedded in educators’ work days supports them as they engage in deep learning about college- and career-ready standards, make necessary instructional shifts, and increase equity in learning so that all students, not just some, have access to effective teaching to meet rigorous standards.

The success of collaborative professional learning within communities of practice depends on conditions within schools. Two mandatory conditions are (1) time within the school-day for collaborative learning and (2) skillful leadership by both the school’s administrators and teachers to facilitate communities of practice and to link their learning with the school’s improvement efforts. In addition, educators benefit from access to multiple strategies to assess student learning as a guide to their own practice, deployment of innovative technologies to support their own and students’ learning, and public support for continuous improvement as a vehicle for increasing student success.

Simply put, when educators learn, students learn too. The success of innovation in education, particularly related to the magnitude of the widely adopted Common Core Standards and the new assessments soon to follow, depends on educator professional learning. With full commitment to support educator learning, the standards have the possibility of moving from a good idea to real learning for all students.

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