To Improve Professional Learning for Teachers, We Can’t Forget Principals

Blog Post
July 11, 2017

Every state across the country has adopted college- and career-ready standards that have raised the bar for teaching and learning. Now teachers and school leaders are wrestling with how to identify, adapt, and incorporate high-quality, standards-aligned curriculum in their classrooms—with varying levels of support from their districts and states.

In a recent paper, the Aspen Institute makes recommendations for how system leaders at the state and district/charter management organization levels can support teachers in successfully adapting their practice to changing standards. According to Aspen, “teachers do not have access to strong, standards-aligned curriculum; in fact, most teachers spend hours every week searching for materials that haven’t been vetted and aren’t connected to ongoing, professional learning activities in their schools.” The report makes the case that system leaders have a role to play in identifying high-quality, standards-aligned curriculum and instructional materials, and then integrating those into professional learning opportunities that help teachers deliver the curriculum in the classroom.

What does helpful support in these areas look like? The Aspen report highlights examples connecting curricular materials and professional learning for teachers at three different levels—a state-level effort in Louisiana, a district-led initiative in Washington, DC, and a teacher-led effort in West Virginia. Drawing on these three case studies, Aspen makes the following recommendations and key takeaways for system leaders:

  1. Embed high-quality curriculum and instructional materials into teachers’ professional learning to ensure that all students are exposed to high-quality learning experiences.

  2. Allow for content-specific cycles of teacher learning, application, and reflection to support improved classroom practice.

  3. Foster teachers' active collaboration in the process of improving professional learning to ensure that implementation does not feel like a top-down compliance mandate.

  4. Allow sufficient time for teachers to collaborate and become familiar with new standards, content, and instructional materials in order to develop necessary expertise.

  5. Professional learning should be facilitated by content experts (internal or external) that also have dedicated time to grow their leadership and expertise.

  6. System leaders should play a role in ensuring high-need schools have the resources, personnel, and support to implement high-quality, in-school professional learning. This includes creating new roles, and helping school leaders effectively distribute leadership across those roles.

Education system leaders can make professional learning more relevant and effective for teachers by embracing these recommendations, particularly the last one. Whether principals are supporting the development of teacher practice directly, or indirectly through teacher leaders or other school staff, system leaders should be thinking about how they can support school principals in fully leveraging  distributed leadership models to support high-quality teaching. A recent report by New America, From Frenzied to Focused, delves deeper into school staffing models that distribute leadership responsibilities in new ways in an effort to narrow the very broad role of the principal and promote more effective in-school professional learning opportunities for teachers. From Frenzied to Focused explores expanded school leadership team models which create additional capacity in order for principals to focus on instructional leadership. Looking deeply at three districts’ models, the report finds these new school leadership models to be beneficial, although sometimes insufficient in creating adequate staff capacity to meet all of a school’s needs, including helping support teacher practice.   

As distributed leadership models gain traction, district and state leaders should help clarify roles and responsibilities for principals and for any new leadership roles, whether additional administrators or teacher leaders. If the principal's primary role is expected to be that of instructional leader, system leaders should clarify the responsibilities that fall under the purview of that role, and ensure that principals have the knowledge, support, and tools to execute that role. And while flexibility over how to distribute leadership and responsibilities may ultimately be left to the school leader, system leaders can help support and sustain successful distributed leadership models through training, guidance, and processes. For example, system leaders can help ensure that principal supervisors are trained to evaluate and support principals in their roles in distributing leadership, and in directly and indirectly providing professional learning opportunities for teachers.

Aspen makes a good case for how to improve professional learning for teachers in a way that makes it relevant and actionable. But systems leaders should not overlook the influence of principals in determining the quality of teacher professional learning taking place in schools.