With professional learning, priorities matter

By Denise Glyn Borders
August 2019
Vol. 40 No. 4

All executives make choices about what to prioritize. Their priorities are evident by where they spend their time, what they say, who they talk with, and where they spend money. I believe that professional learning is most likely to achieve its full power to advance school systems when state superintendents and district CEOs highlight it and invest in it as a driving priority. Those who do put the following responsibilities at the top of their to-do lists.

Embrace the learning sciences.

Those leaders committed to results from professional learning commit to understanding and leveraging what they learn from relevant research literature. Successful superintendents know that leadership now demands becoming more knowledgeable about the learning sciences. Learning sciences is a design science that incorporates research and practice. Redesigning schools based on scientific research on how students and adults learn best requires rethinking how the central office and schools are organized and supported.

Demand results.

While understanding research literature can guide the planning and implementation of professional learning, assessing the impact of learning within a system’s context offers data about whether educators’ efforts achieved their intended results. Creating a culture that consistently measures impact and assesses progress to document outcomes requires that educators in a system not only understand that outcomes are an expectation but also that they have the resources and skills to analyze and use data to continually inform changes and decisions. Executives establish this culture and provide resources.

Ensure alignment.

The foundation for achieving results for students through professional learning is connecting adult learning to student learning and ensuring that student learning goals align with an overall vision for academic excellence in the district. Superintendents lead the establishment of the vision. The vision drives what students and educators learn as well as the student standards at every level and in each subject area along with the high-quality instructional materials in use to achieve those standards.

Every arm of the organization works and executes in concert when every single district employee commits to a commonly held vision. Superintendents engage a cross-district team of school and system leaders to achieve alignment, from the chief academic officer to the director of curriculum and instruction to the chief learning officer to the human resources officer to the leaders of schools to the board of trustees.

The responsibility for professional learning sits in various offices and departments. Executive leaders reduce fragmentation and silos through the organizational chart and the culture and expectations they uphold for collaboration and results.

Provide sufficient resources.

Superintendents create budgets that establish and sustain effective professional learning. District leaders also work with their teams to manage schedules that provide ample job-embedded learning time. They staff their systems to include instructional coaches and others with expertise critical to sustaining continuous improvement.

District leaders allocate resources to support the learning of leaders themselves. Principals and district administrators have unique learning needs within an aligned system, as do superintendents and board members.

The superintendent’s authority and decisions impact hundreds to thousands of learners along with the communities they serve. While the actions here are certainly not the only responsibilities of a district leader committed to high-quality professional learning, I’d argue they are essential.

Denise Glyn Borders

Denise Glyn Borders is excutive director of Learning Forward.

Let me hear from you

In my first several columns for The Learning Professional, I’ll highlight specific issues that are core to my concerns as Learning Forward’s executive director. I look forward to hearing your input and questions anytime.

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