When we engage in professional learning, we do it for one big reason: to get better at supporting students. Rigorous and thoughtful program evaluations can provide the critical connection between well-designed programs or initiatives and continuous improvement that builds essential knowledge and skills for educators. Evaluation helps us examine what has been accomplished in a professional learning initiative and identify course corrections that can help the initiative improve. The importance of high-quality evaluation is underscored in Learning Forward’s Standards for Professional Learning: Evaluation provides information that supports advocates, professional learning planners, and anyone who wants to know “about the contribution of professional learning to student achievement” (Learning Forward, 2011). Most importantly, high-quality evaluation provides the context around which educators make decisions about what professional learning

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Chase Nordengren ( is a senior research scientist at NWEA in Portland, Oregon. Thomas R. Guskey ( is senior research scholar at the University of Louisville and professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky.

What evaluation looks like

As with many new professional learning partners, our work with Acorn Public Schools (pseudonym) began with a comprehensive needs assessment: NWEA selected 10% of schools participating in professional learning to represent their peers, and each participated in a half-day site visit that included principal and teacher interviews, observation of instructional planning sessions, and observation of instruction.

These data allowed us to create three distinct learning paths for schools in Acorn. While all ultimately will receive the same learning over time, each pathway prioritized the knowledge and skills that would provide teachers at that school the most substantial short-term successes based on each school’s priorities and existing skills.

The participant survey was the next step in this process. With responses from over 1,300 teachers, we learned that, while teachers rated their knowledge of how to use assessment data relatively high, their actual use of these skills was relatively low.

Comparing average scores on these measures with other districts who have taken our survey helped underscore the need for a particular focus in Acorn’s professional learning on how and why to use assessment skills.

This data informed adjustments to our professional learning plan that emphasized opportunities for practical application of assessment skills and focused on the specific contexts in which those skills could be applied in the district.

As next steps, district leaders in Acorn will now work with us to bring the teacher observation instrument and participant portfolio into regular use. While considering these tools, Acorn has recognized the importance of making sure its own measures of effective teaching align with the measures of effectiveness highlighted by our professional learning.

Building alignment between our evaluation tools and Acorn’s existing methods will provide the added benefit of deepening the alignment between our professional learning goals and district priorities.


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Image for aesthetic effect only - Chase-nordengren-150x188-2
Senior Research Scientist at NWEA | + posts

Chase Nordengren is a senior research scientist at NWEA, where he supports the professional learning team with primary and secondary research that drives instructional improvement. His work includes the development and execution of needs assessment and program evaluation services for partners, supporting school improvement processes, and thought leadership on formative assessment and student goal setting practices.

Image for aesthetic effect only - Thomas-guskey-300x300
University of Kentucky | + posts

Thomas Guskey is a professor emeritus in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky, whose work is dedicated to helping teachers and school leaders use quality educational research to help all of their students learn. The author/ editor of 25 books and more than 250 articles and book chapters, he is an expert on educational measurement, evaluation, professional learning, assessment, and grading. His five-level framework of professional learning evaluation is a seminal resource in the field. His latest article for The Learning Professional, Learning Forward’s journal, is “Look beyond the satisfaction survey: A framework to evaluate results of professional learning.”

Categories: Continuous improvement, Data, Evaluation & impact, Fundamentals, Outcomes, Research

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