Reach the Highest Standard in Professional Learning: Leadership

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Karen Seashore Louis, Shirley M. Hord & Valerie von Frank

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    Introduction to the Series

    These are the demands on educators and school systems right now, among many others:

    • They must fulfill the moral imperative of educating every child for tomorrow’s world, regardless of background or status.
    • They must be prepared to implement college- and career-ready standards and related assessments.
    • They must implement educator evaluations tied to accountability systems.

    A critical element in creating school systems that can meet these demands is building the capacity of the system’s educators at all levels, from the classroom teacher to the instructional coach to the school principal to the central office administrator, and including those partners who work within and beyond districts. Building educator capacity in this context requires effective professional learning.

    Learning Forward’s Standards for Professional Learning define the essential elements of and conditions for professional learning that leads to changed educator practices and improved student results. They are grounded in the understanding that the ultimate purpose of professional learning is increasing student success. Educator effectiveness—and this includes all educators working in and with school systems, not just teachers—is linked closely to student learning. Therefore increasing the effectiveness of educators is a key lever to school improvement.

    Effective professional learning happens in a culture of continuous improvement, informed by data about student and educator performance and supported by leadership and sufficient resources. Educators learning daily have access to information about relevant instructional strategies and resources and, just as important, time for collaboration with colleagues, coaches, and school leaders. Education leaders and systems that value effective professional learning provide not only sufficient time and money but also create structures that reinforce monitoring and evaluation of that learning so they understand what is effective and have information to adjust and improve.

    Why Standards?

    Given that any system can—and must—develop expertise about professional learning, why are standards important? Among many reasons are these:

    First, adherence to standards ensures equity. When learning leaders across schools and systems agree to follow a common set of guidelines, they are committing to equal opportunities for all the learners in those systems. If all learning is in alignment with the Standards for Professional Learning and tied to student and school improvement goals, then all educators have access to the best expertise available to improve their practice and monitor results.

    Standards also provide a common language that allows for conversation, collaboration, and implementation planning that crosses state, regional, and national borders. This collaboration can leverage expertise from any corner of the world to change practice and results.

    Finally, standards offer guidelines for accountability. While an endorsement of the standards doesn’t in itself guarantee quality, they provide a framework within which systems can establish measures to monitor progress, alignment, and results.

    From Standards to Transformation

    So a commitment to standards is a first critical step. Moving into deep understanding and sustained implementation of standards is another matter. Transforming practices, and indeed, whole systems, will require long-term study, planning, and evaluation.

    Reach the Highest Standard in Professional Learning is created to be an essential set of tools to help school and system leaders take those steps. As with the Standards for Professional Learning themselves, there will be seven volumes, one for each standard.

    While the standards were created to work in synergy, we know that educators approach professional learning from a wide range of experiences, concerns, expertise, and passions. Perhaps a school leader may have started PLCs in his school to address a particular learning challenge, and thus has an abiding interest in how learning communities can foster teacher quality and better results. Maybe a central office administrator started her journey to standards-based professional learning through a study of how data informs changes, and she wants to learn more about the foundations of data use. This series was created to support such educators and to help them continue on their journey of understanding systemwide improvement and the pieces that make such transformation possible.

    In developing this series of books on the Standards for Professional Learning, Corwin and Learning Forward envisioned that practitioners would enter this world of information through one particular book, and that their needs and interests would take them to all seven as the books are developed. The intention is to serve the range of needs practitioners bring and to support a full understanding of the elements critical to effective professional learning.

    All seven volumes in Reach the Highest Standard in Professional Learning share a common structure, with components to support knowledge development, exploration of changes in practice, and a vision of each concept at work in real-world settings.

    In each volume, readers will find

    • A think piece developed by a leading voice in the professional learning field. These thought leaders represent both scholars and practitioners, and their work invites readers to consider the foundations of each standard and to push understanding of those seven standards.
    • An implementation piece that helps readers put the think piece and related ideas into practice, with tools for both individuals and groups to use in reflection and discussion about the standards. Shirley M. Hord and Patricia Roy, long-standing Learning Forward standards leaders, created the implementation pieces across the entire series.
    • A case study that illuminates what it looks like in schools and districts when education leaders prioritize the standards in their improvement priorities. Valerie von Frank, with many years of writing about education in general and professional learning in particular, reported these pieces, highlighting insights specific to each standard.
    Moving Toward Transformation

    We know this about effective professional learning: Building awareness isn’t enough to change practice. It’s a critical first piece, and these volumes will help in knowledge development. But sustaining knowledge and implementing change require more.

    Our intention is that the content and structure of the volumes can move readers from awareness to changes in practice to transformation of systems. And of course transformation requires much more. Commitment to a vision for change is an exciting place to start. A long-term informed investment of time, energy, and resources is non-negotiable, as is leadership that transcends one visionary leader who will inevitably move on.

    Ultimately, it will be the development of a culture of collective responsibility for all students that sustains improvement. We invite you to begin your journey toward developing that culture through study of the Standards for Professional Learning and through Reach the Highest Standard in Professional Learning. Learning Forward will continue to support the development of knowledge, tools, and evidence that inform practitioners and the field. Next year’s challenges may be new ones, and educators working at their full potential will always be at the core of reaching our goals for students.

    Stephanie Hirsh Executive Director, Learning Forward

    The Learning Forward Standards for Professional Learning

    Learning Communities: Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students occurs within learning communities committed to continuous improvement, collective responsibility, and goal alignment.

    Leadership: Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students requires skillful leaders who develop capacity, advocate, and create support systems for professional learning.

    Resources: Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students requires prioritizing, monitoring, and coordinating resources for educator learning.

    Data: Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students uses a variety of sources and types of student, educator, and system data to plan, assess, and evaluate professional learning.

    Learning Designs: Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students integrates theories, research, and models of human learning to achieve its intended outcomes.

    Implementation: Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students applies research on change and sustains support for implementation of professional learning for long-term change.

    Outcomes: Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students aligns its outcomes with educator performance and student curriculum standards.

    Source: Learning Forward. (2015). Standards for Professional Learning. Oxford, OH: Author.

    The Leadership Standard

    Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students requires skillful leaders who develop capacity, advocate, and create support systems for professional learning.

    Leaders throughout the preK–12 education community recognize effective professional learning as a key strategy for supporting significant school and school system improvements to increase results for all students. Whether they lead from classrooms, schools, school systems, technical assistance agencies, professional associations, universities, or public agencies, leaders develop their own and others’ capacity to learn and lead professional learning, advocate for it, provide support systems, and distribute leadership and responsibility for its effectiveness and results.

    Develop Capacity for Learning and Leading

    Leaders hold learning among their top priorities for students, staff, and themselves. Leaders recognize that universal high expectations for all students require ambitious improvements in curriculum, instruction, assessment, leadership practices, and support systems. These improvements require effective professional learning to expand educators’ knowledge, skills, practices, and dispositions. All leaders demand effective professional learning focused on substantive results for themselves, their colleagues, and their students. Leaders artfully combine deep understanding of and cultural responsiveness to the community they serve with high expectations and support for results to achieve school and school system goals. They embed professional learning into the organization’s vision by communicating that it is a core function for improvement and by establishing and maintaining a public and persistent focus on educator professional learning. Leaders of professional learning are found at the classroom, school, and system levels. They set the agenda for professional learning by aligning it to classroom, school, and school system goals for student and educator learning, using data to monitor and measure its effects on educator student performance. They may facilitate professional learning, coach and supervise those who facilitate it, or do both. As facilitators of professional learning, they apply a body of technical knowledge and skills to plan, design, implement, and evaluate professional learning. As coaches and supervisors of those who facilitate professional learning, they develop expertise in others about effective professional learning, set high standards for their performance, and use data to give frequent, constructive feedback.

    To engage in constructive conversations about the alignment of student and educator performance, leaders cultivate a culture based on the norms of high expectations, shared responsibility, mutual respect, and relational trust. They work collaboratively with others, such as school and system based resource personnel and external technical assistance providers, so that all educators engage in effective job-embedded or external professional learning to meet individual, team, school, and system goals.

    Systems that recognize and advance shared leadership promote leaders from all levels of the organizations. Leaders can hold formal roles, such as principal, instructional coach, or task force chair, for long periods of time or informal roles, such as voluntary mentor or spokesperson, for shorter periods. All leaders share responsibility for student achievement among members of the school and community. Leaders hold themselves and others accountable for the quality and results of professional learning. Leaders work collaboratively with others to create a vision for academic success and set clear goals for student achievement based on educator and student learning data.

    Advocate for Professional Learning

    Leaders clearly articulate the critical link between increased student learning and educator professional learning. As supporters of professional learning, they apply understanding of organizational and human changes to design needed conditions, resources, and other supports for learning and change.

    As advocates for professional learning, leaders make their own career-long learning visible to others. They participate in professional learning within and beyond their own work environment. Leaders consume information in multiple fields to enhance their leadership practice. Through learning, they clarify their values and beliefs and their influence on others and on the achievement of organizational goals. Their actions model attitudes and behavior they expect of all educators.

    Create Support Systems and Structures

    Skillful leaders establish organizational systems and structures that support effective professional learning and ongoing continuous improvement. They equitably distribute resources to accomplish individual, team, school, and school system goals. Leaders actively engage with policy makers and decision makers so that resources, policies, annual calendars, daily schedules, and structures support professional learning to increase student achievement. Leaders create and align policies and guidelines to ensure effective professional learning within their school systems or schools. They work within national, regional, and local agencies to adopt standards, monitor implementation, and evaluate professional learning’s effectiveness and results.

    Source: Learning Forward. (2015). Standards for Professional Learning. Oxford, OH: Author.

    About the Authors

    Dr. Karen Seashore Louis is a Regents professor and the Robert H. Beck Chair in the Department of Organizational Policy, Leadership, and Development at the University of Minnesota. She has also served as the director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota, department chair, and associate dean of the College of Education and Human Development. Her work focuses on school improvement and reform, school effectiveness, leadership in school settings, and the politics of knowledge use in education. Her most recent books include Building Strong School Cultures: A Guide to Leading Change (with Sharon Kruse, 2009), Linking Leadership to Student Learning (with Kenneth Leithwood, 2011), and Educational Policy: Political Culture and Its Effects (2012). A fellow of the American Educational Research Association, she also served as the vice president of Division A, on the executive board of the University Council for Educational Administration, and recently as a member of the “field knowledge” study group to provide input to the recently revised national leadership preparation standards. Karen is actively involved with school administrators, both in her research and in professional development. She has advised 70 doctoral candidates over her career, the majority of whom are in educational leadership positions. She has received numerous awards, including the Lifetime Contributions to Staff Development award from the National Staff Development Association (2007), the Campbell Lifetime Achievement Award from the University Council for Educational Administration (2009), and a Life Member designation from the International Congress for School Effectiveness and School Improvement.

    Dr. Shirley M. Hord, is the scholar laureate of Learning Forward (previously National Staff Development Council), following her retirement as scholar emerita at the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory in Austin, Texas. There she directed the Strategies for Increasing Student Success Program. She continues to design and coordinate professional development activities related to educational change and improvement, school leadership, and the creation of professional learning communities. Her early roles as elementary school classroom teacher and university science education faculty at the University of Texas at Austin were followed by her appointment as codirector of Research on the Improvement Process at the Research and Development Center for Teacher Education at The University of Texas at Austin. There she administered and conducted research on school improvement and the role of school leaders in school change. She served as a fellow of the National Center for Effective Schools Research and Development and was U.S. representative to the Foundation for the International School Improvement Project, an international effort that develops research, training, and policy initiatives to support local school improvement practices. In addition to working with educators at all levels across the United States and Canada, Hord makes presentations and consults in Asia, Europe, Australia, Africa, and Mexico. Her current interests focus on the creation and functioning of educational organizations as learning communities and the role of leaders who serve such organizations. Hord is the author of numerous articles and books, of which a selection of the most recent are Implementing Change: Patterns, Principles, and Potholes, 4th ed. (with Gene E. Hall, 2015); Reclaiming Our Teaching Profession: The Power of Educators Learning in Community (with Edward F. Tobia, 2012); and A Playbook for Professional Learning: Putting the Standards Into Action (with Stephanie Hirsh, 2012).

    Valerie von Frank is an author, editor, and communications consultant. A former newspaper editor and education reporter, she has focused much of her writing on education issues, including professional learning. She served as communications director in an urban school district and a nonprofit school reform organization and was the editor for seven years of JSD, the flagship magazine for the National Staff Development Council, now Learning Forward. She has written extensively for education publications, including JSD, Tools for Schools, The Learning System, The Learning Principal, and T3. She is coauthor with Ann Delehant of Making Meetings Work: How to Get Started, Get Going, and Get It Done (Corwin, 2007); with Linda Munger of Change, Lead, Succeed (National Staff Development Council, 2010); with Robert Garmston of Unlocking Group Potential to Improve Schools (Corwin, 2012); and with Jennifer Abrams of The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicate, Collaborate, and Create Community (Corwin, 2014).


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