Ask Mr. Mullenholz about PD and Professional Learning

Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow Greg Mullenholz answers teachers’ burning questions about education policy. In this issue, he takes up teacher professional learning

 All work to improve the quality of profes­sional development must begin with one simple assumption: Teaching is an incred­ibly complex profession that draws on a wide set of intellectual and emotional skills. Even the best teachers need to continue to learn and improve their practice, and many are willing to do so. The bottom line is that all teachers — all educators — grow from professional learning experiences that sharpen their practice.

–Duncan, A. (2011) Forge a Commitment to Authentic Professional Learning. JSD, 32(4), 70-72

Teacher Question (TQ): Wait. In the title of this blog, you call it “professional learning.” Is that the same thing as “professional development” or “staff development?”

Mr. Mullenholz (Mr. M):  To emphasize the fact that teachers are lifelong learners continually working to refine their craft, many educators have begun replacing the term professional development with professional “learning.” This new terminology represents a paradigm shift in the way that teachers improve their practice to meet the needs of a variety of learners and in the way that they work toward the rigorous goal of increasing the number of college- and career-ready students nationally. Professional learning acknowledges that educators are doing more than sprucing up worn out methods of professional development, but are transforming their approach to creating job-embedded, collaborative learning communities who work together to solve the challenges in their schools. This is why what was formerly known as the National Staff Development Council took on a new name and became Learning Forward.

TQ:  I hear a lot about teacher evaluation in my state. Where does professional development fit into all of this?

Mr. M:  Unfortunately, much of what we have heard regarding reform is centered on the word “evaluation,” when, in fact, the real focus should be on “effectiveness.”  A central goal of education policy is to have the most effective teachers standing in front of America’s students, and professional learning is the tool we use to ensure this.

Before No Child Left Behind, high-quality professional learning barely existed, and if it did, it wasn’t necessarily aimed at school improvement or student achievement. True, the federal government has been providing funding for professional learning for a while, but there haven’t been identifiable results. Then, unfortunately, under No Child Left Behind, professional learning became merely a box that a district could check off to prove compliance with state or federal funding regulations. They just had to show that they spent the money. Now, rather than checking the box, states and districts are being called upon to assure that the professional learning that they have in place is tied to student achievement and teacher learning and that it is high-quality!  The current administration believes strongly that teacher evaluations should be tied to professional learning, seeing this as one part of the continuous developmental cycle. Strong professional learning, driven by student achievement and teacher evaluation results should inherently improve teaching practice and student outcomes.

TQ:  Why is there such an emphasis from Secretary Duncan on professional learning?

Mr. M:  As we raise standards for students and teachers, it is important that schools give educators the support systems and tools they need to continually refine their practice. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has stated that we need to reform ineffective systems of professional learning and build learning cultures that are focused on the “two essential goals of the standards: strengthening educator effectiveness and improving results for all students.” When teachers perform more effectively, students learn at a higher level, and when students learn at a higher-level, they are better prepared for college and the workforce.

TQ:  Besides quality, what does the Secretary see as the biggest challenge facing professional learning?

Mr. M:  Ineffectively allocating limited funds to class-size reduction. The federal government invests $2.5 billion dollars through Title II, Part A, funds that are aimed at improving teaching and teacher leadership. Title II, part A is a formula grant to states that is aimed at increasing the number of highly qualified teachers and principals and increasing the effectiveness of those teachers and principals. There isn’t a whole lot of research to support that reduced class-size has any great impact on student achievement, and yet close to 40% of all Title II funds are used to reduce classes by a few students. As the Secretary notes, “Up through third grade, research shows a small class size of 13 to 17 students can boost achievement.” When we talk about class-size reduction, the misnomer is that we’re talking about reducing a class from 40 or 50 students to 20 or 25. We’re not. We’re talking about reducing from 25 to 23, and there are a lot of federal dollars being spent on this at all levels of schooling, based mostly upon enrollment formulas, and with little results.

The Secretary has suggested shifting from across-the-board class-sized based reductions to varying class sizes by the subject matter or the need of the students being served. As he said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, “The skill of the teacher, or that part-time staff, could be leveraged to lower class size during critical reading blocks.” This would be a smarter use of Title II funds and allow for more money to be spent on professional learning.  As a teacher, I would rather have an extra child or two in my classroom if it meant that I could have additional time with coverage to plan and learn with my colleagues.

TQ:  What does high-quality professional development look like? What standards exist for high-quality professional learning?

Mr. M:  Teachers across the country have in the past been subjected to bad professional development, in a variety of forms, which has done little to improve their craft or impact student achievement in any meaningful way. Terms like “sit and get,” “drive-by PD,” or “canned professional development” have gained a hold in the lexicon of teacher talk. Some teachers attend mandatory, yearly behavior management seminars even if their evaluations and classroom observations do not indicate they have a problem with behavior management. It is pretty self-evident that this is not an efficient or effective use of funds or a teacher’s time.

Learning Forward has developed standards that have been adopted by many states and districts. They are research-based standards that educators are using to ensure high-quality professional learning. Secretary Duncan has applauded the efforts of Learning Forward as they strive to ensure that teachers across the country are participating in high-quality professional learning, and many states and districts have responded by using these standards to increase the capacity of their teachers and the achievement of their students.

According to these standards, high-quality professional development is job-embedded, occurs regularly, and is aligned with academic standards, school curricula, and school improvement goals. It must involve teachers working collaboratively to hone their craft and meet the needs of students, often with an instructional coach or mentor who facilitates the process. These teachers would be actively engaged in their learning, not sitting passively by viewing a presentation, and their learning would be focused on what and how students are learning and how instructional practice can be improved to meet the individual needs of a variety of learners and is cyclical in nature. Professional development is part of a continual development process that has an ultimate goal of increasing student achievement.

TQ:  What are some of the most promising practices regarding professional learning that can be seen in the field?

Mr. M:  One promising district-wide example of systemic high-quality professional learning can be found in Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland. MCPS believes that the primary purpose of teacher evaluation is to improve teacher effectiveness. Over the last eleven years, the county has invested millions of dollars in staffing all schools with a designated Staff Development Teacher, a proven teacher-leader who has a sole responsibility of creating high-quality professional learning for their staff. The school-based Staff Development Teacher (SDT) fosters development and growth of professional learning communities and facilitates job-embedded professional learning. The SDT supports the goal of building staff capacity to meet system-wide and local school initiatives to increase student learning. These teachers are non-evaluative. They use the School Improvement Plan’s (SIP) yearly goals as the target for all professional learning activities. They work collaboratively with individual teachers and teams of teachers to analyze student work, set grade-level goals, and develop staff capacity to analyze school-level and individual student data. As part of this process, MCPS teachers then identify and refine practices to increase student achievement, analyze results, and begin the cycle anew. Along the way, there are peer-visits, double-scoring of student work, and whole-school learning sessions aimed at achieving the goals set forth in the SIP. Staff Development Teachers collect data that informs the effectiveness of their planning and the effectiveness of implementation, and work to strengthen the work they do within their buildings as a result. The Staff Development Teacher acts as a facilitator, a researcher, a coach, and a mentor, but they are first and foremost a teacher. They are but one part of a larger system of continuous improvement that includes mentor teachers, consulting teachers, professional learning communities, and professional development course offerings for teachers, administrators, and support professionals.


  1. Dear Mr. M,
    What amount of funds did the Department of Education allocate for professional development/learning in the most recent budget? I am trying to get a global/total sum, but with each program reporting separately, and not sure about all the programs involved, it is hard to come up with a figure.
    thank you,

  2. I would like to bring to your attention the professional development opportunity in Massachusetts for K-12 teachers in STEM subjects. Since 1986 MITS has been providing two-week Summer Institutes for K-8 teachers across the state which are taught by educators from local museums and other informal educational organizations. Over 3,000 teachers have paarticipated. Beginning last year MITS provides a one-week Institute for high school teachers. The emphasis in both Institutes is on inquiry-based, hands-on activities linked to the national standards.

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