Developing Policies for Teachers’ Professional Learning

By Don Long

State boards of education have been raising expectations for learning in order to get students ready for college, careers, and life. These efforts only intensify the need for states to simultaneously build an effective, diverse teacher workforce, especially for traditionally underserved students, who have the least access to effective teachers.

Boards should be pursuing short- and long-term policies that recognize teacher pipelines as whole systems. Strong policies will address teachers at their beginning (recruitment and teacher education), middle (professional learning and in-school collaboration), and end (career progressions of increasing status, pay, and leadership for cultivating exemplary practice).

Recently, many board strategies have zeroed in on the middle of the pipeline: These investments in “social capital” have the most immediate impact on teachers already in schools. In June 2017, 26 state boards considered teacher practice, and in July, 19 boards did. The Arkansas board, for example, released rules in July for the Teacher Excellence and Support System (TESS), which aligns competency-based professional learning to an educator’s individual needs. It also approves micro-credentials for licensure and thereby creates a virtuous cycle of planning, learning, evaluation, and relicensure for continuous improvement.

The Utah board approved a rule in July implementing new legislation that offers incentives for the best teachers to work in high-poverty schools. The law provides a bonus for effective teachers to move to schools where they are most needed, and it is expected to achieve a multiplier effect as these teachers aid their peers in professional learning communities within the schools.

In June, the Georgia board renewed the contract with regional education service agencies (RESAs) to support districts with professional development services focusing on use of formative instructional practices for effective instruction of English learners, students with disabilities, and gifted students. Teachers participate in professional learning teams and work together on online modules with RESA staff.

The Delaware board heard a presentation in its June meeting on the first year of Delaware’s Reimagining Professional Learning Innovation Grants. The intent of these grants, 21 of which were awarded in 2016, is to empower educators to lead their own learning and that of their peers. Student gains in the first year included improvements in content knowledge and student-reported increases in being challenged and confident in math.

State boards are raising expectations for students in myriad ways. They are raising the bar on what high school graduates learn and are able to do before they graduate (e.g., Virginia’s profile of a high school graduate). Boards are exploring policies that incorporate deeper learning competencies—self-directed and applied learning, and an academic mind-set of self-efficacy, confidence, and growth. And states are considering whether to incorporate social and emotional learning into state standards, curriculum, and teacher modules.

Such initiatives require parallel paths for developing the skills of existing teachers. Boards should continue to expand upon and share promising strategies for middle-pipeline professional learning. At the same time, they should be looking at the beginning and end of the pipeline to ensure aligned, coherent professional learning systems that produce, develop, and support teachers at every stage of their careers.

Don Long is NASBE’s director of of teaching, leading, and learning. He can be reached at