The Critical Attributes for Successful Professional Development in Action: Charles City Middle School Case Study

By Carrie Hepburn, Ed.D

Extensive research shows that professional learning is crucial for educators, but its implementation in school districts and learning organizations remains challenging. Instead of investing in impactful learning experiences that directly improve teaching and student achievement, many districts rely on one-day workshops at the beginning of the school year. As a result, educators often feel disengaged and question the value of these sessions, wondering why their time is wasted.

The research consistently emphasizes the importance of ongoing and job-embedded professional learning. However, this valuable insight is often ignored. The primary reason for this disregard is the difficulties in implementing effective professional learning practices. To address this challenge, district leaders must focus on implementing new knowledge in the classroom. Research supports that professional learning alone results in a maximum implementation rate of 10%. However, when combined with ongoing practice and coaching for at least 50 hours, the implementation rate can skyrocket to 95%. This highlights the need for sustained support and reinforcement. Like students, teachers require multiple engagements with new learning to internalize and master its implementation.

In summary, while research emphasizes the importance of ongoing and job-embedded professional learning, its implementation faces challenges in school districts. By providing sustained support, reinforcing learning with practice and coaching, and creating opportunities for educators to transfer their knowledge into practice, districts can overcome these challenges and maximize the impact of professional learning on teaching and student achievement.

This paper will address the following: 

  1. Definition of Professional Learning
  2. Attributes of Professional Learning
  3. Professional Learning in Charles City Middle School
  4. Outcomes of the Professional Learning

Definition of Professional Learning

Professional learning should directly impact educators’ practices and be evident in various aspects such as professional learning communities (PLCs), meetings, instruction, and data analysis. It should be an integral part of the overall strategies of schools and educational agencies, providing educators with the knowledge and skills necessary for student success and meeting academic standards. According to Learning Forward, professional learning should be sustained, intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused.

To provide effective professional learning, it must follow a deliberate scope and sequence that starts with building foundational knowledge and progresses toward mastery of the application. Establishing a solid foundation helps address misconceptions and ensures all stakeholders are on the same page.

Data and feedback should be utilized in professional learning, with a progression of learning that outlines the steps toward mastering knowledge and skills, allowing individuals, teams, and administrators to understand current progress and how to move to the next level. Learning progressions are used for self-assessment, classroom visits, and PLC meetings. Transparent expectations and targeted feedback are essential for effective professional learning.

Professional learning should be cyclical and revisited regularly to keep up with evolving knowledge and changing circumstances. Engaging professional learning experiences are crucial, captivating educators physically, socially, and intellectually. Expert facilitators can provide these experiences and help participants connect new learning with current practices. Job-embedded professional learning is particularly impactful.

Ultimately, professional learning aims to change practice and have a measurable impact. The effectiveness of professional learning is determined by its ability to bring about meaningful change in educators’ practices and ultimately improve student outcomes.

Attributes of Professional Learning

Effective professional learning that positively impacts student achievement requires intentional planning by district professional development leaders. Several vital attributes contribute to successful professional learning experiences for all stakeholders.

Firstly, professional learning should be content-focused, which can be challenging for district leaders. One approach is to lead whole group professional learning on an important topic, such as instructional strategies, while simultaneously building up teacher leaders in various content areas. These teacher leaders can then facilitate additional learning related to their specific content, with coaching provided in content-specific classrooms. This approach allows educators to see the new learning in action within their content area, making it feel achievable.

Another approach is to lead whole group professional learning on a key topic, followed by small, content-specific group meetings highlighting how to apply the instructional strategies in their classrooms. Engaging in lab sites, where educators can observe effective practices firsthand, further enhances the learning experience.

Professional learning should be active, providing opportunities for reflection and inquiry among educators. Using authentic artifacts such as student work samples and videos of lessons helps bridge the gap between learning and application. Educators should leave professional learning sessions with collaborative ideas that they can immediately implement in their classrooms. Ample amounts of time for feedback and reflection must be included in the active learning experience.

Collaboration is another essential aspect of effective professional learning. It should extend beyond individual classrooms and foster school or district-wide change. Collaborative learning experiences, including modeling and coaching in grade-level teams, increase collective teacher efficacy, significantly affecting student achievement.

Bringing in outside experts, particularly during the initial stages of implementation, enhances the impact of professional learning on student learning outcomes. Long-term coaching and support are crucial for sustained growth. Creating lab site classrooms and providing coaching within the classroom contribute to higher rates of transference of learning and improved student achievement.

Lastly, professional learning should be sustained over time. Multiple opportunities for engagement with the content are necessary. Research suggests a minimum of 50 hours focused on a specific topic is required to observe transference into practice and see an impact on student achievement. These 50 hours should be cumulative and include whole-group learning, lab sites, coaching cycles, book studies, modeling, and small-group instruction.

By incorporating these attributes into professional learning initiatives, district leaders can enhance their impact on educator practices and ultimately improve student achievement!

Professional Learning in Charles City Middle School

In 2018-2019, Charles City Middle School was on the state-targeted list for Special Education. This time was pre-COVID, and overall proficiency scores on the Iowa State Assessment of Student Progress (ISASP) were not optimal. 

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Percentage of students performing at proficiency levels

The following year, the COVID pandemic disrupted education worldwide, including in Charles City, and necessitated a shift to online learning. This presented significant challenges for educators in Charles City and across the country.

During the 2020-2021 academic year, Charles City Middle School underwent a significant change with the appointment of Joe Taylor as the new building principal. Joe brought a sense of enthusiasm and a strong belief in the potential to improve student achievement. As a leader, he possessed unwavering optimism and a firm conviction that positive change was attainable for all stakeholders.

During his first year as principal, Joe focused on implementing a new standards-based grading system within the school. The professional learning for this transition was conducted internally, despite some resistance from the community. Nevertheless, the efforts yielded noticeable improvements in student outcomes.

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*Percentage of students performing at proficiency levels

In the summer of 2021, Compass PD played a pivotal role by facilitating three days of professional learning with teacher leaders on unpacking standards. Despite some teachers’ prior experience with this practice, they acknowledged the need for ongoing professional learning during the school year, stating it should be mandatory for all Charles City Middle School teachers.

Teacher leaders expressed that through this professional learning opportunity, they gained valuable insights, including a thorough understanding of how to effectively unpack standards, a clear grasp of the purpose behind this work, and the realization that their previous understanding of the standards could have been more accurate. Furthermore, they recognized the relevance of this knowledge for implementing standards-based grading, engaging in conversations with parents, and providing constructive feedback to students.

Based on the recommendations of the teacher leaders, Joe, and his administrative team decided to focus the 2021-2022 school year on deepening their understanding of priority standards. The professional development plan included whole-group sessions where teachers learned about the purpose and steps of unpacking standards. Subsequently, in small groups, teachers received content-specific examples to reinforce their learning. Compass PD taught how unpacked standards and learning progressions could be effectively utilized within Professional Learning Communities.

Throughout the school year, the administrators provided support by allocating dedicated time for teachers to engage in the essential task of unpacking standards, facilitating the development of progressions within collaborative teams during PLCs, and allocating additional funds for collaborative work outside of regular school hours. Despite teachers’ considerable challenges, the building administration and Compass PD offered multiple forms of support. As the year progressed, teachers acknowledged their work was incredibly demanding, yet they recognized its purpose and importance. With the release of the ISASP scores, the staff began to witness the payoff of their efforts, reinforcing their belief in the value of their work.

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*Percentage of students performing at proficiency levels

As the 2022-2023 school year began, the positive momentum from the previous year carried forward at Charles City Middle School. Joe and his leadership team remained committed to building capacity and understanding of the Professional Learning Community process while maintaining their belief in the importance of standards-focused work. This year, the focus shifted toward formative assessment. Teachers dedicated their efforts to learning how to effectively utilize the progressions and unpacked standards they had developed to inform their teaching decisions responsively through formative assessments. 

Compass PD followed a similar structure, with whole-group sessions to deliver overarching learning, content-focused small-group sessions, and individual conferences with teachers to address their questions and provide feedback. Through this continued professional learning journey, Charles City Middle School witnesses ongoing positive impacts resulting from their collective hard work. It is important to note that the staff has always been dedicated and hardworking; the change lies in their efforts being more targeted and focused.

Outcomes of Professional Learning

Charles City Middle School is one of the success stories we love to share at Compass PD! When the principal, Joe Taylor, called to share their recent ISASP scores with us, we were happy to celebrate alongside them! 

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*Percentage of students performing at proficiency levels

Let us take a moment to discuss what worked. 

  1. Professional learning was content-focused (Darling-Hammond, 2009). The teachers unpacked their priority standards, creating learning progressions and assessments in their content areas. 
  2. Professional learning was active. Teachers had the opportunity to reflect and inquire on the topic collectively. They used authentic artifacts, such as student work samples, to connect the learning and the application (Roy, 2005; Goldberg, 2002; Rice, 2001). Teachers left professional learning with collaborative ideas to take back and use immediately. The experience provided time for feedback and reflection. This was intentionally designed collaboratively between the administrators and Compass PD.
  3. Professional learning supported collaboration. The learning moved beyond changing an individual classroom into promoting school-wide change. The collaborative learning experiences included modeling and coaching. This was supported on professional learning days with Compass PD and administrators in staff meetings and PLCs. 
  4. Professional learning for Charles City Middle School used outside experts (Guskey & Yoon, 2009).  Moreover, professional learning provided long-term coaching and support. The focus stayed consistent for multiple years with Compass PD. 
  5. Professional learning was sustained over time (Hanover Research, 2021; Darling-Hammond, 2009; Yoon, 2007; Wenglinsky, 2000). The staff had multiple opportunities to engage in the content. The learning days were spaced throughout the school year. The learning design was intentionally built to help the staff with their next steps. Videos were created as referenced when Compass PD was not on-site and regular support virtually was available. 
  6. Professional learning utilized data and feedback, with a progression of learning that outlined the steps toward mastering knowledge and skills. Compass PD developed the progression using explicit language within each step, allowing individuals, teams, colleagues, and administrators to understand current progress and how to move to the next level. The learning progression was used for self-assessment, classroom visits, and PLC meetings while analyzing student learning data. Transparent expectations and targeted feedback based on strengths are essential for effective professional learning.

Compass PD Serves

Compass PD distinguishes itself by aligning all professional learning initiatives with evidence-based practices from multiple reliable sources rather than relying on a single source. Our team consists of experienced practitioners who are education experts, with each member having a minimum of 15 years of experience in public schools and advanced degrees, including many with doctorates in education.

Our approach at Compass PD is unique in that we do not provide pre-packaged or standardized professional learning. Instead, we customize our offerings based on each district’s needs and expertise levels. Building solid relationships with the district community is at the core of our work. We invest significant time in understanding the district’s history, existing initiatives, and beliefs, using that knowledge as a foundation to build upon with new learning.

Compass PD follows a three-phase approach to professional learning that has consistently proven successful for the school districts we support. In the consulting phase, we thoroughly analyze data, gather qualitative information from stakeholders, and utilize quantitative data from assessments to determine the current reality of the district. This understanding of the current reality is crucial in developing a professional learning plan that emphasizes the importance of the work and fosters commitment from all stakeholders.

In the second phase, we collaboratively work with district leadership to create a comprehensive professional learning plan that aligns with evidence-based practices. This approach ensures the plan is grounded in research-backed strategies, not reactive or reliant on passing trends.

The third phase focuses on implementing the professional learning plan, allowing stakeholders to acquire and apply knowledge within their specific context actively. We encourage and support practices such as lab site work and Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) to facilitate effective implementation.

Compass PD has a proven track record of applying this three-step approach, resulting in significant increases in student achievement. Districts that partner with us to develop comprehensive plans have seen an average improvement of 10% on high-stakes assessments. Unsurprisingly, over 90% of the districts we serve choose to sign multi-year contracts for continued professional learning support.

The Decision is Yours

When district leaders prioritize proactive and best-practice-aligned professional learning, it inevitably positively impacts student achievement. Numerous studies highlight the effectiveness of high-quality professional learning, which empowers all participants. While this work may pose challenges, the benefits for all stakeholders make it worthwhile.

By partnering with Compass PD, school districts can enhance the potential of their professional learning initiatives. Our comprehensive approach encompasses essential components for successful learning, including tailored content-focused instruction that addresses the diverse needs of learners. We promote active learning, collaboration, coaching, feedback, and sustained support over time to ensure lasting impact.

Teachers can expand their knowledge and efficacy through effective practice models and opportunities for reflection and inquiry, leading to tangible improvements in the classroom and beyond. We recognize that teachers have different needs and interests, so we offer at least 50 hours of professional learning on specific topics delivered through various modalities.

By choosing Compass PD, educators join us in creating a positive and effective learning environment for all stakeholders while enhancing student learning outcomes. Together, we can elevate professional learning to new heights and foster continuous improvement in education.


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