Should administrators focus on faculty professional development more than student learning targets?

The relationships among
professional development (PD), effective teaching, and student outcomes are scrutinized
through standards- or outcomes-oriented teacher improvement projects and the
research studies that follow them. However, links between faculty PD and
faculty effectiveness don’t exist apart from other factors, such as the role of
administrators, whether these be department chairs, deans, and instructional
design leaders at the postsecondary level, or lead teachers, coaches, and
school principals at the K-12 level.

This post considers the
role that administrators play in high-performing educational systems and

In a previous post, I discussed how tying professional development to high stakes outcomes may actually conflict with developing professional development that supports best practices in teaching and learning. Here I look at one solution to that conflict. Here,  I’ll be concluding that yes, at least based on one analysis of professional learning and administrators’ roles in top performing national schools, administrators should focus on faculty professional learning rather than on student learning targets because aligning faculty development with school development results in better schools.

First, a clarification. Educational
leaders are responsible for instructional leadership, establishment of institutional
culture, collaboration with peers at partner institutions, and providing
information and resources to faculty (Cook, 2015), as well as strategic
planning and the achievement of financial and institutional outcomes. Yet
leadership in American business and education is often conceptualized in terms
of social discourse rather than in terms of leaders’ traits, behaviors (Chelf,
2018), or skills. Characterizations of effective U.S. K-12 administrators, while
currently focused on achievement of high stakes test scores, also champion descriptors
such as “collaborator,” “facilitator,” and “guide” (Cook, 2015). The Chronicle
of Higher Education, an influential voice in higher education communities of
practice, frequently portrays higher education leaders according to the
archetypes of hero, outlaw, ruler, caregiver, and sage (Chelf, 2018). But aside
from these “socially constructed” descriptors, what actual leadership roles and
competencies (learnable skills) are most associated with thriving school
cultures, effective teaching, and the student outcomes that matter most for
students’ long term success?

This question brings up
another complication, that of problems of definition and data. Should “high
performing” be defined from reporting data driven by the values of current accountability
policies? Or should it be driven by the values of stakeholders such as
administrators, faculty, students, and parents (Poole, 2012)?

To focus on the question of
what role administrators have in professional development in
high-performing institutions, I focus here on administrators’ roles rather than
traits or styles. I define  “high
performing” institutions and systems as those that have historically performed
well, rather than those that have performed well as a result of a new
experimental treatment or new program. And I focus specifically on the role
administrators play in high performing institutions where professional learning
is embedded in faculty roles.

The title of this post,
“Should administrators focus on faculty professional development more than
student learning targets?”, is extrapolated from a way of conceptualizing the
locus of control presented in a report (funded, of course, by the Bill and
Melinda Gates Foundation) by the National Center on Education and the Economy
(Jensen, Sonnemann,
Roberts-Hull, & Hunter, 2016). This report examines teacher quality systems
and the roles of administrators in faculty development in high performing
systems that “integrate
both adult learning and student outcomes within effective professional learning
design” (Jensen, Sonnemann,
Roberts-Hull, & Hunter, 2016, p.

Jensen, Sonnemann,
Roberts-Hull and Hunter describe four government or authority centers in North
America and Asia as “tight” (or highly regulatory) vs. “loose” (comparatively
less regulatory), showing that “high performing systems are ‘tight’ on teacher
professional learning in comparison to other, less-effective systems, while
being comparatively ‘loose’ on student performance targets. In other words,
high perforing systems tend to be prescriptive about what constitutes effective
professional learning in schools. Rather than being ‘tight” on the specific
professional learning programs that schools offer (learning communities,
mentoring, courses, and so forth), effective systems establish the expectation
that quality professional learning will proceed within an improvement cycle,
with student learning as the organizing principle” (p. 12).

This means that in the four
“highly effective” systems studied, in British Columbia, Singapore, Hong Kong,
and Shanghai, school leaders established professional learning cycles that set
objectives for teachers that were both more fine-grained and more holistic than
achieving test scores or completion rates. Teachers were assessed on their
ability to use, for example, formative assessment to increase student learning,
and administrators were assessed on their ability to improve teacher
effectiveness; yet these schools were given “autonomy to develop professional
learning in response to student needs” (Jensen, Sonnemann, Roberts-Hull &
Hunter, 2016).

An important consideration
is that for the high performing systems studied, professional learning was not
only “embedded” but was an essential part of faculty job expectations, and thus
promoting faculty professional learning was an essential part of administrator’s
jobs and performance evaluation. Three levels of leadership development that
were identified as “critical” were: 1. Professional learning leaders at the
school; 2. System leaders of professional learning, and 3. School principals
whose role was to develop school improvement plans around professional learning
(Jensen, Sonnemann,
Roberts-Hull, & Hunter, 2016, p.
13). In each case, the “professional learning leaders” were senior teachers,
who worked alongside and under coaches or deputy principals dedicated whose
roles focused on improving teaching and learning and under administrators who
likewise were expected to undertake—and evaluated upon—roles as developers of
effective teaching practices.

Several commonalities among these systems stood out to me as promising practices in aligning leadership roles, teacher professional learning, and strong, holistic student outcomes:

  1. Teacher leaders played a critical role in leadership in these systems. This is because “teachers are more likely to change their practices when they see colleagues they admire—not just official leaders—championing desired improvements” (Jensen, Sonnemann, Roberts-Hull, & Hunter, 2016, p. 13). This means that effective teaching itself was a key component of effective leadership in these systems. This fact corroborates the approach guiding the needs assessment I am currently undertaking, which assumes that more effective professional learning and technology integration will take place where respected teachers are championing specific forms of professional learning and tech integration.
  2. Strategic planning worked when it was focused on system-wide improvement in professional learning. Conversely, professional learning worked when it was strategically embedded in strategic planning. One way for this happened is exemplified in British Columbia’s public K-12 system, where inquiry-based learning communities have actually become the basis for strategic planning, such that “school strategy focuses on an inquiry question, for example, ‘Will the use of a collaborative problem-solving approach in Number Sense and Operations…improve achievement as measured by BC Numeracy Standards?’” In this situation, strategic planning and professional learning are aligned (rather than the former driving the latter) and must work hand in hand to create improvements based not on curricula or regulatory mandates, but on inquiry. This seems to me to restore agency (i.e. leadership) to teaching, while restoring true involvement in creating contextualized and  effective teaching practices to the role of leadership. In turn, as Jensen, Sonnemann, Roberts-Hull, and Hunter (2016) comment, “over time, [British Columbia] schools have focused less on quantitative goals and more on how to achieve them” (p. 16).
  3. Promotion of teachers and administrators was highly holistic (rather than focused on narrow outcomes or evaluation from only one perspective such as that of an immediate supervisor), and focused on the ability of leaders at each level to develop the pedagogical excellence of teachers or teacher mentors. This consistent focus on professional learning allowed teacher evaluation to be better aligned with school evaluation (Jensen, Sonnemann, Roberts-Hull, & Hunter, 2016).

Jensen, Sonnemann, Roberts-Hull, and Hunter (2016) provide a number of resources in their appendices and in the Toolkits for each chapter in their report. These resources include samples ranging from holistic observation approaches to annual school plans, anappendix describing the of the roles of leaders in these systems, and a section on external courses and workshops.


Chelf, C. A. (2018). A critical discourse analysis of higher education leaders as portrayed in the chronicle of higher education. Retrieved from

Cook, G. (Spring 2015). Principal leadership: Focus on professional development. Policy priorities, 21(1). Retrieved from

Jensen, B., Sonnemann, J., Roberts-Hull, K., & Hunter, A. (2016). Beyond PD: Teacher professional learning in high-performing systems. Washington, D.C.: National Center on Education and the Economy. Retrieved from

Poole, D.
(2012). Leadership practices that contribute to extended presidential
tenure and the development of high-performing community colleges.
from ProQuest Dissertations Publishing at

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