Most school leaders see evaluating professional learning as a burdensome task that involves collecting data when activities are completed to determine if anything made a difference. These formal, add-on, summative responsibilities require time and energy that busy school leaders can ill-afford. But in truth, if professional learning is planned well, nearly all essential evaluation tasks are addressed before activities begin. When you plan well, evaluation takes care of itself.
How do we plan well? One of the best ways to plan effective professional learning is simply to reverse the order of steps outlined in Evaluating Professional Development (Guskey, 2000), starting at the end and working backward. We begin by describing the student learning outcomes we want to influence and what evidence we trust to verify that impact. These outcomes typically relate to academic achievement goals, but also may involve particular student behaviours, attitudes, or dispositions.
Second we must select the strategies, techniques, or practices most likely to produce those results. This entails collaboratively investigating the research supporting those strategies, the quality of that research, and the critical elements involved in implementation.
In the third step we identify the specific aspects of organizational support required to ensure high quality implementation. For example, do our schools offer a safe and supportive environment that encourages innovation? Are we ready to provide teachers with the resources, time, materials, and, most importantly, backing and assistance from school leaders needed to put these strategies into practice?
Fourth we need to specify the knowledge and skills required for implementation. In other words, what do teachers need to know and be able to do to implement these strategies with fidelity in the classes they teach? And the final step is determining the activities and experiences that best help teachers acquire that essential knowledge and skills.
By following this backward planning process, school leaders will address nearly all essential evaluation questions, determine upfront what evaluation evidence they need, and provide a framework for ensuring professional learning activities are optimally effective in improving teachers’ practice and student learning outcomes.