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 institutions.

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 and conclude that yes, at least based on one analysis of professional learning and administrators’ roles in top performing national schools, administrators should focus more on faculty professional learning 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” systems be defined from reporting data driven by the values of current accountability policies? Or should definitions of high performance 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 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. 1).

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 performing 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 evaluations. 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. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations Publishing at

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