Teach By Design
Tier 1
Nov 14, 2023

Anatomy of a Framework Part 4: Professional Development

For your professional development to improve your PBIS implementation and student outcomes, it’s got to be high quality. What does that mean? Here are six criteria from federal law to help you evaluate your next event.

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I’m afraid to fly. I don’t have a fear so large it keeps me from getting on a plane, but I do have the kind of fear that makes me grab the armrest at takeoff and clap when we land. It isn’t natural for something so big to be in the sky! So, I fly because it’s the fastest way to get where I need to be.  

At the end of September, I boarded a plane and flew across the country to Washington D.C. to attend a professional development conference. The list of sessions during that 2-day event was too good not to go. I mean, the opportunity to learn from experts, commune with colleagues, and see a new city? Are you kidding? I packed my bags. When I came home, I had pages of notes and a list of 22 ideas we could implement as a team. The event renewed my energy at work.

Professional development has a way of doing that. It is one way to improve the work you do and how you do it. Maybe you enroll in coursework at a university, or participate in a professional learning community, or even attend a conference. Whatever it is, professional development events are your opportunity to hone your skills and improve the quality of your work. It’s so important, professional development is even embedded as a foundational feature of your PBIS implementation.

As we make our way through the 15 foundational features of PBIS implementation defined in the Tiered Fidelity Inventory (TFI), professional development comes up as a system-level feature. The survey tells us that to implement PBIS with fidelity, you must have a written plan in place to offer professional development to all staff related to these four topics:

  • Teaching school-wide expectations
  • Acknowledging appropriate behavior
  • Correcting errors
  • Requesting assistance

The survey doesn’t define what that professional development looks like. It only says you need to have a written plan to offer it. In order for that learning to trickle down to positive outcomes for students, it needs to meet a certain quality. One study found student achievement improved by about 21% when their teachers received an average of 49 hours of professional development.1 The study also found the improvement required high-quality professional development. The next question immediately becomes: How do you know the professional development you receive is high-quality?

Federal law gives us a place to start that assessment.

I was surprised, too!

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) calls professional development an integral part of an educator's work. In that definition, the ESSA says for an activity to be described as high-quality professional development, it must meet six criteria.2 The activity must be:

  • Sustained
  • Intensive
  • Collaborative
  • Job-embedded
  • Data-driven
  • Classroom-focused

Great! Except…

I knew what these six words meant on their own.  How they related to each other and professional development, I was less sure. That’s when I found Frontline Research and Learning Institute’s 4-part report breaking down the ESSA’s six criteria.

Frontline Research and Learning Institute provides “data-driven research, resources, and observations to support and advance the educational community.” In 2016, they published a report called Bridging the Gap.3 The report explores the professional development educators received and whether or not those opportunities aligned with the federal definition of high quality in the ESSA. They started by reviewing the literature on professional development to further define the terms in the ESSA in measurable ways. Then, they applied these measures to five years’ worth of data including 376,908 professional development activities attended by 107,870 educators in 203 school systems.  

According to Frontline’s findings, at least 80% of the professional development offered and participated in by teaching professionals failed to meet the federal definition of high quality.

Go ahead. Read it again. I had to.  

They said at least 80% of the professional development offered in those five years did not meet the federal definition of high quality — namely, the activities didn’t fulfill four out of the six criteria on the list. Stay with me now...  

Teachers get professional development, but most of the time it isn’t sufficient to improve their desired outcomes. We can do better. When you’re looking to offer professional development opportunities related to your PBIS implementation, use these six measurable definitions from the Frontline report and the ESSA to ensure those activities are high quality.

Sustained: How Often Do You Meet?  

How often do you get professional development during a one-day in-service training? In their review, Frontline found almost 80% of the activities fell into this one-and-done, lecture-style category and only 13% lasted more than three meetings.4 For professional development to be effective, you need enough time to develop the skill and improve your practice. According to the report, that means you’ll need to meet and learn about a topic at least three times.

If your professional development primarily happens during an in-service day, the way to sustain that learning depends entirely on what you do after that event to keep that momentum going. Some examples include:

  • Offering classroom observations throughout the semester
  • Establishing a weekly professional learning community to discuss challenges you face
  • Pairing with a mentor teacher to compare experiences related to the practice
  • Devoting time in regular grade-level meetings to talk about practices and outcomes as a group

Intensive: How Long Is Each Session?

When it comes to offering intensive professional development, the focus is on duration. How long do you spend focused on a specific topic? According to the literature Frontline reviewed, there isn’t agreement on how long is long enough. Depending on which study you look at, it could also very well be that the amount of time needed to really get into a topic isn’t available during the school year.  

Take a look at the total number of professional development hours you have available to you and divide that by the number of topics you want to cover. That will give you the minimum amount of time to spend on each one. (Remember those four practices we mentioned earlier from the TFI?. You could count those as individual topics or even group them together in a single “PBIS” topic.) Then, if that amount of time you are able to spend on each professional development topic is less than five hours, set a goal to up that time by two hours next year.

Collaborative: Does Everyone Contribute to Learning?

We love a group activity, especially when it comes to professional development. In the context of professional development, Frontline defines collaboration as “people working together to achieve a shared understanding of a concept or to develop the same skillset.”5 This definition makes collaboration more about how multiple people emerge from an event with a shared, collective understanding of the concepts.

Collaboration is also about the way participants share in the responsibility of both teaching and learning. While there might be someone leading the event, everyone has an opportunity to teach based on their own experiences as well as an opportunity to listen and learn from others in the group. Some ways to take traditional professional development opportunities and make them more collaborative include:

  • Sharing your between-meeting work and experience with each other
  • Setting the activity’s objectives and goals as a group
  • Sharing individual experiences as a way to better define a concept as a group
  • Rotating the data analysis role during the activity among participants

Job-embedded: Can You Do It During the School Day?

For professional development to be considered job-embedded, it needs to be relevant to the work you do and take place during your regular workday; it should be experienced and practiced while you’re teaching. It’s possible for a professional development activity to be considered job-embedded even if it takes place outside your work environment, but you’re more likely to fulfill this criteria when it happens at the school- or district-level.  

When evaluating whether your professional development meets the criteria to be considered job-embedded, Frontline gives you these four questions to consider:

  • Is the activity regular and on-going?
  • Is the activity related to current instruction?
  • Is the activity applicable to current teaching or coaching?
  • Is the activity integrated into the teaching and learning environment?6

If you can answer yes to these questions, well, you’ve got yourself a job-embedded activity! If the answer is no or maybe, consider how you might be able to retool the activity.

Data-driven: Have Staff Requested It?

Imagine our thrill when we read the ESSA requires professional development to be data-driven. (Data is literally in our mission at PBISApps!) In this context, the recommendation is for professional development to be “based upon and responsive to real time information about the needs of participants and their students.”7 There are so many ways to get these data related to the systems and practices in your PBIS implementation. We recommend at least two surveys you can take for free on PBIS Assessment.

  • The Self-assessment Survey (SAS) is one way to identify staff perceptions of and their priority for improving Tier 1 school-wide, Tier 1 classroom, Tier 2, and Tier 3 systems. By looking at those Tier 1 systems, you can see which of those core components your teachers say need improvement.
  • The Feedback and Input Surveys (FIS) give you the opportunity to learn how your school-wide community experiences your behavior support systems. If, for example, results indicate students don’t know what your behavior expectations are and teachers tell you they haven’t taught them, your data tell you everyone would benefit from professional development about the topic.

Classroom-focused: Does It Improve What You Do with Students?

When professional development activities relate directly to the practices taking place in your classroom, they’re considered classroom-focused activities. The good news here is 85% of the professional development in Frontline’s report was considered classroom-focused.  

To double-check whether your professional development meets this definition, check your state’s teaching standards for effective teaching and learning. Frontline used the Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (InTASC) teaching standard. Standard #3 is all about creating a safe, positive learning environment, so your professional development topics defined in the TFI should help you meet that standard.

Professional development is an important part of our continuous learning process and your PBIS implementation. Not every training is created equal. For your learning to have a lasting impact, it needs to be sustained, intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused. When you set your professional development calendar for the year, lay out each opportunity and ask yourself these six questions:

  1. What is the minimum number of times we would need to meet to master this concept?
  1. How many hours do we agree it would take to improve the way we embed this concept in our practices?
  1. How can we organize our learning so we’re doing it in partnership with each other?
  1. How can we integrate our learning into our day-to-day activities so it’s immediately relevant?
  1. Do we have data driving our decision to select this activity or topic for professional development?
  1. In what ways will this activity improve our ability to ensure every student achieves the positive outcomes we know are possible?

1. Yoon, K. S., Duncan, T., Lee, S. W.-Y., Scarloss, B., & Shapley, K. (2007). Reviewing the evidence on how teacher professional development affects student achievement (Issues & Answers Report, REL 2007–No. 033). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest. Retrieved from http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs.
2. Every Student Succeeds Act, 20 U.S.C. § 6301 (2015). https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/1177
3. Frontline Research and Learning Institute. (2016). Bridging the Gap: Paving the Pathway from Current Practice to Exemplary Professional Learning. https://www.frontlineinstitute.com/reports/essa-report/.
4. Frontline Research and Learning Institute. (2016). Bridging the Gap: Part 2 Sustained and Intensive. https://www.frontlineinstitute.com/reports/essa-report/
5. Frontline Research and Learning Institute. (2016). Bridging the Gap: Part 3 Collaborative and Job-embedded. https://www.frontlineinstitute.com/reports/essa-report/
6. Frontline Research and Learning Institute. (2016). Bridging the Gap: Part 3 Collaborative and Job-embedded. https://www.frontlineinstitute.com/reports/essa-report/
7. Frontline Research and Learning Institute. (2016). Bridging the Gap: Part 4 Data-driven and Classroom-focused. https://www.frontlineinstitute.com/reports/essa-report/

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Megan Cave


Megan Cave

Megan Cave is a member of the PBISApps Marketing and Communication team. She is the writer behind the user manuals, scripted video tutorials, and news articles for PBISApps. She also writes a monthly article for Teach by Design and contributes to its accompanying Expert Instruction podcast episode. Megan has completed four half marathons – three of which happened unintentionally – and in all likelihood, will run another in the future.