When teachers have access to powerful professional learning opportunities, their students learn more, too. That’s not surprising—we know that great teaching can have an invaluable impact on a child’s life. But for many teachers, professional development continues to fall well short of expectations.

The reasons for this are many. From the overuse of one-size-fits-all workshops to the prevalence of ineffective teacher evaluation practices, traditional models of professional development often don’t give teachers the opportunities they need to grow and improve. Couple that with the new demands of higher, more rigorous academic standards, and the burden on teachers can be overwhelming.

But four school districts are bringing new meaning to the idea of professional learning. Igniting the Learning Engine, a new report from Education Resource Strategies, examines how leaders in four school systems have successfully re-organized resources to create the type of effective, job-embedded professional learning that teachers are asking for. The report describes three inter-related elements that these systems have in common:

  • Rigorous, comprehensive curricula and assessments aligned to high standards
  • Content-focused, expert-led teacher collaboration time
  • Regular, growth-oriented feedback for teachers from content experts

The four school districts and charter organizations featured in the report—District of Columbia Public Schools, Duval County Public Schools, Sanger Unified School District, and Achievement First—all integrated professional learning with the everyday work of teaching, such as planning lessons and deeply understanding curricula. These school systems also helped schools connect these elements to each other and to a system-wide vision for student achievement. Education Resource Strategies calls this approach “connected professional learning.”

For example, Duval County Public Schools has focused more resources on a teacher development cycle that allows district specialists, school leaders, coaches, and teacher leaders to meet for six full days a year to develop content and curricula-specific support tailored to teacher needs. DC Public Schools recently rolled out a new district-wide professional learning strategy called Learning Together to Advance our Practice (LEAP). And in Sanger Unified School District, teachers benefit from spending 90 minutes every week in professional learning communities led by instructional experts.

The impact of connected professional learning is reflected in the incredible progress that these districts have made. At least 64 percent of students in each of these four school systems are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch—in some districts, that number is as high as 85 percent. But graduation and proficiency rates are on the rise across the board.

Redesigning professional development can be transformative for districts and schools, but it’s not an easy task. As ERS reports, it takes a lot of work and resources—including people, time, and money—to build a system that truly enables teachers to connect their ongoing professional learning and their daily work with students in the classroom. While ERS found that in most cases the systems they studied invest more than typical districts do in professional learning, what is most critical to these systems’ success is that they spend their dollars differently. For example, all four of the systems invest more in instructional leaders and curricula-specific activities than typical districts. The ERS report also outlines how much of a typical district’s operating budget might be required to start up and maintain a connected professional learning system over time.

Big changes take time. But with the right resources and information, any school district has the power to improve learning for its teachers and students.

Check out the full ERS report to learn how your district can take the first step toward connected professional learning.