There is growing demand for schools that can prepare students for an increasingly complex and dynamic global economy (Schleicher, 2012). All students are now expected not only to master important concepts and facts but also to think critically, tackle sophisticated problems, and effectively communicate what they know and can do—and ensuring this means that their teachers lead their own learning (Berry, 2016). Instructional shifts are required of teachers who can adapt to the demands of state standards while at the same time preparing a new generation of students to develop social and emotional skills, habits, and mind-sets required for academic and life success.

However, the majority of professional development opportunities experienced by teachers are largely ineffective, rarely meeting their needs or based on their classroom context (Jacob & McGovern, 2015). U.S. public schools spend about $18 billion annually on teacher learning, with about $3 billion delivered by external providers (Jacob & McGovern, 2015). Researchers claim that school district leaders want to spend more time on “personalized formats” (coaching, professional learning communities [PLCs]), but teachers are not satisfied with how they are implemented. The authors aptly describe these findings as a “problem of execution” (Gates, 2014).

Our report is published at an auspicious time for professional learning in California: a new study reveals that despite recent improvements, California’s low-income students and students of color perform lower than their white and Asian peers, and the gaps are substantially larger than in other states (Loeb, Edley, Imazeki, & Stipek, 2018). On the other hand, another new study has identified school districts in California where students of color, as well as their white peers, have “demonstrated extraordinary levels” of academic achievement, measured by the state’s new assessments. This research found that in these districts labeled as “positive outliers” the major in-school predictor of student learning was the preparation and training of the teaching force (Podolsky, Darling-Hammond, Doss, & Reardon, 2019).

In California, there is no lack of good ideas and effective practices around professional learning (Bishop et al., 2015). For example, the state’s Instructional Leadership Corps (ILC) has served growing numbers of teachers in implementing the state standards and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and promoting their professionalism and efficacy. Since the ILC’s inception in 2014, its leaders have provided multi-session professional learning to more than 32,000 educators statewide in more than 2,000 schools and at least 495 districts (Lotan, Burns, & Darling-Hammond, 2019).

Research is mounting on how teachers learn best—and growing evidence points to the importance of how educators collaborate with their peers in making instructional shifts in their practice (Berry, 2019). Teacher leadership that matters most is a “socially distributed phenomen[on]” that develops over time as classroom practitioners collectively gain efficacy based on “repeated opportunities” to reflect on what they master in the context of structured collaboration (Szczesiul & Huizenga, 2015). The importance of building positive professional relationships in developing educators’ skills is paramount. A recent study of California’s school improvement efforts concluded:

Continuous improvement requires a shift in mindset and in culture, a substantial investment of time and resources, and persistent effort over time to build organizations where everyone in the system can see how their work impacts student outcomes and can engage in investigations of their daily work to continually improve their practices, processes, and ultimately student outcomes (Hough et al., 2017).

California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), adopted six years ago, offers school districts more autonomy to decide how to invest resources related to professional learning in serving high-needs students (i.e., English learners, students from low-income families, homeless youth, and foster youth). By 2020, LCFF is likely to reach $18 billion in additional funding (Johnson & Tanner, 2018), creating new opportunities to accelerate student and teacher learning. (See Appendix A for more background on LCFF.)

Our policy report explores how PUSD, representing one of over a thousand districts in the state, has begun to systematically develop and spread the expertise of teachers through professional learning strategies to target the priority student groups specified under LCFF. Drawing on interviews, document review, and school site visits, our report points to how the district is helping teachers break down the walls between their classrooms to accelerate learning for them and the students they teach. (See Appendix B for research methods.)

Over the last several years the district, with declining enrollment and revenues, has engaged in a great deal of school reforms—from launching comprehensive turnaround efforts for several low-performing schools to using new technologies and student data to both personalize learning and track progress as well as developing classroom instructional strategies tied to NGSS. Along with establishing an emerging co-teaching model so that more organic forms of classroom leadership can be tried, tested, and refined, the district—under LCFF—has shifted its professional development practices so teachers have more voice and choice in what workshops they attend. The district has invested, so far, most of its teacher leadership efforts in addressing the social and emotional development needs of students through PBIS. This work, drawing on the expertise of teachers as PBIS coaches, has spread to 27 schools. These coaches train colleagues on evidence-based methods that include strategies around the classroom environment, predictable class routines, and student expectations. The strength of the PBIS model is the idea that personalized support and learning for every student is based on the power of teachers working together to lead their own learning and how teachers can find their own solutions to the pedagogical problems they face.

PUSD’s emerging approach aligns well with the scholarship on effective professional learning that “places teachers in a more active learning role, tak[ing] into account the contexts in which they work, and provid[ing] sustained follow-up support as they attempt to make changes in their practices” (Youngs, 2000). Our investigation builds upon previous research in California revealing that “teachers’ knowledge and practice and their opportunities to learn would be key policy instruments” in implementing more ambitious standards-based curriculum reforms (Cohen & Hill, 1998). Our paper seeks to strengthen previous ideas of how expert teachers distribute their knowledge within school settings, often not designed to be led by the teachers themselves. It also takes into account how districts are rethinking professional learning in light of current efforts for more demanding student learning outcomes, with implications for local and state education policy.