March 14, 2017 by

Professional Development We Can Advocate For

As someone who is always striving to design more effective professional learning, I’m overjoyed when I have an experience that helps me to further understand why some professional learning works, and why other examples don’t work out so well.

That’s why I’m happy to point to ASCD’s Leadership Institute for Legislative Advocacy (LILA) as an example of what works in professional learning. LILA is designed as an opportunity to help educators—whether new to advocacy or veterans– further develop their skills in advocating for education, and see the ways in which educational advocacy can help at the national level certainly, but also at the state and local levels. Plus, as an educator whose role is to help districts throughout my region access the services they need and design programs and services that take the learning of their communities further, strengthening my educational advocacy skills is an important step towards more effectively engaging in my work, therefore making LILA potentially even more powerful for me.

And, truth be told, the education profession always needs advocates, whether they be students themselves, teachers and leaders who work with them, or members of the community who care about the future of education.

So, as I arrived in Rosslyn, Virginia for the two-and-a-half day experience, I expected to engage in a great learning opportunity to build my own advocacy skills and gain further insight into current educational policy.

And, happily, the experience exceeded my expectations.

Over the course of the conference, I gained a tremendous amount of insight into how to use a story to reach others, how to advocate without “selling out” or “overselling,” what the current educational policy landscape looks like (and what that might mean for the future), and how to use a variety of tools (à la social media) to extend my reach, reach people differently, and even make what might be difficult asks.

That, in itself, would have made for a great conference, and an excellent learning experience. And yet, LILA’s overarching value for me was in the example it set for designing excellent professional learning. One of the most important aspects of professional learning design is often an area that is overlooked: the idea that follow-through and direct action-taking are necessary if learning is to truly take hold.

LILA’s design showcases how organizations, districts, schools, and individuals can think about learning to make sure that action and follow-through are built into professional learning opportunities. Here’s why: LILA, in its structure, built in roughly thirty-six hours of conference-style learning; provided skill-building sessions; promoted networking with other advocacy-minded colleagues; allowed time to conduct action-planning, etc. But the culmination, the pièce de résistance, if you will, was the inclusion of a visit to Capitol Hill to meet with each attendee’s representatives (both in the House and the Senate) and put the learning into practice.

Why was this so effective? For three reasons that I realized as I was heading to the airport after my day on the Hill.

Positive Accountability. Nothing helps move us towards making change like positive accountability. This isn’t like the accountability we might shy away from when we talk teacher evaluation and professional review. This is its much more well-liked cousin; this accountability is an often collaborative push to showcase learning in a manner that is risky and challenging, and also incredibly meaningful.

Real-World Connectivity. By building the visits directly onto the end of the conference, LILA “forces” attendees to see the real-world connectivity of the previous days. There isn’t an opportunity to return home and go back to “normalcy” and the fact that skills and knowledge gained during the conference will be used right at the end helps to show the relevance of the conference and its contents. In addition, during a tumultuous political time, it is clear (and it was made clear by our facilitators), that no time is better to put the details of the conference into practice.

Cohort Development. In most cases, attendees had multiple state colleagues joining them (this wasn’t the case for all states, and it seems as if it would be great if ASCD could use some of its resources to make sure that all fifty states had at least two people attending. . . a tough, but valuable challenge), which allowed for collaborative planning in designing meeting scripts and stories. This, of course, also built an advocacy network for a given state. New York had a number of educators in attendance, all with different skill sets and roles, which made our meetings with representatives even more valuable. The larger the reverberation of a given story, the more likely a policymaker is to see the impact on constituents. Professional learning also works best when there are opportunities to learn with a group and self-reflect; LILA used this design exceedingly well.

LILA’s model of multi-day intensive learning, culminating with forced positive accountability and action-taking, is a professional development for learning (PDL) model we should strive for in all that we do. And, the knowledge and skills that LILA provided to help all in attendance become better advocates isn’t just something we should want, but something that we need. Our profession depends on it.


Fred is an ASCD Emerging Leader, and currently serves as New York ASCD’s Vice President. He is passionate about designing professional development that leads to deep learning, and believes in the importance of collaboration across school, district, and regional lines to design learning opportunities that are truly sticky. Fred can be reached at fende@pnwboces.org and on Twitter at @fredende.