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Professional Learning: A Powerful Solution to Teacher Retention & Student Outcomes

    By Brent Hartsell, Director of Solutions and Professional Learning at Learning Ally

    Teachers are one of the most important assets to our society, yet an alarming number are leaving the profession.

    A 2022 survey by The National Education Association (NEA) found a staggering fifty-five percent of educators said they were considering leaving teaching earlier than planned – a significant increase from the same survey in 2021 of thirty-seven percent. The new teacher pipeline is slipping too, with college students now reconsidering their career choices.

    The pandemic has been a big contributor. Through no fault of their own, educators and many student populations were unprepared for ‘teaching and learning’ remotely, and many were affected in unprecedented ways, especially in literacy. Recent NAEP scores reflect that even more children are not reading at proficiency.  And recent interest arose around the Science of Reading, an interdisciplinary body of scientific, peer-reviewed research, clearly calling for school systems and teachers to update their knowledge in the science of reading instruction.

    As a consequence of these challenges facing education, teachers report feeling mentally and emotionally drained and unfortunately at a time when large student populations are in need of effective early literacy and reading intervention. Administrators are scrambling for effective ways to invest in teacher retention, and improve reading outcomes. Could professional development and social and emotional support be a solution?

    Teacher Retention – Social and Emotional Impact

    We have learned from Educators in discussions about teacher retention that reasons for leaving the profession vary – from pressures of children not reading on grade level, safety and salary, and disconnects over politics and curriculum.  Overall, teachers feel overwhelmed, undervalued, and unappreciated. Additionally –

    • Teachers recognize they are ill-equipped to teach reading effectively.
    • Teachers recognize the need for more professional learning, and for systemic changes to improve reading instruction, early literacy, and reading recovery.

    Effective Professional Learning in Brain-Based Literacy

    When professional learning combines sustainable teacher training with teacher care, it directly supports teacher satisfaction and student learning outcomes. Literacy educators have been hamstrung to drive literacy outcomes without effective, evidence-based curriculum and training informed by the Science of Reading.  With this in mind, Learning Ally just launched courseware, “Effective Brain-Based Literacy Instruction for PreK-6,” that won the Award of Excellence from Tech & Learning for its comprehensive design and programming around equitable access. The courseware is uniquely designed around adult-learning best practices, and the science of how to teach reading to ensure all children master the fundamentals of reading and can achieve reading comprehension and fluency. The programming is adaptive, and ongoing…not a one-time event. It places the knowledge of the science of reading and brain-based learning directly into the hands of teachers to use in their daily practice.

    Master Teachers support individualized instruction, and to enhance instructional capacity. They participate in comprehensive workshops and micro-learning activities that are experiential and exploratory. They work in collaborative communities of practice with opportunities to refine and apply knowledge directly into class and school environments. They solve real-world class problems with time for self-reflection and feedback. There are options for individual coaching and mentoring, and joining an active educator community to share fellowship.  As a result, more U.S. educators are making sustainable changes in their leadership and literacy outcomes.   This topic was explored by me and Larry Jacobs in a recent ACE in Ed podcast on Brain Based Professional Learning and Teacher Retention.

    District Approach To A School Literacy Ecosystem

    The role of a literacy leader is to build the vision, support the vision, and ensure implementation is attainable. Developing a school literacy ecosystem must be woven into the fabric of the district culture. When effective professional learning is offered to educators there are considerable gains to be made across the board — from skilled teachers who feel knowledgeable and respected – to effective reading instruction and remediation that enables more students to flourish.

    Jake Flowers, a Superintendent of Norwood Elementary School, a K-8 district in Peoria, Illinois, began his journey into the science of reading after reviewing data in late Spring/Summer of 2021 on reading outcomes. He wanted to rewire his own thinking, and improve teachers’ knowledge and ability to deliver evidence-based instruction to improve early literacy in his PK-4 school. Teachers were using a balanced literacy approach they believed to be effective, but data suggested otherwise. The district embarked on a professional learning journey to incorporate more phonics and structured literacy into their daily instruction. Norwood’s staff cultivated a united vision for literacy improvement. They now celebrate a culture of literacy leaders and an increase in the academic success of early readers.

    Funding for Professional Learning

    There is ample support for Professional Learning at the federal level. Title II, Part A (Title II-A) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) is the key statute through which the federal government provides funds to states and districts to provide “high-quality, personalized professional development that is evidence-based” and focuses on a broad range of topics to improve teachers’ instructional practice. States and districts may choose how to spend their Title II-A funds from a wide range of allowable activities that support any of four program goals:

    1. increasing student academic achievement,
    2. improving educator quality and effectiveness,
    3. enlarging the number of qualified teachers to teach reading, and
    4. providing low-income and minority students with greater access to effective instruction.

    Educators are the key

    There are many studies that suggest educators who receive effective and ongoing professional learning on a comprehensive basis are 20% more likely to increase student achievement. A child waits in every classroom today for a highly qualified teacher who will make a difference in their academic journey, social and emotional well-being, and life ambitions. We must continue to lift teachers up and empathize with their challenges. Make their voices heard, and insist upon effective professional learning in the science of reading and brain-based instruction. Doing so will result in more teachers becoming highly-skilled professional literacy leaders. It will ensure that more learners enjoy equitable access to the fundamental skill of reading. It will encourage more interest in becoming professionally trained future educators – those that will move the needle to advance literacy for all in our nation.


    Brent Hartsell is a former teacher, and the Director of Solutions and Professional Learning for Learning Ally, a national nonprofit working with U.S. educators to support students with learning challenges. His team designs professional learning courseware focused on supporting the diverse needs of teachers and their students and to train educators to put the latest science of reading and brain-based reading research into classroom practice.

    Listen to his archived ACE-Ed podcast with Larry Jacobs.