Professional Learning

ESSA's Focus on Professional Learning: Its Impact on Administrators

4 Min Read
Professional Development

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has shifted focus from teacher evaluations to professional development—a move that impacts both teachers and administrators.

ESSA’s Emphasis on Professional Learning

ESSA, which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act and was signed in 2015, is a U.S. federal law governing K-12 education policy. As Francie Alexander explained in her blog post and during our recent Education Week webinar called “How ESSA Affects YOU: Shifting Focus to Support Today’s Educators,” the law contains a new definition of the term professional development, characterizing it as:

  • essential to a school and district’s strategies to improve student outcomes;
  • a way to focus on challenging education standards in an equitable and inclusive model;
  • a sustained effort in a continuous cycle with the familiar steps of learn, plan, do, assess, modify, repeat;
  • data-driven.
How the Shift Impacts Administrators

ESSA places a greater emphasis on school administrators and leaders in each of its title programs. This law answers the question: What makes an effective instructional leader who can maximize student achievement?

The research is clear. Among school-related factors, principal leadership is second only to teaching as most important to improving student achievement. In struggling schools in particular, highly effective principals have the greatest impact.

How does ESSA make school leadership prominent in the law? It offers new competitive grants and provisions that support preparing principals and school leaders, and it stresses job-embedded learning opportunities. ESSA clarifies the definition of a school leader as somebody who is inside the school building—including in classrooms—on a daily basis. And the law—specifically Title IV, Part A—addresses topics related to school conditions such as bullying.

Per ESSA, a highly effective principal:

  • focuses on achieving equity, establishes high expectations for all students, and understands the demographics and cultural backgrounds of students;
  • establishes a culture of collaboration focused on learning dilemmas, with every individual in the school taking responsibility for solving them;
  • uses data to drive decision-making with a focus on instruction;
  • cultivate leadership in others and model instructional leadership;
  • attract and retain high-quality teachers.
  • facilitate growth in teachers by creating a sense of community and engaging in reflective conversations with everybody in the school.
Maximizing ESSA as an Administrator

How can you make the most of ESSA as a principal?

Maximizing Essa Copy2

It’s clear ESSA can help ensure that school districts provide principals and other administrators with coaches and professional learning opportunities to help them fulfill their duties as leaders – whether planning agendas, being in classrooms, or building their instructional capacity. ESSA provides new opportunities to help all educators grow.

In many state plans, there’s also a new focus on a systemic way of thinking. One example is the Daggett System for Effective Instruction. I encourage you to reflect on the three critical components—organizational leadership, instructional leadership, and teaching—surrounding the center goal: rigorous learning for all students. Is your approach to fulfilling each of those components working hand in hand with that overall vision? You can view a visual representation of the Daggett System as well as definitions of these components in the slides below.


It can be helpful to align John Hattie’s research with the Daggett System for Effective Instruction. Doing so involves not just embracing rigor and relevance but also building strong relationships with them. Highly effective principals should know what’s going on with students outside of school, and those who succeed in doing this can help teachers better meet students’ needs. Per Hattie, other key characteristics of effective principals include expertise in use of instructional technology and strategies, and knowledge of how to utilize assessments for differentiated instruction.

Data, Data, Data

We have more data available to us today than we have ever had in the past! That being said, ESSA defines a significant direction for educators that touches on the three E’s: equity, evidence, and efficacy. We can’t achieve any of those without access to data.

What kind of data may be available to school leaders? I break it down below.

Data Around Us

With that, ESSA’s shift in focus allows us as school and district leaders to be more transparent about our accomplishments to students, parents, and the school community. This ensures that we allocate our resources in ways that provide equity for all. As you plan to take action to address specific issues, you can better explain to others how your success will be measured.

It’s a critical time for us to invest in our leaders—and our teachers—with the new flexibility ESSA provides us.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH


Want to learn more about strategies to effectively address district and school accountability indicators in ESSA? Join Dr. Bill Daggett, founder of ICLE—a division of HMH—for a one-day institute in Albany, New York, on October 9, 2019. Register here.

Related Reading

WF1933153 hero

Shaddoe Lambert

Former Teacher; HMH Product Manager

WF1799165 Shaped 2024 Blog Post School Improvement Ideas Update Hero

Dr. Linda Lucey
Associate Partner, The Center for Model Schools

Reading Intervention Elementary Hero

Amber Silverman

Shaped Contributor