NSDC Standards and Tools Help Strengthen Professional Development

by Stephanie Hirsh
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XIX, Number 1, April 2007, Developing a Staff of Learners

Sometimes a chance meeting can ignite a revolution. That's exactly what launched the National Staff Development Council (NSDC) on the path to develop its Standards for Staff Development and the many tools that support them. In 1994, Hayes Mizell heard NSDC executive director Dennis Sparks speak about aspects of professional development that contribute to its effectiveness. At that time, Mizell was director of the Program for Student Achievement at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York. He was intrigued by what Sparks said and was determined to learn more about the organization that Sparks represented.

Early in his investigation, Mizell offered NSDC several small grants to provide professional development in districts supported by his program. He watched to see whether NSDC actions aligned with Sparks' words. Satisfied to some degree with the services delivered through the grants, he offered NSDC another grant with a specific challenge: Mizell would agree to fund the development of standards for staff development for the middle grades.

Developing Staff Development Standards Collaboratively

For some time, NSDC leaders had discussed the role standards might play in advancing quality staff development in schools. When Mizell issued the invitation, NSDC staff accepted with caveats. The NSDC board and staff wanted standards to be developed in a collaborative manner with representatives from a significant number of professional associations. By bringing association representatives together to write the standards, the practitioners had the benefit of great thinking and a consensual mandate for improvement.

Photo of a man and woman talking while examining a document.

NSDC's standards have been through two revisions. Today's standards represent contributions from the following organizations: the National Middle School Association, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Education Commission of the States, the Council for Exceptional Children, and the U.S. Department of Education. SEDL scholar emerita Shirley Hord and University of Kentucky professor Tom Guskey provided content expertise.

SEDL joined NSDC in making the most recent set of standards available in its region. Since 2001 more than 100,000 copies of NSDC's standards have been disseminated to educators. More than 40 states report having adopted professional development standards, and more than 25 are using NSDC's standards.

NSDC's Staff Development Standards

Context Standards
  • Learning Communities
    Staff development that improves the learning of all students organizes adults into learning communities whose goals are aligned with those of the school and district.
  • Leadership
    Staff development that improves the learning of all students requires skillful school and district leaders who guide continuous instructional improvement.
  • Resources
    Staff development that improves the learning of all students requires resources to support adult learning and collaboration.
Process Standards
  • Data-Driven
    Staff development that improves the learning of all students uses disaggregated student data to determine adult learning priorities, monitor progress, and help sustain continuous improvement.
  • Evaluation
    Staff development that improves the learning of all students uses multiple sources of information to guide improvement and demonstrate its impact.
  • Research-Based
    Staff development that improves the learning of all students prepares educators to apply research to decision making.
  • Design
    Staff development that improves the learning of all students uses learning strategies appropriate to the intended goal.
  • Learning
    Staff development that improves the learning of all students applies knowledge about human learning and change.
  • Collaboration
    Staff development that improves the learning of all students provides educators with the knowledge and skills to collaborate.
Content Standards
  • Equity
    Staff development that improves the learning of all students prepares educators to understand and appreciate all students; create safe, orderly and supportive learning environments; and hold high expectations for their academic achievement.
  • Quality Teaching
    Staff development that improves the learning of all students deepens educators' content knowledge, provides them with research-based instructional strategies to assist students in meeting rigorous academic standards, and prepares them to use various types of classroom assessments appropriately.
  • Family Involvement
    Staff development that improves the learning of all students provides educators with knowledge and skills to involve families and other stakeholders appropriately.

Assessing Professional Development Quality

NSDC provides tools and resources to assist the growing number of school systems and states using the standards to improve the quality and increase the impact of professional development. In 2001, NSDC again reached out to SEDL to develop an assessment instrument that would measure the quality of a local school system's professional development as defined by the standards. SEDL produced a valid and reliable instrument that schools could use with teachers to assess their perception of how well staff development aligned with the standards. The final instrument, known as the Standards Assessment Inventory (SAI), met the following criteria (SEDL, 2003):

  • Instrument reliability was consistent and high across all three pilot studies for the overall scale and consistently good for the 12 subscales.
  • The instrument demonstrated good content validity through the process of soliciting expert advice on the instrument's clarity and relevance to the characteristics of each of the standards and to the experiences of school faculties.
  • Criterion-rated validity was supported, indicating that teachers' ratings of their school's professional development program alignment with NSDC standards were comparable to their school's rating by experts.

NSDC recommended the SAI to school leaders to help them address the following questions:

  • What is the overall picture of professional development in the school?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of professional development in the school?
  • Where might attention be focused to improve the quality of professional development in the school?

The SAI comprises 60 questions (five questions per standard). Most educators complete the inventory in about 20 minutes. Some state, regional, district, and school leaders use the instrument for some or all of the following purposes:

  • To assess the current status of professional development at the school level, determine areas of strengths and weaknesses, and plan for improvement
  • To help schools get a clearer picture of what is working for them and where they may want to focus their attention
  • To guide conversations regarding the qualities of professional learning that produce better results for students
  • To assess whether a particular improvement effort has contributed to the quality of professional development within a school and/or across several schools or systems
  • To identify schools that are strong in certain areas and may have lessons to share with other schools
  • To help schools focus on the particular actions that contribute to higher-quality professional development as guided by the questions on the assessment
  • To assist groups in focusing planning efforts and using NSDC's innovation configurations (ICs)
  • To organize and convene schools with similar needs and priorities for technical assistance
  • To recognize and/or reward schools for quality professional development

For these reasons and others, the Division of School Improvement, Professional Learning Services for the State of Georgia, contracted with NSDC to use the SAI statewide. Previously, the state had adopted the NSDC standards as its standards for professional learning. Steve Preston, then-state director for professional learning, understood that the next logical step was to assess the degree to which professional learning practice in school aligned with the standards.

For 3 years now, every staff member in every school has been asked to complete the assessment inventory. While individual responses remain anonymous, the schoolwide results are available to educators committed to helping schools perform better. The principal, the central office, the regional service agency, and the state department all have access to the results. Technical assistance is planned according to the scores.

Visualizing the Standards in Action

The SAI offers one tool valued by educators. However, others continued to seek assistance in moving the standards into action. Again in partnership with SEDL and with leadership from Shirley Hord and consultant Patricia Roy, a team of educators developed Innovation Configurations (ICs) for the standards.

Studies of policies, practices, and programs have shown that how teachers implement new programs often varies from the vision and expectations of policymakers, program designers, or professional staff developers. For example, although a trainer may explain and even model a new reading method, classroom instruction may look very different from that model when teachers return to their classrooms. In addition, teachers make adaptations when they return to the classroom that can vary across an entire school or system. These adaptations can influence the results a district or school achieves compared with expectations based on program results in other schools and systems. District and school leaders, program developers, and professional staff developers concerned about fidelity to a program design use IC maps to facilitate implementation that more closely aligns with their expectations for practice.

NSDC is equally concerned about what happens when states, technical assistance agencies, school systems, and schools adopt the standards. ICs define the various actions educators can take to move from low levels of implementation of standards to higher levels. NSDC published the first set of these frameworks in 2003. Titled Moving NSDC's Staff Development Standards into Practice: Innovation Configurations, this publication addressed the roles of teachers, principals, central office staff members, superintendents, and school board members. NSDC published a second set of ICs in 2005 that address the roles of state departments, technical assistance providers, state agency personnel, higher education professional associations, and district staff developers.

IC maps, which can vary in complexity, describe the major components of a program or innovation in action. IC maps for the NSDC standards are fairly complex as they describe 2–6 outcomes associated with each of the 12 standards for each role. For example, the following five outcomes are stated for the first standard, Learning Communities for the Principal:

  1. The principal prepares teachers for skillful collaboration.
  2. The principal creates an organizational structure that supports collegial learning.
  3. The principal understands and implements an incentive system that ensures collaborative work.
  4. The principal creates and maintains a learning community to support teacher and student learning.
  5. The principal participates with other administrators in one or more learning communities.

Each outcome is followed by a description of a series of actions—what the principal will actually be seen doing if the standard is being fully implemented (labeled as Level 1) through descriptions of lesser levels of implementation. As an example, we will look at Outcome 4.

Desired Outcome 4: The principal creates and maintains a learning community to support teacher and student learning.

Implementation levels 1–5 are described in the IC map as noted below:

Level 1: Builds a culture that respects risktaking, encourages collegial exchange, identifies and resolves conflict, sustains trust, and engages the whole staff as a learning community to improve the learning of all students.

Level 2: Works with faculty to create a variety of learning teams to attain different goals; facilitates conflict resolution among group members; and supports learning teams by providing articles, videos, and other activities during team time.

Level 3: Works with faculty to create learning teams with clear goals, outcomes, and results outlined in writing and expects and reviews team logs each month in order to coordinate activities within and among the teams.

Level 4: Creates ad hoc study teams without clear direction or accountability.

Level 5: Does not create learning teams.

In the end, NSDC published the IC maps so all educators will have a clear and richly descriptive vision of what the standards look like in action and will use that vision when helping others implement the standards to improve the quality of professional development for a state, organization, district, or school. NSDC hopes that the IC maps are one of the tools educators find helpful.

A consistent set of staff development standards provides a common language and supports a deeper understanding among educators. NSDC recognizes its responsibility to ensure the applicability and usefulness of the standards to educators. NSDC will continue to monitor the research and, when it again becomes necessary, facilitate another update. Meanwhile, NSDC continues to believe that the single most valuable way to help all educators and students achieve at high levels is through highquality professional learning. The NSDC standards are an effective strategy to help in that process.


  • Standards
  • Assessment tool


  • Hall, G. E., & Hord, S. M. (2001). Implementing change: Patterns, principles, and potholes. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Hord, S. M., Rutherford, W. L., Huling-Austin, L. L., & Hall, G. E. (1987). Taking charge of change. Alexandria, VA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  • National Staff Development Council. (2001). Standards for staff development (revised). Oxford, OH: Author.
  • Roy, P., & Hord, S. M. (2003). Moving NSDC's staff development standards into practice: Innovation configurations. Oxford, OH: National Staff Development Council.
  • Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (2003, December). National Staff Development Council Standards Assessment Inventory: Summary report of instrument development process and psychometric properties. Austin, TX: Author.

Stephanie Hirsh is executive director-designate of NSDC.

Sections of this article previously appeared in Hirsh's column in the Journal of Staff Development and have been used with permission. Hirsh's columns about the standards can be found at http://www.nsdc.org.

(In 20120, NSDC changed its name to Learning Forward, and the web site is now http://www.learningforward.org.)

Next Article: After Hours: Professional Development for Afterschool Staff