A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Improving America's Schools: Newsletter on Issues in School Reform - May 1996

Rethinking Professional Development

Almost every approach to school reform requires teachers to refocus their roles, responsibilities, and opportunities--and, as a result, to acquire new knowledge and skills. The success of efforts to increase and reach high standards depends largely on the success of teachers and their ability to acquire the content knowledge and instructional practices necessary to teach to high academic standards.

Teaching to high standards, however, requires many educators to teach in ways they have never taught before. There is a dramatic difference between the way teachers learned during their "apprenticeships" as students or novice teachers in traditional classrooms and effective innovations of today. Like students, teachers must be actively involved in learning and must have opportunities to discuss, reflect upon, try out, and hone better instructional approaches. Professional development strategies also must take into account the importance of support and the time required to implement improvement.

If teacher learning takes place within a professional community that is nurtured and developed from both inside and outside the school, significant and lasting school change may follow. Engaging in an array of learning experiences with school colleagues builds community and reduces isolation. Outside learning groups support individual initiative; their members share interests and support innovation.

Teachers need professional development that extends far beyond the one-shot workshop; they need opportunities to learn how to question, analyze, and change instruction to teach challenging content (Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 1995). Professional development opportunities that see professional growth as central to school change exist both inside and outside the school, and include teacher-researcher groups, peer review groups, teacher networks and organizational partnerships, and programs that involve teachers in national, state, and local school and curriculum reform activities.

Opportunities for Teacher Learning in School

In-school activities can stimulate teachers to observe classroom events more carefully, assess their effectiveness thoughtfully, and share new insights. In-school strategies adopted by reform-minded schools include (1) developing new roles for and relationships among teachers, and (2) establishing a culture within the school and among teachers that generates continual professional development.

Expanded Roles for Teachers

High-quality professional development often supports teachers in new and expanded roles as teacher leaders, peer advisors, and teacher researchers. Teacher leaders operate formally or informally, interjecting new ideas--and sometimes whole new programs--into their schools. These teachers find and promote solutions to problems or build on ongoing work. They enrich the mix of ideas in a school community.

Teachers may also work with colleagues as peer advisors, providing information and feedback on the implementation of a new program or on a promising instructional strategy. As consultants, peer advisors can build trusting relationships with colleagues and draw on their knowledge of specific school contexts.

In communities around the country, teachers--either alone or in groups--are gathering information, analyzing experiences and events, and writing about the issues and problems they confront in schools and classrooms. These teacher researchers view their own schools and classrooms as learning labs, using new data collection techniques to test hypotheses about why things happen the way they do. Some teacher researchers hope to bring about organizational changes in their school or district; their research activities may involve collecting data to inform decisions and implement improvements. Other groups may focus on improving classroom instruction by encouraging teachers to reflect on their experiences and share lessons learned with others.

Teachers Develop and Use Casebooks to Discuss Classroom Experiences

The Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development conducts research, provides technical assistance and training, and offers evaluation support to public schools and districts in Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah. Far West staff have helped promote teacher professional development in several schools districts collaborating with classroom teachers as they write cases about their classroom experiences. In these cases, teachers describe one or more classroom activities, and provide examples of student work and classroom discussions. The cases are organized into books that address particular issues or themes; the casebooks are then used as the basis for monthly tow-hour discussions among as many as 6 to 15 teachers (the discussions are facilitated by teacher educators or teachers). Developing and discussing the cases affords teachers the opportunity to reflect on their work and discuss their ideas--activities that few teachers have time to do. In addition, teachers develop techniques for conducting discussion groups.

Creating a Culture of Continual Professional Development

New roles and support structures for teachers help establish a professional culture in schools that generates ongoing development and continuous improvement. Gradually, learning together becomes expected behavior; time for teacher learning gains more prominence in scheduling. Teachers expect to be studying some aspect of practice, comparing notes on implementation, and seeking new ideas or programs--and their working arrangements increasingly accommodate these activities. Formerly mundane activities become opportunities for learning and reflection; for example, in department meetings teachers may review curriculum plans, and on curriculum and assessment committees, teachers may reflect on instructional and student assessment practices. As teachers identify more and more professional development opportunities within the school, they can resort less often to one-shot inspirational workshops and other traditional forms of professional development (Darling-Hammond, Lieberman, & McLaughlin, 1995).

Opportunities for Teacher Learning Outside of School

New and broader approaches to professional development view teachers less as passive recipients of "workshop lectures" and more as learners actively engaged in activities that enable them to question and make needed changes in teaching and school-wide practice. Viewing teachers in this light opens a new realm of professional development opportunities that support teachers as learners and see professional growth as central to school change.

Out-of-school experiences--collaborations with formal and informal networks, partnerships with community groups, and involvement in district-, state-, or national-level education activities--expand teachers' understanding of policy and practice in ways that are sometimes unavailable in school.

Networks and Partnerships

As educators face an array of challenging problems and new reforms, networks that facilitate communication about ideas, knowledge, skills, and experiences are flourishing. The math teacher responding to challenging state standards of learning, the English teacher learning to use a writing workshop, and the Title I project director struggling with assessment issues all can use networks to gain access to expertise not available within their school. Some teacher networks are large and rely on communication through computers; smaller networks use workshops, meetings, discussion groups, and other non-technological means to maintain contact. The scope and objectives of networks also vary; some networks have a very specific, clearly defined purpose-such as a desire to share or receive information on effective pedagogy for a particular age-group. Others have a broader, more complex agenda, such as introducing school reform. For example:
The Foxfire Network began as a single summer outreach program that taught teachers how to involve students in identifying and pursuing research interests. Today, the network includes programs across the country, some of which collaborate with postsecondary institutions.

The Four Seasons Network, organized by the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching, helps teachers learn about "authentic" assessment from experts, peers, and their own efforts to create new student assessments. Teachers attend two summer workshops and participate in an electronic network during the school year. They discuss experiments with portfolios, exhibitions, and other methods of documenting student progress in meeting high standards. The "hands on" approach helps teachers understand the strengths and weaknesses of various instructional approaches and enables them to become better resources for their colleagues.

National and State Writing Projects involve universities, state departments of education, and school districts in teacher-led professional development activities. Originating with the National Writing Project at the University of California, Berkeley, the curriculum for these projects includes an intensive five-week summer session for teacher-leaders followed by an ongoing workshop series at district sites. Participants are recommended by their districts on the basis of their success as writing teachers and their promise as peer coaches. During the summer session (for which they often earn a stipend), teachers: (1) use a collaborative, multistage writing process to develop their own work; (2) learn effective approaches to teach others to use the process; and (3) conduct demonstration lessons to improve their skills. Back in their own districts, these teachers often form writing response groups with their peers. Thousands of new teachers participate in writing projects each summer, and hundreds of thousands have become skilled writing instructors.

Researchers Ann Lieberman and Milbrey McLaughlin (1995) found that successful teacher networks unite members who share interests and concerns around a common goal that the participants themselves believe to be important. Strong networks also provide participants with an opportunity to interact in a non-threatening environment where both teaching and learning occur simultaneously.

Partnerships between schools or among schools and outside organizations promote similar objectives. These relationships typically involve the sharing of ideas, expertise, and resources that expand teachers' knowledge and improve their effectiveness in the classroom. For example:

The Center for Collaborative Education (CCE) is a network of small and diverse urban schools. Participating schools emphasize thematic curricula, strategies that engage students actively in learning, and the role of teachers as learning coaches and as models of community participation. CCE sponsors workshops and conferences and publishes a newsletter. To help members identify colleagues at the same stage of program development, the network offers separate membership categories for schools that are considering changes, planning or developing reforms, or in the advanced stages of implementing changes.

An Example of a Teacher Network and an Education Partnership

The Vermont Portfolio Network. When Vermont decided to introduce a new portfolio assessment system for fourth-and eight-grade math and writing during the 1990-91 school year, teachers across the state organized into small networks to help each other learn about the new method and prepare for the changes they would have to make. The state was divided into 17 regions and a network leader-typical an experienced classroom teacher-was recruited to serve as liaison between the region's school districts and the state.

In the year since the assessment change, network presentations have ranged from providing general information on portfolios to developing and using criteria to score students' portfolio work. The network also focuses on: (1) improving instruction based on an analysis of students' scores; (2) developing a system for managing portfolios; (3) sharing strategies and materials; and (4) conveying administrative information from the state education department. Network meetings also give teachers a chance to offer and receive encouragement and air concerns about policies related to the portfolios.

Philadelphia Education Fund. The Philadelphia Schools Collaborative and PATHS/PRISM: The Philadelphia Partnership for Education merged in 1995 to become the Philadelphia Education Fund. The merger combines expertise and resources as the groups continue their partnerships with the Philadelphia school district. The Fund offers support for school reform, including professional development for teachers and administrators and partnerships with universities and community-based organizations.

The Fund sponsors several programs within the school district, such as the Partners in Change Middle School Initiative, which helps six middle schools rethink their structure, relationships with the community, and approaches to teaching and learning. In collaboration with principals, school cluster leaders, teachers, and other education and community organizations, the Fund also plans to conduct a new, intensive professional development initiative. One new program will provide two-week summer institutes on improving teaching and learning, using data to make decisions, and establishing small learning communities within schools and clusters. A second new program will help two school clusters jointly plan four years of professional development around constructivist teaching and learning. The three-year professional development initiative will be shaped collaboratively by the Fund's staff and the participating small learning communities within schools and clusters.

Teacher Involvement in National, State, and Local Education Reform Activities

Opportunities for teacher learning outside the school include serving on task forces, study groups, and curriculum standard-setting groups. Teachers who participate in these activities assess their own teaching practice and their school's mission, observe and assist other school staffs involved in school change, revise curriculum frameworks, or develop standards. These activities help teachers learn to reflect critically on their instructional practices.

A prominent example of teacher learning experiences outside the classroom and school is the New York State Education Department's School Quality Review Initiative (SQRI):

The SQRI is a five-year process that helps schools become learning communities. SQRI has two components:school self-review and school quality review.

School self-review. For four years of the reform cycle, a school participating in SQRI reviews its own work. The self-review, led by an internal team, engages staff in ongoing professional development activities that encourage self-reflection and provide opportunities to share information and perceptions about teaching and learning practices. The self-review team develops a portfolio to document the faculty's perspectives and strategies for improvement, and to share information with the external review team. This process creates a culture of ongoing inquiry and improvement and encourages reflective practices and collaboration among teachers.

School quality review. During one year of the cycle, an external review team visits the school for a week and provides constructive feedback. The 12-member teams include teachers, principals, parents, community members, business leaders, higher-education faculty, and guidance counselors. Review team members spend most of their time observing teachers teach. The reviewers discuss their reports with the faculty at the end of the week and later send a written report. Teachers and administrators on the external team have a rare professional development opportunity to observe other schools and teachers involved in intensive self-review and school change.

Mathematics Renaissance: Curriculum as a Tool for Investigating Instructional Practice

The Middle Grades Mathematics Renaissance, a component of the California Alliance for Mathematics and Science (a Statewide Systemic Initiative funded by the National Science Foundation), supports teachers as they transform their mathematics programs so that all students become empowered mathematically. Currently, 1,650 teachers from 420 schools meet year-round in small groups to discuss mathematics reform, learn how to teach new state-of-the-art curriculum "replacement" units, and explore the conditions that create opportunities for learning.

The Mathematics Renaissance initiative is based on the principle that professional development must be grounded in classroom practice; teachers must experience reforms in their own classrooms and grapple with the difficulties that arise. To this end, teachers experiment with curriculum units developed by mathematics content and pedagogy. They teach the units while project leaders observe them, and bring questions, concerns, successes, and samples of student work to discuss with colleagues in cluster meetings. In summer institutes and in 8-12 meetings during the school year, teachers investigate and reflect on the mathematical ideas and the content-specific pedagogy contained in the units. This experience with alternative curricula has prompted teachers to engage in examination, inquiry, and collaboration with colleagues, and has allowed teachers to grapple with big mathematical ideas in coherent, practical sized chunks. In this way, new curriculum becomes a tool for investigating problems of practice.

Professional Development for Principals and Other School Leaders

New thinking about professional development places teaches learning opportunities at the center of school restructuring. But if professional development is integral to school life and change, then professional learning must also apply to other educators:counselors, aides, and especially principals. Like teachers, principals need to engage in activities that examine teaching, shared decisionmaking, and student achievement and learning.

Three professional development programs offered by the California School Leadership Academy (CSLA) illustrate the type of learning experiences that exist for today's school leaders:

Supporting Professional Development Through Policy

As efforts to increase standards of teaching and learning take hold, their success hinges on the extent to which teachers change their roles, responsibilities, and practices to be more effective. In addition, their success depends on the extent to which state-, local-, and school-level policies, particularly those related to curriculum, instruction, and assessment support teacher efforts to acquire the knowledge, skills, and leadership capacity to meet the challenges of guiding all students to reach high standards. According to researchers Linda Darling-Hammond and Milbrey McLaughlin (1995), "existing policies and practices must be assessed in terms of their compatibility with the reform agenda." It is not enough, that is, to espouse new ideas about professional development and the role of teachers in achieving higher standards if existing state-, local-, and school-level policies undermine the enactment of such ideas. Darling-Hammond and McLaughlin propose that policymakers investigate the extent to which policies support reform by asking the following questions regarding teaching and learning:

No matter how innovative or progressive the professional development activities, none will succeed in changing teaching and learning if the policies of the school, district, and state fail to support or promote the kinds of changes needed to support the achievement of higher standards.

Partnerships for Standards-Based Professional Development of K-12 Educators

Funded by a U.S. Department of Education grant under the Fund for Innovation in Education, the American Association of Higher Education (AAHE) is sponsoring a three-year professional development initiative tied to the development of high standards in three communities: El Paso, Texas; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Pueblo, Colorado. Supported by the staff of a community "compact" in each city (a group of college presidents, superintendents, teachers, and community organizations developing strategies for systemic reform), teams of teachers from various schools are involved in intensive professional development work as they develop content and performance standards, and new curriculum and assessments to ensure that the standards are met.

The project will run in four phases between fall 1994 and summer 1997. During Phase 1, special committees of educators drafted content standards and submitted them for review to members of community. Team of teachers and principals will develop performance standards by examining samples of student work and measuring to see samples against the content standards during Phases 2. During Phase 3, the same teams will work intensively on curriculum content, instructional methods, and assessment. National consultants who have developed curriculum from standards will assist teams throughout the design process. Throughout the year, all teachers in the anticipating schools (not just team members) will pilot the curriculum, instructional strategies, and assessments in their classrooms. Finally, in Phase 4, two publications that provide guides to the citywide process and to standards-based professional development will be finalized.


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