More districts are getting away from generic professional development -- the "spray and pray" approach -- in favor of their own professional development programs targeted to their needs and presented by their staff.Included: Descriptions of several school-based professional development programs.
When it comes to professional development, many schools and districts are finding that the usual one-size-fits-all approach only fits a few.
Tired of paying for professional development programs that do not address the needs and goals of their staffs, more administrators are bringing their programs in-house.
Some districts have whole departments devoted to in-house professional development, while others are doing that on a much smaller scale. Most of the programs involve some formal instruction, reflection, and correction, with a heavy focus on mentoring and coaching new and struggling teachers.
However it is organized, participants say doing staff development themselves allows them to mold the training to their needs and places more responsibility for improvement on classroom teachers.
LEARNING FROM ONE ANOTHER
"We have a systematic approach; we wanted to blanket the entire school district," said Darlene Merry, associate superintendent for the office of organizational development for the Montgomery County (Maryland) Public Schools. "The premise of the program is that teaching is very complex and we treat [our staff development effort] as a complex program."
Before a new program was instituted, professional development often was unfocused and rarely applied by teachers when they returned to the classroom, Merry said. "We had a smorgasbord approach to professional development. You would take down the information, take it back with you, and you never had to use it. It used to be 'spray and pray' -- expose everyone to the information and hope some of it sticks."
When in-house professional development was launched, all staff members attended training to make sure they understood the district goals. Every teacher developed a plan for teaching based on his or her students. Beginning teachers and teachers new to the district underwent similar training.
In presenting staff development content, administrators stress: "This is important. You can do it. We will help you through it," Merry told Education World.
Data analysis steers much of Montgomery County's professional development. "We pore over data. We look at data and see what it tells us," according to Merry.
In addition to staff development focused on the individual teachers' needs, all teachers and administrators attend training when a new curriculum is introduced; teachers are paid a daily rate to participate in training. All middle school reading teachers also attend half-day training, and must demonstrate that they mastered the material. Some of the professional development material is offered online, and in some cases, teachers have to complete a project to show they understand the topic, explained Merry.
IN THE TRENCHES
As part of ongoing professional development, a staff development teacher is assigned to every school. He or she focuses on helping educators develop skillful teaching in a non-judgmental way; staff development teachers do not evaluate other teachers. "The peer teacher in the building is looking for teachers to demonstrate their commitment to high expectations, not just to say they do it," Merry said.
Staff development teachers in an elementary school, for example, might meet with the third grade teachers as they are planning a lesson, observe a third grade teacher, work on instruction and lesson planning, or model a lesson for some teachers. "It's a sea change," Merry noted. "It used to be that all the accountability was at the district level; now it's shared down to the classroom level."
Help with discipline problems is not as common a request as one might think. "Behavior management issues come out of poor instruction," according to Merry. "When students are engaged, they behave."
EVALUATING NEW, STRUGGLING TEACHERS
Special attention is given to novice and underperforming teachers, who receive peer assistance and review. A consulting teacher works with between 16 and 18 novice or underperforming teachers, and consultants evaluate their performances.
Teachers have a major role in the evaluation process, and receive extensive content training. Still, even with support, not everyone meets the standard. A peer assistance and review panel, chaired by a principal and a teacher, makes recommendations to the superintendent about the teacher's future in the district.
With a solid review and support system, school administrators are confident in their evaluation of teacher performance. Prior to instituting the professional development system, only one teacher was dismissed for underperformance, according to Merry. Since 2000, more than 100 teachers have been dismissed for underperformance, including a 30-year tenured teacher. "The goal is to get everyone up to par," Merry noted.
CHANGES SPUR CHANGE
The impetus for revamping the district's professional development program came from a new superintendent in 1999, who saw that staff members needed training to serve a changing school population. "He put data up, saw the achievement gap, saw the district was becoming more diverse, and we were seeing more poverty and English language learners," according to Merry. "It was a desire to get everyone on the same page."
Administrators now are constantly evaluating the effectiveness of the professional development program. "If something is not effective, it can be cut."
LOOKING CRITICALLY AT PERFORMANCE
Staff members at the San Diego (California) City Schools also have been taking a new approach to professional development that encourages teachers to scrutinize their own work.
"This is a huge shift in perspective. I think we're much better now at not blaming children and being more critical of our own performance," according to Deborah Beldock, executive director of instruction and curriculum for the San Diego City Schools.
"As we go on, and students are not taking on learning, it reflects back on us," said Beldock, who oversees all curriculum areas in the district "We have to find out what we are not communicating and why the message is not taking hold. If students are not doing well, we have to ask what we are not doing well."
Educators use student data to drive their decisions, and they try to keep the focus on what students are able to do. If a literacy coach or administrator is looking at student performance, he or she is monitoring to determine what areas students don't understand. "We want teachers making decisions about what programs help students," according to Beldock.
As was the case in Montgomery County, the arrival of a new superintendent and a chancellor of instruction led to a new focus for the professional development program. "We made decisions to focus on literacy in the content areas, and realized the only way to improve literacy was to improve teaching," Beldock said. "We pumped a lot of money into professional development. We eliminated most paraprofessionals from classes, and we used that money for teacher coaches.
"At the same time, we couldn't just provide [training] to teachers, we had to look at all levels, and ensure we were providing training to all."
Last year, all elementary and middle schools had literacy coaches. Forty elementary schools also had math coaches. The literacy coaches worked side by side with teachers to determine the best way to improve student reading. They also helped teachers plan lessons and, in some cases, they modeled lessons. Literacy coaches also worked with the principal to plan professional development sessions, led study groups, and organized visits to other schools.
Instructional leaders, who were assistant superintendents, also worked in the schools a minimum of three days a week, helping principals problem-solve. Both teachers and principals participate in study groups and visit other classrooms and schools. The presence of instructional leaders also freed up teachers to attend professional development and to engage in collaborative and individual planning.
New teachers also received assistance from mentor teachers or coaches, and building administrators often met with new teachers once a week.
The professional development program for this school year, unfortunately, may have to be scaled back considerably. Funding for instructional leaders and literacy coaches was cut from the budget.
Beldock is hoping that the groundwork has been laid to continue in-school support. "I believe the principals and teachers are at a place where they can try to figure out how to provide this type of support at individual sites," she said. "And we have to figure out how to support the schools as they are doing this."
ONE WOMAN, MANY HATS
Another example of perseverance in an era of shrinking budgets is Renee Moore, an English and journalism teacher at Broad Street High School in Shelby, Mississippi.
Moore is responsible for all professional development in the grade 8 to 12 school. She used to spend half her day working with teachers in the classroom, but budget cuts forced her back to the classroom, and now she is paid an extra hour per day to oversee professional development.
"It's hard now that I'm back teaching full-time; I have hall duty and lunch duty," said Moore, who has been teaching for 15 years. "I did like when I could teach half a day -- I still needed the experience of being in a classroom. I try to give priority to new teachers, but that's harder now. I'm mentoring new teachers with help from other faculty members."
Most of the requests for help have to do with using technology and classroom management, she said. Moore also has trained teachers to use reading strategies in content areas.
The school is able to reserve every Wednesday as a professional development day, and students are dismissed at 1 p.m. so teachers can meet. Teachers are surveyed twice a year about topics they would like to cover. Several times a year teachers also lead workshops on topics about which they have expertise. "They really enjoy swapping ideas with one another," said Moore. "They like things related to the curriculum, such as differentiated instruction and cross-curricular work."
School-based professional development not only ensures local oversight of content, but also requires more accountability on the part of the staff, Moore added.
"They like the idea of having professional development on the grounds We find on-site professional development more productive. Two teachers went to a workshop about preparing for state tests and when they come back they led a professional development session on that. That encourages accountability -- they have to bring information back."