Making P-D Stick
Written by Dr. Danelle Barkey, Assistant Superintendent, Warsaw Community Schools and Dr. Marilynn Quick, Associate Professor, Department of Educational Leadership, Ball State University
A familiar lament in teacher lounges and curriculum meetings sounds something like this, “I taught it in 3rd grade, so I don’t know why the kids don’t know it in 4th grade.” Similarly, principals often can be heard wondering why they see so little evidence that the professional development (PD) they provided for their teachers does not seem to be implemented with fidelity or sustained in classrooms. We may have taught “it,” but why isn’t the PD content sticking? Why haven’t teachers learned what we tried to teach them?
One short answer to this ongoing dilemma can be provided by a commonly used quote that leaders “need to inspect what we expect.” In other words, PD will probably not be implemented deeply or sustained across a school unless there are clearly understood expectations and follow-up on monitoring the implementation. For example, if your elementary school has just provided PD on improving math achievement by using manipulatives, the building leadership team should inform staff that the upcoming walk-throughs will be focused on how well students are benefitting from their use of manipulatives. Walk-throughs would then be conducted during math periods and useful feedback provided to faculty members on their progress. Also, teachers can share their successes during professional learning community (PLC) meetings, data on benchmark assessments can be analyzed and shared during grade-level or staff meetings, a data wall can demonstrate school-wide improvements, and peer visitations can be arranged to showcase classrooms that have mastered the strategy.
Other answers on promoting effective PD can be gleaned from Learning Forward’s Stephanie Hirsh (2019), who prioritized four cornerstones of professional learning: 1. Lead with equity; 2. Invest in team learning; 3. Leverage high-quality instructional materials; and 4. Advocate with evidence. Leading with equity requires that an organization collaboratively develop a compelling vision for how the districts’ schools will ensure that all students benefit from the integration of excellence and equity. Collaboratively, an organization must decide how to prioritize its resources and measure its impact so that students with the most challenges (because of racism, poverty, learning differences, family trauma, etc.) are being supported through outstanding research-based best practices and resources.
Leaders invest in team learning when they create cultures in their schools that Hirsh terms as “collective professionalism.” Collective professionalism means that, “everyone shares collective responsibility for the success of every student” (2019, p. 4). The best teachers in the school serve as leaders of the learning teams. Teachers are treated as professionals and are vital partners in planning the PD they want and need. PD is structured so that teachers feel supported by their principals and fellow teachers, rather than feeling the isolation too many teachers experience. Because changing schools is such difficult work, distributed leadership is necessary to build the capacity of leaders beyond the principal (Spillane et al, 2004). Distributed leadership practices that empower teacher leaders can assist the principal to make lasting change far beyond the individual leader.
Students deserve high-quality instructional materials to access the content of high-stakes testing. When Dr. Quick conducted walk-throughs with a team of educators in a southern state, they found that the “failing” school was using textbooks that watered down the curriculum. Students in 7th grade were exposed to math content at the 5th grade level and 2nd graders were learning Kindergarten and first grade content standards. Thus, no one on the walk-through team was surprised to learn that students were failing the state assessments. The Harvard Center for Education Policy Research estimated that achievement gains of 3.6 percentile points could be gained for 4th- and 5th-graders in math by simply switching to a top-ranked textbook (Kane, Owens, Marinell, Thal, & Staiger, 2016).
Our schools can advocate to receive sufficient PD resources if we can provide evidence that our PD activities work. Evidence should document how student and teacher performance have improved because of the PD offered. When structured effectively, coaching and collaborative learning have been shown to increase student achievement and are also low-cost strategies that are valued by teachers (Jones, 2020).
Figure # 1
A Continuum of Guided Autonomy for Principals (Barkey, 2021)
Barkey’s (2021) Continuum of Guided Autonomy for Principals (Figure 1) creates a turnaround vision for improving under-performing schools. Barkey’s research supports claims that positive change best occurs in our organizations when we balance collaboration with accountability (for example, Scott, 2017). What is true in Barkey’s research about district leaders supporting building principals can also be applied to building principals supporting teachers. Effective leaders effectively support the continuous improvement of their schools by serving as a shoulder partner for one teacher, a sounding board for reflection with another, and requiring more accountability supports (like asking for data to document change or providing more critique through analytical questions) with other faculty members. The supervisor implements a specific strategy depending on what the situation warrants. The tension between these acts of collaboration and accountability needs to be skillfully navigated to provide a balance. If a leader is either always collaborative or always serving in the role of chief accountability officer, the school change processes are likely not to be as successful. Bottom line: you can increase the likelihood of PD being effective in your school if you inspect what you expect, integrate Learning Forward’s 4 Cornerstones, and include a continuum of collaboration and accountability as you support your school’s PD efforts.
Barkey, D. (2021). District Support of School Turnaround. (Doctoral dissertation). Ball State University.
Hirsh, S. (2019). 4 cornerstones of professional learning: Fundamental principles pave the way for educators’ actions. Oxford, OH: Learning Forward. https://learningforward.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/4-cornerstones-for-download-1.pdf
Jones, A. (2020). Investigating teacher leadership capacity in Catholic national blue ribbon schools (Doctoral dissertation). Ball State University.
Kane, T.J., Owens, A.M., Marinell, W.H., Thal, D.R., & Staiger, D.O. (2016). Teaching higher: Educators’ perspectives on Common Core implementation. Cambridge, MA: Center for Education Policy Research.
Scott, K. (2017). Radical candor: Be a kick-ass boss without losing your humanity. Pan Macmillan.Spillane, J., Halverson, R., & Diamond, J. (2004). Towards a theory of leadership practice: Implications of a distributed perspective. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 36(1), 3-34.