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How Urban Schools Can Provide More Coherent Professional Development

Reformers argue that for schools to educate all children to higher standards, teachers need a deeper understanding of the content they teach, of specific areas of content that challenge students, and of effective strategies for meeting those challenges. As a result, more and more reform programs include intensive, continuing professional development that addresses these needs. Past growth opportunities offered by school districts, higher education institutions, and other sources have been criticized as ineffective. Critics argue that the predominance of short, discrete events with limited connection to what teachers do in the classroom and little follow-up or guidance for teachers have done little good. The sessions are rarely coordinated, so professional development becomes a patchwork with little coherence or cumulative impact. The situation may be most desperate in urban districts with a strong need for improvement, intense external pressure, and limited resources.

For almost 30 years the states have been locked in litigation through which urban school districts hope to get funding equal to that of the state’s wealthiest districts as a step towards equalizing educational opportunity. A series of recent decisions has created a situation fraught with confusion but with the potential to help urban schools increase the amount of development offered and focus that evolution on giving teachers the knowledge required to improve student achievement. These decisions mandate the adoption of a set of core curriculum content standards that define what children should know in seven content areas in grades 4, 8, and 11; increased funding to the urban districts; adoption of a whole-school reform program approved by the states; and site-based management and budgeting in each district aimed at giving schools more control over internal functions, including professional development. While it is too early to determine the effects of the new policy on growth, preliminary data suggest a number of factors that work for and against improvement efforts. These include state and federal budget policies, state standards and assessments, state policies, and district and school leadership.

The states developed budgets for each of the models to increase uniformity in the budget-writing process, making it easier to analyze expenditures in various categories. These models allow many schools to obtain more money than they could in the past and to focus a good deal of that on professional development. Over time, these new budgetary systems should help districts and schools in evaluating their growth programs.

Whole-school reform models include specific programs for professional development. Those programs, with a strong emphasis on curriculum, help schools focus their evolution efforts on increasing teacher knowledge of content and pedagogy. Furthermore, the models offer a detailed curriculum in a few content areas. While there is evidence that content-focused development can improve student achievement, it remains relatively limited. The models that emphasize content and uniform state standards may not provide growth relevant to the particular needs of students.

Other aspects of the programs can work against content-focused professional development. Models that emphasize parental and community support offer fewer strategies for growth related to instruction. Several principals who had such programs supplemented them with outside sources of content-focused evolution.

Another problem relates to the district’s choice to adopt multiple models or a uniform model across schools. The adoption of multiple models challenges the district to support schools moving forward in very different ways. In districts with multiple models, opportunities for district-wide growth, as well as cross-school articulation, decrease. Districts where most schools use the same model can focus their efforts, but there is a risk that those efforts may promote a model that does not improve teaching and learning.

Finally, some models simply do not have a strong enough program to offer sufficient assistance, which may result in poor implementation of the program.

Recent requirements that each new teacher receive two years of mentoring serves as a mandate for professional development. Schools can simply comply or use this as an opportunity to develop quality growth for both the new teachers and their mentors. One district took advantage of resources from a local college to create its mentoring program. Another developed training manuals for both mentor and mentee to supplement the development sessions.

Another new state policy requires all teachers to participate in 100 hours of professional development over five years. To help teachers and their supervisors determine which activities to participate in, states have developed a framework for “What Counts” as part of the requirement. This framework demands that schools align growth with district and state needs. The new requirements also compel schools and districts to develop a methodology for tracking professional development hours. Schools without a clear methodology are distracted by the mechanics of record keeping.

Superintendents with a clear vision of where to guide the district facilitate the development of focused growth programs. In one district, the superintendent viewed literacy as foundational and encouraged the schools in his district to adopt models with a strong literacy focus. As schools began to show progress with literacy, he gradually allowed schools to turn attention to mathematics.

Site-based management has given schools more influence over their budgets. However, it also hinders district record keeping and administrative oversight and support services, including the ability to track growth activities.

Within schools, the success of a new model and its professional development program requires the involvement and support of principals. Principals who make a special effort to encourage the work of the facilitators will likely get better results. One principal supported the staff’s needs and the efforts of the facilitator by providing a space furnished with the materials and tools necessary to maximize development efforts. This support facilitates the development of focused growth activity.

Conclusions

Our early research suggests a shift in the organization of professional development from discrete and poorly guided activities to more coherent professional development shaped by new state policies governing standards and assessments. These changes show promise for focusing content and raising student achievement. Additional benefits can be found when supportive superintendents and principals have a clear vision for reform aligned with state standards. The barriers to developing a coherent approach to professional development include the diverse needs of students and teachers, weak models, decreased district support services, and undeveloped recording systems for tracking professional development.