First came the workshop. Then came a glimmer of an idea. Next came the goal, which changed everything.
It was Raymond Yeagley who set it all in motion. The Rochester (N.H.) Schools superintendent attended a Quality School Portfolio workshop a few years ago to learn about how the Web-based tool can help in collecting, analyzing and making sense of data. Using what he learned, he prepared a report on reading performance in Rochester's elementary schools.
"[We found] strong evidence that we weren't challenging kids at the top. A few strategies used for all kids worked better for the bottom quartile of kids only," Yeagley says. "Out of that professional development came a change in instruction in our district." It also spawned more study on reading, which led to the adoption of the key concept in the book The 90% Reading Goal (The New Foundation Press, 1998). Rochester educators vowed to have 90 percent of students reading at or above grade level by the end of the third grade, and maintaining or improving their performance in all subsequent grades.
As the administrative team detailed a plan to give teachers reading instruction tools, they realized that pulling them out of the classroom for intense professional development would be most effective. A new way of working for positive change in the district was born. "Teachers, because we're excusing them, know that we're really serious," Yeagley explains.
District leaders like Yeagley who take their own continuous learning seriously know that the rewards can be far-reaching for organizations.
"If we believe in education, we have to believe that knowledge is power in the most positive and equitable sense of the word," says William Mathis, superintendent of Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Brandon, Vt.
Or, as Wayne Johnson, who leads Nekoosa (Wis.) School District, says, "You're either moving forward or you're moving backward. You can never stand still in this biz." To Johnson, moving forward means constantly reading, as well as participating in education conferences and holding monthly professional development sessions for Nekoosa administrators.
These types of activities are what drive change in districts, notes Cathy Mincberg, who recently founded the nonprofit Center for School District Effectiveness. "We don't have competitive pressure that says if you don't change fast enough, you're going out of business. We get to stay in business," says Mincberg, who was most recently Houston Independent School District's chief business officer and, before that, school board president. "Professional development needs to create uneasiness so we will be pulled toward change."
Sand Traps For Leader Learners
As any administrator knows, digging out the time for learning can mean a whole different kind of uneasiness. "A lot of staff development has been put on the back burner," says Jim Kiscaden, a former superintendent who now directs the Pennsylvania Leadership Development Center, which runs training centers for administrators throughout the state.
Some administrators don't even think they should make time for professional development. A recent Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform report, Leading From the Middle: Mid-Level District Staff and Instructional Improvement, reveals that many program managers, content area directors and other central-office administrators--at least among those studied in Chicago, Milwaukee and Seattle--often don't see themselves as learners.
It's especially true of the informal learning that takes place during school visits. "A lot of these people came out of schools and think, 'I'm from there, I've been there,' " says Cross City Campaign Program Director Christina Warden. "Even those who see a need to grow individually see that within a particular content area or specialty. ... Most don't think of a larger context."
Another professional development sand trap is the perceived lack of quality options. Mathis generally avoids professional development courses and seminars because, he says, "There is too much panacea rubbish being pumped out by gurus and too much packaged general planning model junk." There's the "How to make your school meet AYP!" workshop, for example. You can't "overcome the effects of poverty with a rigorous phonics program," he quips.
Superintendent John A. Dotson is far from impressed with the offerings, too. Besides the financial and time-away costs of traveling to attend, the leadership training programs that he's seen just don't relate enough to his school system, Louisa-Muscatine Community School District in Letts, Iowa. And customizing these programs is both difficult and costly.
So he and others in the district developed their own leadership program. "It's more meaningful because it applies directly to our needs and wishes," Dotson says.
Since there's no such thing as the be-all workshop or program, it's common for top district leaders to grab bits and pieces of skills and knowledge from a mix of sources. "The most committed take advantage of different avenues and areas--webinars, conferences, their reading. There are folks engaged in their own study groups. They're going through doctoral programs," says Karen M. Dyer, manager of education and non-profit sectors at the Center for Creative Leadership. "They're seeing these as opportunities for their own professional growth."
An informal District Administration survey on continuous learning confirms that education leaders are sampling various formats. Here's what superintendents and other central-office leaders do to keep improving themselves--or, as leadership guru Stephen R. Covey puts it, keep sharpening the saw:
Attend conferences and workshops
Superintendent Elaine Giugliano of Wood-Ridge (N.J.) School District selects conferences that relate to district goals and school-level objectives. Last year's Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development conference was a good fit, for example, because of a district focus on review and revision of curriculum. Sharing is what allows Franklin (Va.) City Public Schools administrators to get the most bang for the buck. "All who attend these sessions must deliver information learned to all professionals," reports Superintendent Alline B. Farmer.
Join in on roundtables and other organized discussions with peers:
"We certainly face very similar challenges every day, and there's no need to rediscover America on every issue," says Johnson of why he meets regularly with other superintendents in Wisconsin.
For Loyola Garcia, assistant superintendent of Haddon Heights (N.J.) School District, participating in regional curriculum and technology consortiums has not only meant discussions about related concerns, but also the chance to combine resources and expertise. "As new members join they instantly have a network to contact for support and information," she says.
Take a leadership role in state and national activities:
Associations often offer a range of professional development activities, but educators who go a few steps beyond that can wind up making a real district impact. "Taking an active role in both state and national education issues has allowed me access to some of the most recent developments in high school reform," says Michael Haluska, superintendent of Jefferson-Scranton (Iowa) Community Schools. "I've been able to provide our high school principal with extraordinary resources to assist with school improvement."
A one-time project helped Johnson to impact other districts, as well. He and others from the state school board association and superintendents' group researched the use of e-mail by school board members, including the legal implications of electronic communication. That led to a published article and a training video that Wisconsin districts can access.
Mathis says he finds himself researching and writing almost constantly. His learning "starts with curiosity (or anger) about some particular topic." This brings on some studying and has led to published manuscripts and speaking engagements. Currently he's got three journal manuscripts in the works.
Enroll in class
From doctoral programs to here-and-there courses of interest, formal studies are one way of delving into a particular subject. Julie Miller of Collinsville (Ill.) Community Unified School District, for instance, makes a point to take one class each semester. "I find that the course content and the regular interaction with other area administrators is very rewarding," says Miller, who is director of curriculum and instruction.
Teach within the district or beyond
Superintendent Joseph Rudnicki has found that teaching evening university classes for teachers and administrators forces him to read what he otherwise might miss. Preparing for a class on education law, for instance, means reading "recent cases that I'd otherwise let go astray," he says. Instead of hoping that his human resources director, chief business officer or curriculum assistant superintendent keep him up-to-date on developments, he's able to stretch and challenge his administrative team by his own knowledge.
Consult with experts
As chief business officer in Houston, Mincberg found herself purchasing knowledge she and her team didn't have by working with consultants. "When I brought in people who knew more than I did, I got training through [conversations and project work]," she says. "I got a little mini MBA every time."
Working on Rod Paige's team in Houston also meant experiencing work life with a copious reader. "He'd go get 10 different papers from around the country on Sunday, peruse those and feed back to us," Mincberg recalls. "Every Monday morning all you could talk about was teaching and learning." Paige was also known to bring in a new book every week.
Subscribing to regular news summary services are a help to many administrators. Michael Hopkins, assistant superintendent in Rochester, N.H., enjoys reading The Marshall Memo, sort of a Cliff's Notes version of education journal articles that's put together by former principal Kim Marshall.
Nancy Graham, executive director of quality, continuous improvement and planning for School District of Lee County, Fort Meyers, Fla., says she reads everything from education journals, newsletters and books to People and Oprah magazines. Guilty pleasures? Not quite.
"I have always been cognizant that schools are a microcosm of society," she expains "Magazines like People provide a really clear view of the 'narcissism' that exists in the world of fame and fortune. Our students often see this world as 'reality' and sometimes believe that their sights need to be set in that direction. We have an obligation to be aware of what our students are tempted to emulate and provide some guidance and direction for them along the way." People's human interest stories and Oprah's relationship stories are also worthy of reflection and sharing, Graham adds.
Organize book studies:
Administrators recommend the book club format as a way to delve in-depth into a single work. At Plainview (Texas) Independent School District, district- and school-level leaders are tackling Monday Morning Leadership (Cornerstone Leadership Institute, 2002) in their voluntary book study group this year. "We assigned the discussion each week to two to three administrators, and they plan and lead us so we stay focused," says Elementary Instruction Coordinator Linda Murphree. "We read the chapter and then discuss and relate it to education, and how we can apply it to our own situations. It is a good motivator to keep up on reading professional leadership-type books."
Spend time in schools:
It's all about connecting with people on their own turf, according to the Cross City Campaign report on mid-level district staff. Rather than just observing classrooms, effective administrators really experience what's going on in schools by attending meetings and interacting with students and support staff. A firsthand look at the challenges and wonders in each school teaches what other methods of professional development can't.
Participate in staff development:
That firsthand look is also the reason many district administrators participate in staff development activities along with teachers. "When staff [members] see administrators take an active interest, they feel supported and that the training is more worthwhile," points out Superintendent Alan L. Meyer of East Marshall Consolidated School District in Gilman, Iowa. "I believe that as administrators we can more easily talk the same language if we have the same experience and are somewhere on the same page."
At Parkway School District in Chesterfield, Mo., summer institutes are designed for staff members at all levels of the school system. "The work seems to be more effective when teachers, administrators and support staff gather around to solve a problem," notes Kathy Blackmore, director of staff development.
Chat (and listen)
"I make every opportunity a learning opportunity, especially when I interact with others," says George Linthicum, superintendent of Sun River Valley Schools in Simms, Mont. "Everyone has something to offer others, and I take full advantage of the knowledge and wisdom of those I encounter."
For example, when a student became partially disabled recently and administrators decided to train all bus drivers in assisting mobility-impaired students, Linthicum knew whom to call--a bus driver he knew of who had extensive training and experience in transporting individuals with disabilities.
Talking to those in the district and community, of course, also refers to kids. "I pay particular attention to the children I serve," Linthicum says. "They are often the greatest teachers, especially about the game of life."
Melissa Ezarik is features editor.