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Sustainable Professional Development

Districts shift from traditional professional development models to a culture of ongoing learning.

Although best practices in student instruction and learning have evolved dramatically over the past couple of decades, new approaches to educator professional development have lagged behind considerably. The traditional whole group, one-size-fits-all strategy universally recognized as ineffective for teaching students, has too-long remained the status quo for many school and districts leaders.

Recent reports such as the 2009 “Professional Learning in the Learning Profession,” by the National Staff Development Council and the School Redesign Network at Stanford University affirm a direct link between highly effective, sustained professional development and differentiated approaches to teacher training, collegial collaboration and risk taking.

Risk-taking includes embracing new teaching methods like the integration of online Khan Academy tutorials into a math class, and requesting feedback from students and parents on how it’s working. Risk-taking also includes a higher level of transparency, such as sharing classroom practices that didn’t work, as well as those that did, at a Parent Teacher Student Association meeting, or via a school newsletter or classroom website.

Learning Forward, formerly the National Staff Development Council and which created the Standards for Professional Learning, defines sustained professional development in part as something that “primarily occurs several times per week among established teams of teachers, principals, and other instructional staff” that “engage in a continuous cycle of improvement…”

In addition, Learning Forward is collaborating with, a one-to-one, on-demand learning solutions company, on a service, launched in September, to maximize the effectiveness of thousands of instructional coaches. Offered through the Learning Forward Center for Results, Coaches’ Connect will provide support to instructional coaches from experienced, master coaches online using’s real-time learning platform.

“The idea of establishing a culture of continuous learning and of customizing that learning to each individual is a lesson we’ve applied to kids, but ignored for adults,” says Mark Atkinson, founder and chief strategist of the professional development company Teachscape, which for 15 years has been helping teachers improve their effectiveness through video cameras and software designed to film classroom instruction to facilitate close analysis of instructional methods, and student-teacher interaction. “The real process of continuous improvement is very different from just a couple of days of in-service. Sustainability is key.”

Sustaining PD TeachscapeTeachscape is just one of many education companies and organizations that, in the past decade, have focused on identifying the crucial elements of sustainability in professional development and are developing methods, programs, and services to help districts integrate these elements into their own school cultures.

Culture of Ongoing Learning

Establishing and maintaining a culture of ongoing learning is the core principle underlying sustainability, says Shannon Ritz, director of professional development for Solution Tree, which publishes books by education researchers and supports them through conferences, workshops, and customized professional development services. “Creating a culture that is excited about learning is the strongest foundation for best practices in schools,” says Ritz.

Among the best practice programs supported by Solution Tree are reform models such as Rick and Becky DuFour’s Professional Learning Communities at Work, which focuses on embedding teacher collaboration and student intervention into a school’s daily schedule.

Solution Tree also supports Powerful Learning Practice (PLP), an organization co-founded by author and web 2.0 education advocate Will Richardson and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, veteran educator and author of The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age. Since 2006, PLP has been providing both in-person and web-based professional development services to more than 700 schools across 24 states and six countries.

Like the DuFour model, PLP emphasizes the power of educator teams and communities to effect positive change and ongoing learning, but places a greater weight on the integration of web 2.0 tools and online personal learning networks (PLN) to ensure a sustained connection among participants. After an initial day-long, in-person “kick off” to its full-year training program, PLP has users share, collaborate and view best practices online through webinars, facilitated video discussions, and live-streamed classroom observations with schools across the state or across the nation. For instance, a group of middle school English/language arts teachers might observe as a group another teacher in their same subject area and grade level and critique it together in real time.

Participants also engage technology for collaborative research projects through online spaces such as wikispaces and Diigo which allow groups to collaborate by creating, editing, and revising a common document, and through Google + Hangout, which lets up to nine people video chat face-to-face from a variety of locations. Projects are completed by educator teams in similar subjects or grades and might include studies on the impact of digital field trips on student achievement, how to use technology to keep parents in the loop, or building an interactive whiteboard helpdesk. Such activities contribute to sustained PD by helping educators continue to learn together through ongoing projects and the convenience of social media spaces.

Empowering Teachers

Beyond that, says Nussbaum-Beach, is the crucial piece of empowering teacher leaders to ensure sustainability. One method is through distributed leadership, which spreads influence and direction across teachers in a school, rather than having it come from a single, administrative source. “It’s important for administrators to recognize what these teachers know and do, and to put in place a distributed leadership model, where decisions can be made by those leaders, and are not just top-down.”

PD in FVSAnn Cunningham Morris, director of professional development at the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), which has been actively providing customized solutions to districts for the past five years, echoes Nussbaum-Beach’s point that sustainability relies on building capacity among teachers. “Empowering educators to discover and implement solutions that increase their expertise is key to ongoing effectiveness,” says Morris, a former K12 administrator. Administrator support for such learning through tools, practices, and structures, such as supplying teachers with personal laptops, access to Wi-Fi, coaches to teach them about social media tools and time during the school day to meet with colleagues to problem-solve and discuss best practices are pivotal, says Morris.

At the Kansas City Unified School District in Kansas City, Mo., Assistant Superintendent Jayson Strickland says that committing to weekly early release days so teachers can collaborate has helped meet district goals to attain consistency in standards and resources across its 48 school building sites. In 2009, Kansas City schools commissioned the education company Evans Newton, which helps districts increase student achievement through teacher coaching and professional development practices, to assist in standardizing best practices in instruction to meet the needs of their 20,000 students, especially their large, highly mobile, migrant student population. Strickland says that some schools have up to 50 percent turnover in students in a single year and increased standardization helps students pick up where they left off in progressing through skills when they move to a new school in the district.

Strickland says the embedded professional development practices the company has helped put in place have allowed district teachers to catch up on skills such as how to analyze student data to diagnose gaps and create individual learning plans. Ongoing grade level and departmental collaborations around this process continue to help refine it and ensure that professional learning is continuous.

Mixed Approach

But for David Jakes, coordinator of instructional technology at Glenbrook South High School in Glenbrook High School District 225 in Glenview, Ill., the key to maintaining a culture of ongoing learning and sustainable professional development should include a mixture of approaches. Jakes, a 26-year veteran teacher, technology coordinator, and staff developer, believes traditional, formal professional development avenues, such as conferences, college courses, and district workshops, still perform a valuable function for teacher training.

For instance, Jakes says, when it comes to teaching about a new technology like a learning management system (LMS) such as Pearson’s Power School or the open source Moodle, or handheld personal response system “clickers,” district educators need to be on the same page. “We need to offer learning opportunities that provide adults with a common experience and language around a particular idea or technology and an even caliber of experience and understanding,” he says. “You can’t rely on a PLN to get timely responses or a guaranteed quality of training when it comes to learning how to implement technologies such as digital textbooks, tablets, video cameras and other devices.”

Sustaining PD Solution TreeBut professional development also has to include a bottom-up approach, says Jakes, and the school should support teachers’ passions for independent learning. For example, a teacher wanted to learn about the flipped classroom model. So Jakes guided him by walking him through informal learning experiences, getting him signed up with a Twitter account, telling him which experts to follow to learn about flipped classrooms, and showed him how to collect and manage resources such as articles and research on the web through online tools such as Diigo and Evernot. Jakes also gave him a list of more formal options, such as conferences likely to feature sessions on flipped classrooms, such as the International Society for Technology in Education conference.

Administrator Role

Ensuring that administrators are deeply immersed in and dedicated to the school’s professional development program is key to its effectiveness and sustainability, say Nussbaum-Beach, Morris and others. PLP offers a “Leading Edge” professional development program for administrators that focuses on topics and obstacles that help district leaders build and leverage their own online networks, and create workable school social media policies.

As part of the Waterloo School District’s Futures Forum project designed to ensure students are equipped with the 21st century learning experiences that employers look for, the Toronto district reached out to Communitech, a local company that helps support and grow startup companies. Communitech helped them identify what skills students should have to prepare them for the digital workplace, says the district’s CEO Mark Carbone.

Carbone determined that Nussbaum-Beach’s PLP program would be a good fit for professional training, in part because of its focus on integrating PLNs and social media tools into educator professional development.

The district began professional development reform efforts with senior leadership, sending five central office administrators to the first year-long training in the fall of 2009. The team included two superintendents, the CIO, the coordinator of learning services, and Carbone. “Our leadership team went through a range of experiences, soaking up the process,” says Carbone. “We were blogging, using Twitter, Diigo, Google + Hangout, Facebook and other tools new to us, and continually asking ourselves what the possibilities were for integrating these tools into the curriculum to help students gain mastery of social media for learning.

Waterloo benefitted from the leadership team’s dedication to their PLP professional development training that helped them see how social media and web 2.0 tools could be used both to sustain their own professional learning and to help students learn 21st-century skills.

Scheduling common planning periods for same-department teachers across the district, supplying them with Wi-Fi and videoconferencing technology for collaboration, and establishing IT support for a districtwide bring your own device (BYOD) program, are a few of the transformations the district has undergone since 2009. Waterloo continues enrolling additional teams each year in PLP training, but Carbone says starting with the leadership team is what’s allowed them to make as much progress as they have so far. “Beginning with the people who have the power to make changes streamlined the process,” he says.

Teaching the Administrator

But keeping a sustainable PD program is also about preparing the administrator. Aspiring and practicing administrators can get a leg up on transformational professional development practices with cutting-edge institutional programs, such as the Urban Education Leadership (UEL) program at the University of Illinois, Chicago School of Education. Shelby Cosner, UEL program director, says the UEL program focuses on preparing district administrators to support teacher opportunities for ongoing learning, rather than perceiving professional development as a separate element.

The best way for principals to support ongoing teacher learning is to develop protocols and procedures for embedding teacher team collaboration into the school culture, and to recognize social settings, such as department and subject-area meetings, lunchrooms, teacher office areas and after-school hallways, that can help further collegial discussion and provide support for ongoing learning.

Another way administrators can support a continuous culture of teacher learning is to ensure that teacher evaluation is aligned with today’s best practices. Morris says that administrator knowledge of transformative classroom practices, such as collaborative learning, are key to a fair evaluation process. For instance, a principal won’t expect a classroom to be silent when students are working on projects in groups. “When administrators are an integral part of the plan, then what they look for in the classroom will change.”

“In traditional classroom observations, administrators would look for kids sitting quietly in rows, all eyes on the teacher, displaying listening cues,” says Nussbaum-Beach. Now, the process is somewhat “messier.” Administrators must tell the difference between chaos and excitement, identifying, for instance, a “humming excitement” that indicates students are engaged, she says.

John Bailey, executive director of Digital Learning Now, a national initiative to advance digital learning policies in schools, says administrators must observe teachers with more precision. “When you have a literacy coach, a paraprofessional and a student mentor in the classroom, offering specific feedback to a teacher can be very complex, as it could be difficult to measure that teacher’s separate impact,” says Bailey, former U.S. Department of Education director of technology.

Teachscape aims to help administrators effectively evaluate teachers through training and technology-based observation products. Teachscape Walk software, a data collection program that runs on mobile devices, is a diagnostic tool designed to facilitate classroom observations by helping administrators gather and analyze data and craft action plans. For example, the software might include a checklist of things to look for, such as student engagement and or how a teacher acknowledges students. If the teacher needs improvement, the software walks the administrator through the stages of working with the teacher on a plan. Teachscape also offers a Classroom Walkthrough Institute, training on use of the Teachscape Walk program, that can be customized for face-to-face, online, or blended learning instruction.

Overcoming Challenges

Many education experts involved with transforming professional development say overcoming ingrained practices and attitudes continues to be a challenge to establishing the open environment that welcomes risk taking and continuous learning.

Lisa Johnson, project director for Netscope, a teacher training program that is part of Winthrop University’s College of Education in Rock Hill, S.C., says building teacher-administrator trust can be a challenge to creating a culture of ongoing learning. The Netscope program, which includes a network of nine K12 districts in the area, partners with schools to give the university’s pre-service teachers authentic classroom teaching experiences in medium income and high-poverty schools, and also manages a sustained PD program that brings educator experts together from the districts to train each other and share best practices.

The teacher training program relies on video recording to collect, archive, and analyze real teaching episodes for learning, but overcoming certificated teachers’ reluctance to being filmed can be an initial obstacle. “To reassure them,” says Johnson, “we require administrators to sign on the dotted line that they will not use the videos for evaluation purposes, which is huge.” The nature of administrator-teacher communication can also prove an issue in establishing an environment of ongoing learning. Cosner says that, for schools to make the shift from a “culture of accountability” to a “culture of learning,” it’s important for administrators to speak with teachers about reinforcing learning rather than accountability.

As part of Winthrop’s Netscope program, says Johnson, administrators in the area districts undergo an eight-day cognitive coaching program that trains them how to empower teachers to problem-solve. Administrators are taught how to ask teachers the right questions, prompting reflection on their classroom instructional practices and eliciting ideas for strategies, such as how to ask students the questions that engage them in higher-order thinking, as opposed to simply telling them what to do.

But teachers can also get “initiative fatigue,” which Morris says can block efforts to establish sustainable learning practices because it overwhelms them. A plethora of mandates for schools, like learning to create 21st century assessments, and implementing the common core, or Response to Intervention (RTT) programs, requires that district leaders connect the dots for teachers, and show them how these all dovetail with a larger district goal. “We go in and unpack those initiatives to make sure teachers understand how they’re all part of a single strategy to support learners, as opposed to separate silos or just one more thing they have to do.”

Tips from the Experts

For any sustainable PD effort to move forward with success, there has to be a compelling “why,” says Solution Tree’s Shannon Ritz. “A shared, clear vision of the initiative and the purpose and goals behind it have to be understood by all staff so they can support its goals,” Ritz says.

Teacher leaders are also central to initial program implementation and to ensuring colleagues are supported, says Cosner. New administrators coming into a school need to know who the teacher leaders are, the ones others go to for help, and make them easily accessible to novice teachers and others who need support—through common planning time, and close classroom and hallway proximity, she says. Strickland adds that mentor teachers, coaches, or human resources staff members can help new teachers get on board quickly with best practices through formal and informal orientation sessions and activities, such as one-to-one training sessions on the school’s learning management system, or district-level workshops on parent communication policies.

Beginning with the people who have the power to make big changes, such as changing the bell schedule or moving money from one funding bucket to another, is a strategy reiterated by Carbone and also championed by ASCD’s approach to sustainability. “Both site and district-level leaders need to be part of small group planning sessions and have a clear understanding of the plan so they can better support teacher leaders,” says Morris. Carbone’s advice is to make only incremental changes to a strategy once in place so as not to get distracted from your original goals. “Once you set a direction, be prepared to hold the course. You can’t change your focus every year.”

‘Be a learner first, a leader second’ is Nussbaum-Beach’s advice to begin the process of transitioning their schools into places of ongoing learning. “Some CIOs hear that message for their principals, some principals hear it for their teachers, and some teachers hear it for their students, but each person needs to own it for themselves,” she says.