After nickel and diming their investment in professional development for years, officials in Flint, Mich., have decided to put their money where their mouth is. They hope to plot a way to revolutionize student learning by thinking creatively about staff training.
Jeff Bean speaks slowly and evenly, his words anchored in bass tones that inspire thoughtful reflection, not passion. But there's no mistaking what this mild-mannered, 40-year-old high school social-studies teacher is saying. He is talking about mutiny.
Creating a Nation of Teachers as Learners
A year ago, school officials here discovered that their patch-work of professional development--workshops, seminars, conferences, in-services, and other ad hoc training--was costing a fortune. The professional-development department itself spent less than $300,000 a year. But the district's total investment climbed to nearly $13 million--or about 6 percent of its annual budget--when the number crunchers pooled the pockets of staff-training dollars scattered throughout the budget.
Now, Bean is one of the leaders of the district's effort to put that money to better use. In a seemingly endless round of meetings over the next year, educators hope to plot a way to revolutionize student learning by revolutionizing professional development. The blueprint so far calls for central-office staff to turn much of the control and money for staff training over to school principals and teachers themselves. Academic standards that teams of parents, educators, and administrators will devise would guide staff training, not the dictum of a central-office bureaucrat. Indeed, Flint aims eventually to dismantle its whole power and budget structures.
The change promises to be big. "We have to do something dramatic," says Pamela Loving, the vice president of Flint's school board. "It has to be something that everybody feels in their gut and that everybody is terrified about. I want everybody to be truly terrified."
But in education, a field where a droning meeting can pass as bold action, talk is cheap. And even though Bean has pitched in to plan these changes, he is suspicious that Flint officials won't back up their words with action. As a test, he put a question to the district's superintendent, James Ray. If Flint's district rank and file decided that they no longer needed a superintendent, Bean asked, would he be willing to step down?
This is what it has come to in Flint. In a city built on the success of the automotive assembly line, schools are test-driving anarchy and the notion that professional development can leverage change in an urban school system.
Flint in recent years has been a school system eager to embrace change. The birthplace of General Motors, the city faced a host of social and economic woes with the automotive giant's painful decline in the 1980s. The list of reforms recently installed in city schools includes site-based management, outcomes-based education, and multi-age teaching.
Although still new, none of these has proved the salve for Flint's problems, which are myriad and typical of an urban district. Flint students' performance on Michigan's standardized tests hovers in the lowest quartile among the 21 districts that make up Genesee County. Three charter schools are also scheduled to open next fall in the city, and their success could force some of the community's schools to shape up or shut down.
"This is a system ripe for change," says Ada Washington, a Flint parent and former teacher.
Until recently, though, no one saw professional development as much of a change agent. Different departments planned staff training on their own, with little thought to the district's goals. As recently as four years ago, the sole effort to put all the district's 3,000 staff members on the same page was a single all-day workshop held once a year. So few dollars flowed to professional development that Flint officials never bothered to coordinate their programs or measure their effectiveness. "We put so little into it, we didn't bother to see what we got out of it," district officials wrote in a grant proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation in New York City.
But with the help of Rockefeller officials, Flint administrators discovered last year that their investment in professional development was more than chump change. They inventoried the training dollars that the district spent as part of their grant proposal to redesign the district's professionaldevelopment.
While the central office boasted a professional-development office with a $287,000 budget, line items to pay for conferences, workshops, and travel for staff training were littered throughout the district's $205 million budget. There were 66 line items in all, from the $257,000 paid out through the school-improvement office to the $264 spent by a vocational-education program.
Lump sum, these pockets of money totaled nearly $2 million. Even more startling to Flint officials was the calculation of indirect professional-development costs: the university credit and degree payments the district made on behalf of staff; the salary paid to staff for in-service training; and the salaries paid to staff for preparing and leading professional-development activities.
With these costs factored in, Flint's estimated annual investment in professional development climbed to nearly $13 million, or about 6 percent of the district's budget. That surprised even Loving, who among board members is perhaps the biggest boosterof professional-development spending. She was appalled that so many dollars flowed to staff training with no assessment of results. "I told the staff, 'What do you mean $12 million,'" Loving remembers. "I was horrified by that."
With the inventory, Loving and her colleagues in Flint entered uncharted waters. Only a handful of researchers have documented the dollars going to professional development in schools. "It's hard to take stock of the total picture," says Brian Lord, a senior project director for the Education Development Center in Newton, Mass. "You walk into a district and ask what resources are available for professional development, and it's hard to find anyone who can give you a comprehensive answer."
Districts for the most part have little incentive to itemize and pool their professional-development dollars. Much of that funding comes from federal and state sources and is earmarked by districts for specific training. Better to leave it scattered throughout the spending plan, making it a tough target for budget cutters, some school officials think.
Also, until recently, that money was seen more as a fringe benefit that had little role in advancing school reform. "We really didn't value professional development until recently," says Mary Fulton, a school-finance analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission on the States. "It was always kind of an extra, an add on."
But Flint and other districts taking part in the Rockefeller initiative have turned such conventional wisdom on its head. If districts define professional development broadly, as Flint did, schools are actually spending great sums of money on staff training. What's more, the dollars are not spent wisely. "The challenge is to get a grip on what resources are available for professional development and then direct them to what works," Fulton says.
With funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, Flint officials will wrestle over the next year with how to make better use of their $13 million investment in professional development. But in doing so, they aim to redesign the district's entire structure so teachers and principals become key players in all instructional decisions.
"That's a novel idea," says Victor Young, the president of the Learning Communities Network in Cleveland and the director of the Rockefeller project. "There's an awful lot of national rhetoric to the effect that we need to turn control of schools over to teachers and principals, but it doesn't happen." On the rare occasion when it does, Young says, the transfer of power often comes with funding cuts, leaving school officials too busy filling budget holes to be innovative.
The key to the Flint plan is the designation of its four feeder systems as "learning zones," each with about 10 schools. Leaders within these zones include parents, teachers, principals, and central- office administrators who, together, would make instructional decisions for their zone's schools--including decisions about how to spend professional-development money. Freed from many top-down directives, the zone leaders would be guided in their decisions instead by academic standards that they played key roles in designing themselves.
The Flint plan remains a blueprint, but the strangeness of this new power-sharing has been acutely felt in each zone's first meetings. Before he was named to one of the zones, James Yantz, the district's business manager, had little to do with instructional issues. "Teachers have found out there is a person attached to the name that appears on their paycheck every two weeks," he says. "And that person has some ideas and can contribute."
Zone meetings are envisioned as salon-like sessions where educators can talk about instructional approaches and sift through current thinking on teaching and learning. As a result, some zones have embarked on studies of such popular education works as Eric Jensen's The Learning Brain as a prelude to drafting their standards.
Bean, for one, is hungry for the chance to chew over different education approaches with his colleagues in the Whittier zone where he is a leader. He moved to Flint four years ago after nearly a decade teaching in a Detroit-area parochial school "where you just didn't question anything. As long as you kept control in your classroom, you were doing OK."
In the Whittier zone, Bean and the 45 or so other zone leaders first tackled a study of U.S. Census data to get a handle on the demographics of the students in their schools. They also spent several sessions hashing out their views on the barriers to learning. In February, they launched into their first discussion of the standards-based reform movement.
"This is powerful stuff," says Linda Caine-Smith, a former elementary school principal who moved to the district office last year to help lead this project. "It is central-office administrators working with the people on the front line."
"I leave some of those meetings, and I feel like I've just put in a 14-hour day at work. All that groping and thinking, I'm just drained," says JoAnn Reed-Owens, a 15-year member of the school board who recently stepped down to become the district's first parent-involvement advocate.
Still, not all the sessions have generated such erudite discussions. Participants have grumbled that the central office needs to offer more direction. "Some people have said, 'Why don't we just hire a company to do this?'" says Caine-Smith, who is also in the Whittier zone. "Others just want to adopt the national standards already out there and be done with it."
After spending so many years being told what to do, some educators don't know how to think creatively.
"We're just like students in that sense," Bean says. "We are products of the public education system. If we know that there is a textbook for the course, we're going to turn to the back of the chapter, find the questions, and read the chapter only looking for the answers to those questions. We tell these kids that we want them to learn for the pleasure of learning, but we don't do that.
"Most people will work through this," he continues. "They know that if this truly works, it will benefit a lot of what they do, and it will make their job much more exciting."
Even though the zones are months away from deciding how to install standards or a new professional-development system, expectations are high that big change is in the making. "There's going to be a lot of breaking of bones and dishes and glasses," Loving says, "but I think on the other side of this, we're going to make a contribution not only to this community, but to education as a whole."
Already, educators in Flint are embracing their new clout. The last contract with the Flint teachers' union doubled in-service training to 18 half-days. In some schools, staff members are taking advantage of the extra time to work together on teaching practices for their students.
At Pierson Elementary School, more teachers are trying team-teaching and cooperative learning now that they have time to plan. Also, in-service workshops no longer demand an appearance by an outside expert, says Shelly Umphrey, a fourth-year teacher at the school. "We've always overlooked the fact that we have experts already on staff," she explains. "Some of those expert speakers are very competent, but they may not have been in a classroom for 40 years. And they don't know your school and your kids."
Of course, the revolution in Flint still remains mostly talk. With federal and state budget cuts expected to hit the district hard, the day-to-day business of running the schools could easily move the initiative to the back burner. And even if a blueprint for change is readied, signing the public onto it could pose another problem. The district does boast a good record for public support--it has lost only one tax or bond referendum in almost 20 years--but ushering in reforms has not always gone smoothly.
Ada Washington says she put her 10-year-old son in a parochial school when the district turned to multi-age teaching. She supported the move and Flint's other reforms, but she feared he would get lost in the shuffle. "There was so much dissension between parents and teachers because of the change," she says. "The teachers didn't quite have the answers that parents wanted."
Flint's plan could also get hung up on the decisions about exactly how much control and money to turn over to the zones and the schools themselves. "Giving building-level educators control doesn't guarantee that they will make good decisions," says Lord of the Education Development Center. "There needs to be a balance."
Even Bean says he worries that the board and central office will ignore the work done at the zone level and install their own plan for standards and professional development. When he tested Superintendent Ray's resolve and asked if he were ready to give up his job, Bean says the response was not convincing. "He got real nervous and said, 'Well,I think that the state requires us to have a superintendent.'"
Vol. 15, Issue 30, Page s19-24