Special Report

In Support of Teachers

By Jessica L. Sandham — January 11, 2001 5 min read
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Back before they had the capacity to do better, Fayette County, Ky., school officials say, their district’s professional-development program looked something like a buffet. Teachers and administrators filled up their plates, satisfying their requirements with a little of this and a little of that, but rarely came away with the training they needed to help students meet Kentucky’s rigorous academic standards.

Now, district leaders say they are striving to make professional development more active and more targeted to help schools overcome their own individual barrier’ to learning--and meet stated academic goals.

“We’re moving away from what we call ‘sit and get’ professional development, where you sit for three hours and get information,” says Robin Fankhauser, the superintendent of the 33,000-student district in Lexington, the heart of Kentucky’s horse country. “And we’re eliminating all of those nice-to-do, but not need-to-do, sessions. The money has to go into identified needs.”

The state has given its districts nearly $150 million for professional development since the passage of the landmark Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990. Fayette district administrators, however, say they have only recently begun to find truly effective ways for the training to support other aspects of standards-based reform.

The law, known as KERA, allocates money for professional development--now up to $23 a student--based on a school’s average daily attendance. The money is divided up in a way that supports the reform system’s emphasis on school-level accountability: Sixty-five percent of the money flows directly to schools, and 35 percent goes to districts.

Consequently, many of the state’s “school boards and administrators have been very cautious about putting any central-office mandates on schools, because they fear treading on the authority the state has delegated to them,” says Jane L. David, the director of the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Bay Area Research Group and one of a team of researchers analyzing professional-development practices in Kentucky.

But in Fayette County, say David, “there is a real understanding that one can lead without mandates.”

Punching Up Reading

The impetus for change, David and others note, was solidified by Fankhauser, who took the district reins in an interim capacity in June 1999 and was formally named superintendent last May. One of her first steps was to restructure the central office in a way that supported standards-based training. She put standards, curriculum, and professional development--which had previously been in three different departments--under one umbrella.

While district officials acknowledge they have a long way to go, they see signs of improvement. For the 1998-2000 biennium, 39 of the district’s 50 schools fell into the state’s “reward” category, meaning they met or exceeded their predicted performance on state tests over the previous biennium and reaped financial benefits. Ten schools fell into the “maintaining” category, meaning they improved somewhat over the previous biennium. Only one school did not meet achievement goals and fell in the “assistance” category.

Some 40 percent of Fayette County’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Still, after looking at test-score data and teacher-experience levels, the district did identify three schools that needed significant instructional support.

District-level specialists in academic content were assigned to spend 80 percent of their time in those schools, demonstrating effective teaching practices and coaching teachers on lesson design and ongoing student assessment.

The content-focused coaching centers around language arts and mathematics “because if you can leverage those two things, you’re going to make a difference in all scores,” says Carolyn S. Martin, the district’s assessment coordinator.

Though district officials can’t dictate that schools spend their money only on high-quality professional development, Fankhauser says the central administration is working to lead by example.

The district has ceased spending its own share of professional-development money to send administrators to training seminars around the country that may or may not be related to schools’ individual goals. Instead, the district is using in-house experts as often as possible. The money administrators once spent on “dog and pony shows,” Fankhauser says, is now being applied toward meeting schools’ need for more reading specialists to work with teachers.

At the elementary level, the district identified eight master teachers and relieved them of their classroom duties, freeing them to work with a total of 65 beginning teachers on effective reading instruction. In addition, the district is paying tuition for 17 middle and high school teachers to take classes through the University of Kentucky in order to become certified reading specialists.

The district chose to devote extra resources to training secondary-level reading specialists when state test scores revealed that a number of middle and high school students were two or three years below grade level in reading, says Jane Harris, the district’s director of student achievement. “It was really apparent to us that middle and high school teachers don’t know how to teach reading,” he says. “They expect students to come to school already knowing how to read.”

Making Plans

Since 1997, Kentucky has required both schools and districts to have consolidated plans identifying school challenges and academic areas that need improvement--along with proposed solutions to those problems. This past summer, in response to a troubling districtwide achievement gap between white and minority students in reading and writing, the district conducted a three-day institute focusing on state reading and writing requirements, creative approaches to instruction, and continual assessments related to literacy. Teams representing each of the district’s 55 schools attended. They had to write new literacy components for their consolidated plans and take them back to their schools.

For Virgil Covington, the principal of Winburn Middle School, the result of the literacy conference and other district- level supports is that his school has a more comprehensive agenda for change. Winburn will devote some of its own professional-development money to train all faculty members to write and implement a thorough literacy program, with follow-up coaching throughout the year. The school will also hire a reading specialist to work one-on-one with teachers.

“Before, we would look at our scores and say we need a reading thing, and we would have somebody come in and do a reading thing, and it would be somewhat disjointed,” Covington says. “Now, there’s a real plan in place. We have professional guidance to know where we’re going down the road.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2001 edition of Education Week


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