Learning On the Job

By Ann Bradley — February 15, 1995 6 min read

Sixth in an occasional series.

Administrators in San Francisco got a shock recently when they took inventory of the school system’s professional-development offerings. They discovered that the district is spending close to $18 million a year on a plethora of programs and projects--a figure that had never before been tallied.

“We were just overwhelmed,” said Karen Levine, a policy analyst who helped study the district’s professional-development spending. “Now we have a good sense of how many programs there are and how little coordination there seems to be.”

The San Francisco findings are not unusual. Researchers have found that many urban districts lack a coordinated, strategic plan for helping teachers and administrators learn on the job.

But without such high-quality professional development, the push to replicate effective reform strategies on a large scale could well be doomed.

“One of the biggest hurdles between reform and schools as they are now is professional development,” said Marla Ucelli, the assistant director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s school-reform program. (See related story.)

The foundation last year launched a project to help urban districts build an “infrastructure” to support the kind of professional development that improves student achievement.

That means making continuous learning part of educators’ regular work lives: Teachers and administrators need time for inquiry, analysis, and reflection with their peers, foundation officials said, as well as time to add to their skills and knowledge.

“There isn’t a culture that supports ongoing learning for adults,” said Victor C. Young, who is overseeing the Rockefeller project. “In the best scenarios, it’s a healthy ancillary. In the worst, it doesn’t exist.”

Governance Structures

The foundation last year gave $15,000 planning grants to 10 districts--Albuquerque, N.M.; Denver; El Paso; Flint, Mich.; Fort Worth; Greenville, S.C.; Pittsburgh; San Antonio; San Diego; and San Francisco--that agreed to rethink their approaches to professional development.

They are expected to devise a governance structure that will pull together and focus professional development, enlarging on successful programs and discarding unsuccessful ones.

This spring, the foundation will give three districts with the most promising ideas money to spend 18 months refining their plans.

At the end of that time, if foundation officials believe the districts’ work looks worthwhile, the efforts of the three districts will be supported with an additional $300,000 to $500,000 for each of five to seven more years.

The new infrastructure is expected to serve both the majority of teachers in the district and to equip administrators and school board members with the knowledge they need to support school-based improvement.

Eventually, districts will be expected to rethink how money--including state and federal aid--is allocated for professional development. They also will be asked to look at creating incentives for educators to participate.

The time span for the project is long out of necessity, Ms. Ucelli said, because the barriers to effective professional development are formidable. They include finding enough time and money, enlisting community support for teachers to spend time outside the classroom, defining the content of professional development, and getting past turf battles over providing it.

“We’re trying to figure out whether it’s even possible to build adult learning into the daily lives of school districts,” Ms. Ucelli said. “We don’t know the answer in this country.”

Community Involvement

The districts were required to involve a broad spectrum of their communities in the discussions of professional development because making educators’ learning a high priority will require changes the entire community must support. And the governance plans they put together must include people outside the school district.

As a first step, the districts have taken inventories of their existing professional-development offerings. Some have decided to build on current practices or district goals, while others have turned to their communities for advice.

In Greenville, S.C., people have discovered that what is expected of teachers must change, said Elizabeth(See educational leadership.

“We make these opportunities available,” she said of the district’s professional-development programs, “but sometimes there isn’t the expectation that teachers will participate and then go back into the classroom to make appropriate changes.”

In Greenville, efforts to set standards for students, teachers, and schools are expected to guide professional-development discussions.

The San Antonio school district, meanwhile, plans to invite city residents to reflect on their most powerful learning experiences.

Diana Lam, the superintendent, said the district hopes to replicate these kinds of experiences in its professional-development programs.

‘Subtle Issues’

Several districts are talking about how technology could be used to improve professional development. Ms. Levine, the San Francisco policy analyst, said teachers could benefit from an on-line bulletin board that would let them know about programs.

“We’re looking not so much at programs and more at how the system for delivery is working or not,” she said. “We have a lot of strong national models here, and one of the things we’re finding is that it’s overwhelming for a lot of people, how much is going on.”

In Denver, planners are thinking about creating a “tactical unit” that can focus on helping teachers improve students’ reading and writing skills.

The focus on literacy, said Barbara Volpe, the executive director of the Public Education Coalition in Denver, grew out of Superintendent Irv Moskowitz’s goals for the district.

Denver, like other districts that have taken a hard look at themselves, found that its professional-development programs are uneven. Teachers generally lack an efficient way to find out about activities, Ms. Volpe said, and many programs are not connected to the district’s goals or to specific outcomes for students.

“We have to do a lot of thinking about subtle issues of culture,” she said. “We have to move from a culture that isn’t a problem-solving, learning culture to one that is.”

Thinking about finding time for professional development is complicated by the teachers’ contract and by state laws governing how much time teachers must spend with students, Ms. Volpe noted. But Colorado also has developed academic standards for students and has overhauled licensing requirements for educators, which provide a “great opportunity” to rethink professional development, she added.

Teacher Conversations

Moving away from time-honored practices is difficult, district officials warn.

Fort Worth’s team wants to build on the success of two schools that use a project-based curriculum. Teachers in those schools come together regularly to discuss samples of students’ work.

“We have to buy time for teachers to reflect on what they know,” Sally Hampton, a Fort Worth administrator, said, “and make it possible for them to share it with other people.”

Because urban districts suffer such leadership turnover, she added, it makes sense for them to lodge professional-development expertise in networks of teachers.

These conversations, however, are a big departure from the traditional workshops that have predominated in Texas schools. It can be difficult to build support for these professional discussions, Ms. Hampton said.

“If an administrator walks in and sees that, they want to know where are the overheads and handouts,” she said. “That’s business as usual.”

The Rockefeller Foundation has linked the 10 districts participating in the project in the Learning Communities Network, a nonprofit organization that will gather and disseminate the districts’ findings.

Even if their school systems are not chosen for the final round of grants, many district officials said they plan to continue focusing on professional development.

“We want to continue with the momentum,” Ms. Lam of San Antonio said. “We have started, and there’s no stopping.”

The “Scaling Up” series is underwritten by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

A version of this article appeared in the February 15, 1995 edition of Education Week as Learning On the Job