Special Report
School & District Management

Mich. District Adds Accountability to Staff Training

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 10, 2010 3 min read
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As more professional development shifts from centrally mandated activities for all teachers to training that is more responsive to the contexts and students in each school, what’s the best way to keep it focused and of high quality?

The Carman-Ainsworth district in Flint, Mich., recently faced that dilemma. By working with its teachers’ union, the 4,600-student district has emphasized school-based professional development since 2004. Its bargaining agreement codifies a schedule that includes “late start” Wednesdays, when school is delayed by an hour and a half. Teachers have more than 20 such days a year to engage in working in grade-level or discipline-specific teams during that time.

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Following a 2008 district-accreditation cycle, however, district leaders decided to see whether there were ways to improve the training. Teachers were given time to visit other schools and were interviewed in focus groups for their feedback. The information showed that teachers found value in the school teams, but also saw that the team work varied in quality from school to school.

That led to a predicament that Steve Tunnicliff, the district’s assistant superintendent, calls the “tight-loose” problem of school-based training—how much oversight administrators need to provide to school sites without being too prescriptive about their activities.

“It’s the total irony of [professional learning communities] in general—they seem so simple, but the implementation is extremely difficult,” Mr. Tunnicliff said. “When you’ve got these teachers, literally weekly, going off in their different areas, you need to develop some structure to make sure they’re following through with it.”

Structure Added

Last year, Carman-Ainsworth officials launched a system requiring teams to make presentations to other teams in their building. Three times a year, they must present the results of their inquiries in a “data cycle": the problem they set out to solve, the data they looked at, the steps they took to respond, and the results in student learning. In addition to those protocols, central-office staff members now participate in some of the Wednesday meetings.

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These mini-profiles—including video interviews—are meant to provide insight, but not to serve as representative examples of the districts in which they teach or programs in question. Their diverse experiences highlight the challenges districts face in providing high-quality training matched to each teacher’s needs.

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“It kind of was a healthy accountability,” Mr. Tunnicliff said. “A structure for how you’re going to spend that [professional-development] time is pretty important. [The teams] can fall apart because they lose focus about what they’re trying to accomplish.”

Fred A. Burger, the president of the local affiliate of the National Education Association, said the structure has helped teachers articulate goals across related subjects. The biology PLC he belongs to, for instance, meets with the teams on chemistry and physical sciences in the school to make its presentations.

“What we see,” he said, “is that there are common themes we agree on—that every student should be able to write a lab report or apply the scientific method.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Mich. District Adds Accountability Piece To Focus Training

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