Professional Development Commentary

School Districts’ New Role

By Karen Hawley Miles & Ellen Guiney — June 14, 2000 10 min read

In urban districts across the country, standards-based reform is challenging long-held assumptions about what teachers should do and how they should do it. The best teachers have always focused on student learning, not mere presentation of subject matter, as is common practice in many classrooms. Now, all teachers will have to learn what the best do so artfully. They will have to diagnose what students already know, adjust their teaching strategies to meet each student’s needs, and measure frequently each student’s progress toward reaching the standards. They will also be expected to teach difficult material to students in the same class who have had widely varying preparation and learning—an expectation most have not been trained to meet.

The most effective professional development is offered to school-based teams of teachers, is continuous, and involves follow-up and support.

Most current opportunities for urban teachers to learn are superficial, ill-organized, and without accountability. Despite the substantial need, few districts are prepared to support teachers and principals in making the kinds of changes needed in instruction and organization; fewer still offer professional development that consistently deepens staff knowledge or supports a schoolwide effort to improve.

Who can and must solve this problem? The obvious answer is the school district. Focused, more effectively organized, the district is a potentially powerful player in helping all schools reach higher standards. But districts have their critics. Some envision the ultimate demise of school districts as we know them, predicting that states will take over failing schools and funnel resources more directly to sites based on their performance. Others argue that the setting of standards and the public nature of measurement alone will motivate and eventually force schools to improve.

The burden is now on districts to prove their critics wrong. Success will depend on whether and how well they marshal their resources to improve the quality of instruction through professional development for teachers.

There is growing evidence about what constitutes effective professional development. To help students meet higher standards over time, the effort must be schoolwide, not teacher by teacher. Teachers can no longer work in isolation. They must become part of a professional learning community in which staff members agree on a common curriculum and instructional strategies, share their experiences with colleagues, consider each student’s instructional needs, and seek and receive feedback from each other in improving their practice. As well stated by the National Partnership for Excellence and Accountability in Teaching, or NPEAT, the most effective professional development is offered to school-based teams of teachers, is continuous, and involves follow-up and support.

The first step for a district to take toward establishing a system of this kind of professional development is to redirect dollars. This means that districts will have to get clear about what they are currently spending to support professional-development activities, agree on a set of principles and priorities, and then reorganize around a very different strategy for providing more effective opportunities for teachers and school leaders to learn.

With support from the Boston Plan for Excellence, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and New American Schools, we conducted a detailed examination of district spending in four reform-oriented urban districts. In those four districts, spending on professional development ranged from $1,000 per teacher per year to $5,000, and from 1.5 percent of the district’s all-funds budget to nearly 4 percent. In most cases, the spending was fragmented across departments and topics with no consistent message. Furthermore, the majority of professional- development spending supported workshops or one-session presentations offered to individual teachers away from the school site.

That professional development is fragmented and unfocused is a common refrain among education reformers. What’s been missing from the discussion is analysis that is detailed enough to suggest concrete changes in organization and practice. This Commentary details the common findings from such a fine-grained, implementation-oriented analysis. They include the following:

  • Districts spend much more on professional development than they think, and most of it is neither actively managed nor explicitly linked to a district strategy.

Districts need combine funding streams to support integrated efforts aimed at school needs.

In Boston, for instance, officials were surprised to find they spent $8 million annually on student-free time for teachers. In reporting on professional-development spending, most districts include only local dollars spent delivering courses and workshops, or they report only those dollars managed by the “official” department for professional development. Typically, however, these resources represent only a small portion of the dollars available. In order to take a more proactive, integrated approach, districts need to track and report:

Professional-development spending across all departments and all funds, such as Title I, technology, and bilingual funds;

Dollars dedicated to providing instruction-free days or other time for teacher professional development; and

Dollars spent to pay for tuition for coursework.

  • Districts spend more to buy teacher time for professional development than anything else, but there is little accountability for the use of this time.

Districts spent between one-third and one-half of all professional-development dollars to buy teacher time. In all four districts, most of these dollars paid for professional-development days (or hours) built into the teacher work calendar or for substitutes and stipends to free teachers for professional-development activities. None of the districts, however, supported or required schools to develop effective and integrated plans for the use of this time to improve school performance.

Given the investment districts are making in providing teacher time, districts need to make sure that schools include their use of this time in their planning for school improvement. At the same time, districts need to be vigilant that they do not destroy the effective use of this time by piling activities onto schools that draw time away from teachers’ working together to improve instruction.

  • Heavy reliance on federal, special-program, and private funds has contributed to the fragmentation of professional-development efforts and lack of long-range planning.

All four districts rely heavily on “external” funds to support professional development, with the percent paid for by external funds ranging from 50 percent to 60 percent. Typically, Title I, Eisenhower funds, and technology funds are the biggest contributors, but Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, bilingual, and special state funds aimed at encouraging innovation can also be big factors. These multiple funding streams have contributed to the fragmentation of goals and delivery of professional development because they are often attached to specific goals and programs, and thus many districts create separate programs and infrastructures to support them. Districts need to move away from organizing activities around funding sources and combine funding streams to support integrated efforts aimed at school needs. Recent changes in federal funding regulations and new understandings and flexibility at the state level have created much more latitude for districts in combining funds to support consolidated and integrated plans.

  • A few departments control the majority of district-level spending on professional development, but their efforts are often uncoordinated and inconsistent.
That professional development is fragmented and unfocused is a common refrain among education reformers.

These will likely include the curriculum and instruction department, the district’s official professional-development group, technology initiatives, Title I (if there is a separate department), and lead-teacher and mentor- teaching programs. In each of the districts studied, we have found that these departments have different strategies for delivering professional development. Since the professional-development activities of each department have evolved over time, the roles that each department plays and the links between them are unclear.

To create comprehensive professional-development strategies, districts will need to identify those departments currently offering professional development and rethink their responsibilities around a more integrated strategy.

  • In three out of four districts, spending on academic content areas represented less than one-quarter of the professional development spending.

Despite the intense focus on improving student performance in academic subjects, most of the professional development in these districts was either untraceable by subject or aimed at more general issues like planning, teamwork, or general instructional strategies such as cooperative learning or classroom discipline. Even spending within a topic like literacy is often uncoordinated, with a number of different departments offering “literacy” activities that suggest different strategies and conflicting messages.

  • Schools implementing whole-school improvement models are finding ways to better focus and integrate their own professional-development spending, but district activities sometimes interfere.

Schools with whole-school improvement models or literacy programs such as Success for All, Roots and Wings, or Literacy Collaborative appear to use their time and dollars in a more focused, planned way over the year. Analysis of dollars and time in these schools shows them spending more than twice the dollars to support literacy than schools with no organizing framework for school activities.

Few districts are prepared to support teachers and principals in making the kinds of changes needed in instruction and organization.

These findings suggest five main steps to creating a district-level professional-development strategy. They include:

1. Defining professional- development principles and a strategy for effective professional development that is centered on improving instruction throughout the school. The strategy would define:

The goals and priorities for district-sponsored professional development;

The primary model for delivering professional development to accomplish each goal;

The spending levels for each activity; and

The roles of different departments in implementing this strategy.

2. Aligning the professional-development resources with district academic goals, especially in literacy and math, and focusing spending on fewer topics.

3. Re-examining the activities of each major district department involved in professional development to link all of them to the superintendent’s student-performance goals and to school-level efforts to implement whole-school improvement to reach those performance goals.

4. Creating more accountability for professional development’s quality and focus by delivering more through schools implementing whole-school improvement models.

5. Creating a consolidated plan for the use of external funds to be integrated to support the above strategy and principles.

For most districts, making these kinds of changes will require fortitude, as it will disrupt long-established programs and practices. Given the urgency of the need for improved instruction in literacy and math, districts will have to focus every available dollar on providing direct, ongoing assistance to teachers and principals in these areas, using proven models of professional development. Activities not linked to school-level plans for improvement— courses for individual teachers, for example, and stipends for staff members to work on various projects that seem worthy but are not directly related to student learning goals—should be dropped.

The district must create ways to hold itself and its schools accountable for providing student-performance- oriented professional development. If professional-development funds are redirected and then integrated through a professional-development strategy, schools and teachers will feel the power of more resources. They will also reap the benefit of liberation from a host of well-meaning activities that sometimes distract, dilute, and conflict with their core efforts to improve instruction.

Karen Hawley Miles is the director of Education Resource Management Strategies, a Dallas-based consulting firm that specializes in issues of resource allocation. Ellen Guiney is the executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence, a nonprofit public education fund.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 2000 edition of Education Week as School Districts’ New Role


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