School Climate & Safety Opinion

The Key to Student Success: Build Educator and Collective Capacity

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 22, 2016 9 min read
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We welcome guest blogger Paul B. Ash*, veteran educator and author.

Picture this: You have hired excellent teachers, set high learning standards, started numerous student intervention programs, managed resources efficiently, and aligned your school goals. Sadly, no matter how hard everyone works each day, your school still has not been able to close achievement gaps, significantly raise achievement for other students, and provide the most vulnerable students with the social/emotional programs they need.

This was the problem we faced in Lexington Massachusetts when I was the Superintendent of Schools from 2005-2015. In 2007, a report written by the former teacher union president showed large achievement gaps between all sub-groups (students of color, English language learners, low-income students, and students with special needs) and all other students on state tests (LaMura, 2008). The chair of the science department said, “It really opened teachers’ eyes to things that weren’t working” (Sawchuck, 2010). Another teacher said, “We had to come to grips with the achievement gap and the results of our actions--or lack of actions. We had to confront our responsibility for the achievement gap.”

After the report was shared with the faculty and community members, numerous school leaders and I became convinced that we had a moral imperative to raise achievement for about 20% of the students. In the spring of 2008, we formed a district-wide Achievement Gap Task Force (AGTF), which included teachers, administrators, union representatives, and parents. By the fall, the members of the AGTF identified nineteen specific actions to raise achievement. The AGTF pledged its commitment to support teachers in implementing the changes, for example, by providing them with meaningful professional learning, the materials they need, and the time they need to develop new programs with colleagues.

Implementation Exhaustion
During the next two years, the new programs began to have an impact on closing achievement gaps. However, teachers also told us they were exhausted and had reached their limits. After lengthy discussions with the administration, union, and AGTF, I came to the conclusion that the school system had reached its maximum capacity to close gaps further, given that the budget was not likely to grow appreciably. Therefore, in order to reduce fatigue and keep increasing student growth, the administration and teachers came to two conclusions: we needed to slow down some initiatives, and we needed to expand our professional learning program in order to increase both individual and collective educator capacity. We believed that the most effective plan to increase student learning would be to build a focused, coherent, continuous, and systemic culture of professional learning for all Lexington educators, teams of educators, and schools. Phyllis Neufeld, the teacher union president, said that the superintendent “understood the link between educator learning and student learning.”

Effective Professional Learning Improves Student Performance
In 2002, the Australian government studied 70 Australian schools engaged in whole-school professional learning, encompassing 42 primary schools and 28 secondary schools. The authors of the study “reported levels of follow up, content focus, and active learning were all related to the level of impact on teachers’ knowledge. The level of active learning was also directly related to impact on teachers’ practice and efficacy.” The study reached these major conclusions:

  1. Successful professional learning programs included opportunities for teacher reflection, collaboration, and building of professional community that contribute to the strengthening of teachers’ capacity to improve their students’ learning outcomes.
  2. Evidence suggests that professional learning programs with a strong content focus, as well as an emphasis on other features such as follow-up, active learning, feedback and professional community, are likely to show evidence of improved student learning.
  3. The difficulty in finding adequate time for planning, reflection and collaboration was an ongoing theme in interviews with teachers.

Based on these principles, we created a K-12 task force to plan Lexington’s professional learning program. We examined the traditional professional development model, which we rejected, and adopted a new model of professional learning that would be focused, coherent, continuous, and systemic.

Evolving Models of Professional Learning
The traditional professional learning model in most school districts is teacher focused, rather than centered on student learning outcomes. Teachers select after-school professional learning courses/workshops based on their own preferences and personal criteria, not necessarily based on what they need to learn to more effectively increase student learning. In the traditional model, teachers expand their knowledge and skills predominantly through external programs: college and university courses, and programs offered by experts and professional associations. Typically, school districts approve courses for salary lane credit based on a minimum grade from an accredited college or university.

During the regular work year, teachers are rarely required to engage for more than a few hours to a few days in professional learning activities aligned with school and district goals. According to a 2011 article in Education Week,

Historically, administrators have favored the workshop approach, in which a district or school brings in an outside consultant or curriculum expert on a staff-learning day to give teachers a one-time training seminar on a garden-variety pedagogic or subject-area topic. (Education Week, June 29, 2011)

Unlike the traditional professional learning model that is teacher focused, a more effective model must focus on what teachers need to learn so their students will achieve curriculum expectations. Internal daily activities range from required programs closely aligned with major school and district student needs, to voluntary programs and activities designed by teachers to enhance their professional skills and thereby improve student learning.

Lexington’s Model of Professional Learning: Focused, Coherent, Continuous, and Systemic
In the new model, professional learning is one component of a larger system that is aligned with curriculum goals, instructional practices, and the ongoing assessment. These components are all aligned and focused on desired student learning outcomes. Not only is each component of the system a discipline by itself, each component is impacted by the other components. For example, if assessments show that there are gaps in student learning goals, then educators may decide they need to modify the curriculum, adapt the instructional approach, and/or engage in professional learning to increase their own skills and knowledge. The chart below illustrates the interactive nature of these four components.

When schools view curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional learning as part of one fluid system focused on student needs, educator decisions are more adaptable to current conditions in schools. Planned and unplanned conversations can lead to amazing new ideas and excitement as colleagues discover new strategies and skills from peer interactions. These conversations can also lead to the identification of new professional learning programs, which are central to a K-12 learning organization.

The four elements of an effective professional learning program are:

  1. External courses and workshops that are aligned with student needs, e.g. college courses are approved by the school district based on the alignment between the course objectives, and what the knowledge the teacher expects to learn in order to more effectively meet students learning needs.
  2. Internal programs and coursework:

• Mandatory programs (e.g., induction programs for new teachers, required training when new programs are adopted, and self-assessments that now part of the Massachusetts evaluation system). All educators are now required to set bi-annual student and professional learning goals based on supervisor input and their self-assessment.

• Suggested programs - When needed, supervisors encourage teachers to consider professional learning programs.

• Voluntary programs - In all cases, educators can sign up for professional learning programs offered by the district or school. These programs may focus on content, instructional practice, technology, assessment, or research.

3.Conversations with colleagues within the school district:

• Planned collaborative meetings: regular meetings with grade level or subject teachers, or larger collaborative meetings with the department, school, and district colleagues)

• Unplanned meetings: in the school or on social media

4. Feedback: When students receive frequent, specific, and accurate feedback, learning increases substantially. (Hattie, 2009). The same is true for teachers when they receive feedback from supervisors, or feedback from colleagues on a collaborative team.

After seven years of hard, dedicated work, Lexington achieved the following results:

• Grade 10 ELA African American state MCAS scores increased from 43% proficient and advanced in 2007 to 100% in 2014;

• Grade 10 African American mathematics scores increased from 68% proficient and advanced in 2007 to 96% in 2014;

• SAT scores for African American students increased by a total of 294 points on the writing, reading, and mathematics tests combined;

• Grade 10 ELA Special Education scores increased from 79% proficient and advanced in 2010 to 100% in 2014; and

• Grade 10 Special Education mathematics scores increased from 81% proficient and advanced in 2010 to 95% in 2014

While it is well established that many factors can increase student performance, the most important factor is the quality of the classroom teacher. While new programs and expanding budgets are desirable, Lexington learned that expanding professional learning was the key driver to raise the school system’s capacity to increase student learning for all students and close achievement gaps. When schools provide educators with quality professional learning, every day, both students and educators perform at higher levels.


Further Information on Lexington’s Achievement gap plan - See the report by Ron Ferguson, a professor at Harvard University (//bit.ly/1qSgxIr), and an article by Karen Chenoweth in the Huffington Post (//huff.to/1T4OzQi)

Professional Learning program - Go to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (//bit.ly/23FCZSL). Lexington’s Professional Learning program was selected as one of four state models.

* PAUL B. ASH was a public school educator for 42 years, serving as a teacher, central office administrator, and superintendent of schools. Paul is now an educational consultant. He co-authored the book School Systems That Learn: Improving Professional Learning, Overcoming Obstacles, and Diffusing Innovation. Paul can be reached through his website at www.leadership4schoolchange.com, by email at: Leadership4schoolchange@gmail.com or on Twitter: @PaulAsh_LFSC


Education Week, Professional Learning, online publication, June 29, 2011, last visited on February 5, 2012

Hattie, John, Invisible Learning, Routledge, New York, New York, 2009, p.162 (1,287 studies involving 67,931 students)

Chenoweth, K., What Can Happen When a District TAkes Responsibility for its African American Students? Huffington Post, August 5, 2015

LaMura, V. A. (2008, January). The achievement gap in the Lexington Public Schools: Documentation, Research, and Recommendations. Lexington Public Schools.

Meiers, Marion, Ingvarson, Lawrence, Investigating the links between teacher professional learning and student learning outcomes, Australian Government - Quality Teacher Programme, 2005, p. 2.

Sawchuk, S. (November 10, 2010), Mass. district strives for teacher ‘learning system.’ Education Week.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.