Professional Development

Structured Protocols Aid Professional Development

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 29, 2009 2 min read
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It’s probably the oldest narrative in our field: A program or intervention works really well in one site. Then a district tries to implement it across multiple schools and it just ... doesn’t seem to take root.

Whether you term this problem a lack of fidelity of implementation, a failure to integrate reform into school culture, or my personal favorite, “scaling up is hard to do,” it’s particularly a problem with professional development.

The research on PD suggests that teachers do benefit from school-based approaches, such as professional-learning communities, rather than workshops and the like. This type of professional development identifies and responds to individual students’ and teachers’ needs, and hence is very site-specific. In other words, it’s not the world’s easiest thing to do across a district.

That’s why a new study in The Elementary School Journal is so interesting. It essentially wrestles with this question to figure out what aspects are necessary to make these PLCs work. The answer? There needs to be a specific structure in place to guide improvement efforts and facilitators to train colleagues on how to abide by these protocols.

The study looked at over 14,000 students in 15 Title I schools with similar characteristics. Researchers separated the schools into two groups. Nine adopted a type of professional-learning community, with teachers structured into teams. Six other schools engaged in some other type of school improvement activity.

In tracking the schools over six years, the researchers found little difference between the two groups for the first two years. At that point researchers augmented the PLCs by publishing a manual with step-by-step processes to the for identifying academic problems, planning instruction, and analyzing student work, as well as training on how to use it.

These protocols didn’t tell teachers how to alter instruction, but they did guide them through areas when they got stuck on how to progress in their problem-solving.

Schools using the protocols, the study found, experienced consistent meetings that focused on problem-solving, and higher student achievement. Teachers in the schools with the PLCs were more likely to say their improvements in teaching practices led to student gains than to attribute those changes to external causes, such as students’ inherent academic capabilities.

A few vendors like Pearson say they have professional-development programs that are aligned to these findings. But perhaps districts could come up with similar protocols on their own by adapting performance-based teacher rubrics developed by Charlotte Danielson and other experts.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.