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Long Beach District Sets Course to Personalize Teacher PD

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 28, 2015 7 min read
Leo Ramos and Amy Pendray of the Long Beach district in California look on as educators from Avalon Elementary School, on Santa Catalina Island, review a new course on formative assessment. The course is party of myPD, an online system that tailors professional-development offerings for teachers and tracks progress toward their learning goals.

Your smartphone dieting app tells you when you’ve met your calorie count for the day. Netflix puts movie recommendations in front of you based on your viewing history.

Contrast that level of personalization with the prototypical teacher professional-development setup, where everyone trudges off to the local hotel or a school common area for the same workshop.

In an era where everything from book buying to online dating is personalized, why does professional development for teachers often seem so, well, cookie-cutter?

This school year, in a bid to counter that dynamic, the Long Beach, Calif., district is debuting an ambitious effort to personalize teachers’ PD experiences, while still aiming to afford them a consistent level of high-quality training aligned to district goals. Its new online system is designed to offer teachers more ways to access PD better matched to their own needs, plus a way of tracking their own growth.

Long Beach’s initiative is taking shape as demands for ongoing training are growing, partly as a result of the Common Core State Standards. At the same time, worries about PD’s effectiveness have intensified.

“With higher expectations for student achievement, and new assessments coming down the pike and new teacher-evaluation requirements, everyone was expecting more from their PD systems. And they were thinking, ‘How do we get this right to serve all these new priorities?’ ” said Stephanie Hirsh, the president of Learning Forward, a membership organization that works to improve professional learning in schools.

Building a Platform

Learning Forward is among the organizations partnering with Long Beach and other districts that have received funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve PD delivery and effectiveness. (Education Week has received Gates Foundation support for the coverage of college- and career-ready standards.) The $40 million undertaking includes some 10 districts.

Long Beach had the benefit of a long history of investing in PD, and the district has been widely recognized for the quality of its support. The 79,000-student school system has had its own in-house curriculum-resource and teacher-support center since 1992.

Aware that even a good system needs updates, however, the district surveyed all its secondary teachers on their experiences and followed up with focus groups. The takeaway: Teachers valued the face-to-face support offered by the district, but they also wanted systems that were more nimble, fostered teacher collaboration, and, most of all, didn’t interfere with instructional time, said Pamela Seki, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction, and professional development.

“We liked our PD. That was the key,” said Wendy Poffenberger, the assistant principal of the California Academy of Mathematics and Science, who served on the team that helped develop the new system. “We want our Long Beach PD, [but] we want it all the time, and we want to have access to it 24/7.”

Ultimately, the district contracted with the ed-tech company Truenorthlogic, selected via a competitive bid, to design a new online platform, called myPD. At its most basic, the platform serves as a repository for the district’s curriculum units and catalog of PD courses. But its built-in features for teacher feedback are what really make the system hum.

Think of it a bit like a personalized fitness plan. Just as such plans lay out goals for shedding pounds, specify exercises tailored to those goals, and give a timeline, the Long Beach platform helps teachers set teaching goals, find aligned resources, and track their progress.

Once they’ve logged on, teachers create a profile for themselves, selecting which of the California Standards for the Teaching Profession they want to improve on. They can perform a self-assessment, rating themselves on the standards’ five-tiered scale.

The system connects to student-performance records, so there’s room for teachers to upload information on their students’ academic achievement. And teachers can add feedback by peers, giving selected colleagues access to their PD profiles.

From there, teachers go on to set up a plan of action. Each of the district’s PD courses and resources are tagged by grade level, teaching standard, and strand, so it’s easy to pull up opportunities that match the skills they want to work on.

As they work toward each of their own goals, the myPD system has a place for teachers to journal their reflections on progress, keep notes about improvements they’ve seen in student work, check off the action steps they’ve taken, and keep a transcript of classes they’ve completed.

As for resources made available through the system, in addition to all the face-to-face PD courses already offered, Long Beach has added new, self-paced online modules and videos of Long Beach teachers demonstrating some of the teaching standards in action.

“While they do value other banks of videos, they really wanted to see Long Beach teachers doing Long Beach work,” Seki said. “So that’s what we’re creating.”

Finally, a tab labeled “communities” allows teachers to join a range of online groups moderated by the district. They can also form and access their own groups through Google+ and other external networks.

To be sure, the cycle of goal-setting, learning, teaching, and reflecting is a fundamental tenet of many teacher-support programs.

But in the real world, where class schedules create conflicts, evaluation rules drown activities like observation in paperwork, and notes eagerly taken at a course seem indecipherable a week later, that cycle often remains an ideal. In that sense, what the myPD system aims to do is make that ideal a fully articulated reality by giving teachers more flexibility and easier access to learning opportunities.

Though the platform is geared toward teachers, principals have an important role to play in it, too.

They can provide feedback to teachers as they create their plans, and they can use the system to highlight courses and resources aligned to teachers’ specific needs.

For instance, a principal wanting to improve academic-language skills among English-language learners could examine student data, identify classrooms where students have the most challenges, and recommend that those teachers sign up for an upcoming course on the topic.

Significantly, though, there’s a firewall. Teachers can decide whether to allow their principals to access their PD profiles—including the specific goals they’ve set for themselves, the student data or peer feedback they’ve added, or how they rate their own progress. As Long Beach officials like to say, the myPD system is not designed for remediation, or to “make” a teacher a professional; it assumes they already are one.

Customization Possibilities

One of the challenges facing Long Beach and other districts participating in the Gates work, Learning Forward’s Hirsh noted, is making sure that teachers’ personalized goals support team-based and school-based goals as well. Partly to address that, Long Beach is starting to train both principals and teachers on how to use smartphones to record videos of teachers in their classrooms, then use myPD to share those videos for feedback and to begin conversations about instruction.

Long Beach officials are optimistic that, even though the myPD system is optional, teachers will come to see it as an invaluable resource. By late August, just three weeks after the system’s soft launch, two-thirds of the district’s certificated staff had logged on at least once.

The real test will come after the busy school year begins.

“I don’t expect it to be embraced right away by everyone, because before it becomes an efficiency, there’s a learning curve involved,” said Nader Twal, the district’s program administrator for the myPD system. “We may not see really robust use until January, February, or the next school year. And that’s OK.”

The effectiveness of new PD initiatives are notoriously difficult to predict, but if myPD becomes the success the district hopes, the possibilities are intriguing. The platform could make it easier for the district to determine which PD activities seem to have the most impact, therefore aiding resource allocation. Once it’s populated with data and information on teachers and their own preferences, the district could try to add algorithms that, like amazon.com, make recommendations on courses and based on users’ past interactions.

For now, the priority is simply getting teachers ready to manage—and broaden—their own PD experiences. And for Linda Cargile, a 6th grade teacher who sat on the design team, that is a liberating idea.

“I like the fact that I’m driving the system,” she said. “I used to get PD from coaches, from administrators. Now, I’m able to get it from other teachers who have expertise, at my school site and at another middle school.”

Contributing Writer Karla Scoon Reid contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2015 edition of Education Week as Long Beach Sets Course to Personalize PD Options

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