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Improving professional development policy – Part 2

Feb 26, 2020

System leaders regularly tell me that they know that professional development (PD) isn’t really having an impact but it is an area that feels impossible to tackle. The policy debate doesn’t help them; it’s generally too high-level and skips over the real problem of PD not impacting teaching and learning. Instead the debate pushes a focus on various formats of PD in schools and different types of collaboration, or on high-level standards for teachers, leaders and for PD itself.

This blog provides a way forward for system leaders by directly tackling the problem with PD head on; to connect it to teaching and learning in classrooms. It’s a large problem that can only be reversed with a comprehensive systematic approach. But I want to make this tangible – system-wide approaches are usually too high-level to result in real improvements in classrooms – so this blog will get into the weeds of connecting PD policy to the classroom.

Four steps were identified in Part 1 of this blog for policymakers and system leaders to improve teacher PD policy in their systems:

Step 1: Understand and clearly define the problem: Why is PD not having the desired impact?

 Step 2: Define policy objectives: Is the current goal of PD policy to improve student learning of the curriculum?

 Step 3: Be clear on what people need to do to improve: Is there clarity on what people need to do to ensure PD is effective in their school?

 Step 4: Structure data, monitoring and evaluation to ensure learning of what is (and is not) working and to simply reinforce what people need to do to improve.

From a change perspective, steps 1 and 2 (discussed in Part 1 of this blog) create clear and precise objectives of what you are trying to achieve and the practices in schools and the system that need to change.  Steps 3 and 4 (discussed in this blog below) provide clarity for what people need to do to achieve these changes, and the support and reinforcement systems that encourage and push individuals to make these changes. In our next blog, we’ll discuss the differences in this approach compared to usual PD policy. All of this builds on our research on PD in high-performing systems (see here and here), to provide tangible steps for system leaders.

Step 3: Be clear on what people need to do to improve

Ambiguity on what people need to do to improve teaching and learning kills policy; people can’t change practices if they don’t know what they are supposed to stop and start doing. To avoid this ambiguity, every high-performing system in the world has articulated some form of an improvement cycle. The improvement cycle by itself is not the panacea to our problems; by itself it is too vague to provide role clarity. Systems that have improved have used the improvement cycle to identify the sequence of actions and decision-making needed to continuously improve teaching and learning. Step 3 follows this process.

Previous blogs have discussed improvement cycles, presenting simple steps that educators are familiar with to continuously improve teaching and learning:

  1. Assess student learning needs
  2. Examine teacher practice
  3. Plan a school response, including how PD will improve the teaching and learning issues identified in steps 1 and 2
  4. Take action by implementing the plan and undertaking the PD identified in step 3
  5. Review impact, including how PD improved the identified teaching and learning issues. At the end of the cycle, there should be clear evaluative information of how PD succeeded and failed to improve teaching and learning in the identified issues, and implications for future PD investments.

To create role clarity for people in your system, it is important to think of the improvement cycle as a sequential series of actions and decision-making required in schools to continuously improve teaching and learning. PD is part of the cycle (steps 3 and 4), but it is the surrounding steps that make the PD effective, so we need to create clarity on all steps and work through them carefully. How do we do this? I have found that it is imperative to convene a group of leaders in your system to work through four questions:

  1. What should happen in schools at each stage of the improvement cycle to ensure PD leads to continuous improvement in teaching and learning of the curriculum?
  2. What should happen at each level of the system to enable these practices in schools? This includes identifying high quality experts and PD providers in critical areas to recommend to schools
  3. Who does what? This question defines roles and responsibilities in schools and across the system for the changes identified in questions 1 and 2.
  4. How will we know? For example, how will a school principal know if changes in teaching and learning are occurring from PD? How will the principal manager know if a principal is making the right decisions for PD? These questions also form the basis for data, reporting and accountability policies discussed in step 4

When people first work through these questions, they normally create long lists of things people must do to ensure school improvement. For role clarity, we must prioritise a few key actions and decisions for people in each step. We have worked though these questions in other blogs so I won’t repeat it here.

Step 4: Structure data, monitoring and evaluation

Step 4 shapes the support and reinforcements necessary for sustained behavioural change. The best way to do this is to incorporate the sequence of actions and decision-making identified in Step 3 into the heart of school improvement planning and reporting.

School leaders are inundated with initiatives from the system and from private providers, but the thing they will always focus on is their school plan, especially when it is an integral part of a system’s reporting and data collection. Of course, if the system doesn’t care about the school plan then neither will school leaders. But when the system is working well, a school principal’s ambitions and vision for the school are captured in their school plan. It shows how each school will improve, making it an ideal way to change the practice of school leaders to improve PD.

Focusing on school planning and reporting has three other main benefits to improve the change process:

  1. In-school implementation and communication: the school plan is the best way for school leaders to communicate to their colleagues and implement changes in school practice to improve PD. The school plan is the vehicle for school leaders to clearly articulate and communicate changes in roles and responsibilities within the school to change practice, to communicate what PD we are doing and why.
  2. Role clarity for principal managers: the school plan is their entry point into discussions with the school principals they work with. So, changes to school planning help not only redefine roles in schools to improve PD, but also the role of principal managers. This is essential for achieving change at scale.
  3. Improved system and school leader training: effective leadership programs use a system’s school planning documentation in action learning projects to train school and system leaders. This builds a common understanding of, and the capability to enact, the actions and decision-making that you identified in Step 3 for PD to improve teaching and learning (we will discuss leadership training in future blogs but an example of our work researching these programs is here).

Improving the impact of these three areas is always good, but importantly we are being specific to shape these three areas to support and reinforce the particular actions and decision-making identified in Step 3. This is essential for making PD improve teaching and learning at scale.

This leads to the question of what should the changes in school planning and reporting actually look like? In a nutshell, school planning needs to reinforce the actions and decision-making in the improvement cycle you detailed in Step 3 and this is also the easiest way to format the school planning and reporting documentation in Step 4. How you do this is obviously up to you but to illustrate what this can look like, an example of school reporting for each step of the cycle is below:

This is obviously illustrative and reflects our work in a number of systems. For a real-life example you can look at the Surrey school district in British Columbia. They have done a lot of good work in this space that has informed our work. They have a transparent planning process you can see here.

In terms of the process for how to do this, we have found it useful to co-construct this with leaders at each level of the system, especially with principal managers. This builds support and ownership but also injects the required expertise and knowledge of how things operate on the ground. This is most important in determining the detail of the school planning documentation and the supporting guidance for school leaders and teachers (which is critical – otherwise the school planning documentation is too confusing). It is also a great process for understanding how your system really operates.

Note: I have used the term principal managers in this and other blogs to refer to those positions in the system that work with school principals. These roles have different titles in each system so I am using principal manager as an umbrella term for those people in a system who are often situated in district or regional offices who work with a group of schools to improve performance.

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