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Susan Race Envisions Differentiated Professional Development

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When we heard ASCD had recently appointed Susan Race as Director of Professional Development, we were curious about how she might change the conceptualization and design of their professional development models. We recently asked her about her new role and the direction she will take, as she guides changes in professional development for the field.


In this current climate of high-stakes testing, evaluation of students, teachers, and principals and the implementation of the Common Core Standards, how do you view your role as Director of Professional Development? In what ways will you shape the manner in which ASCD supports our work in the field?

I don't do that in isolation. The great thing is that we have so many fantastic people all across the organization, so I have the opportunity to be part of a collaborative group, to have important conversations and talk about solutions. In terms of my particular role, I'm a practitioner - I am a teacher, I am a principal, I am an assistant superintendent, so I bring that perspective to the larger conversation across the organization. I have decades of experience, but I'm part of a larger conversation with many, many talented and bright educators.

What do you see as educator's biggest needs? How will ASCD provide the support we need?

We often talk about initiative fatigue. It's quite different. Now, I talk about compliance fatigue. When we have conversations here, we have the ability to create an authentic, local, customized solution for individual teachers, groups of teachers, and for districts. The whole conversation is about being able to customize a solution to a particular need. There are many ways to provide solutions and we are mindful of listening carefully to each district's particular, specific needs. We are then able to respond to those specific needs with something that is very authentic to their local situation. That's a big part of our conversation: having that agility and flexibility on our end to put together solutions that are really the right thing for each district.

This localized, customized PD you are talking about, is it something new?

The books and articles in Education Leadership magazines are focused on current topics. These solutions we're familiar with can be translated into districts and schools by working together right in the field on capacity building: you'll get the book, you'll get the article, but we help you to think about it in the big picture. It is our responsibility to provide and develop the tools for the practitioner in the classroom to turn research and theory into practice in the classroom.

How do customized PD solutions work?

I think about it exactly the same way I think about differentiated instruction in the classroom. Each teacher, or groups of teachers learn in different ways; they have particular things that they are working on. This might be part of a collaborative group where they work together to learn and inform their practice. Alternatively, a teacher in a district might have unique needs and be the only one in that school who wants to learn a particular skill, so having an online a-synchronous solution for that teacher is just as important as providing a collaborative tool. Then, if there's a big need in the district that is common across all grade levels in terms of teacher professional development or principal development, we want to be able to communicate with a district and help them arrive at a solution - whether it's a big solution, a group solution, or an individual teacher solution.

There are multiple ways for us to find those solutions. We have regional program managers who have a particular area in the country they work with directly. Our field representatives will actually go in and talk with district leaders. Then, once a district has engaged ASCD, we complete an in-depth needs assessment where we find out exactly what the needs are in the district. Then, we develop a customized solution. We have a faculty at comprised of more than 100 outstanding educators who work with school districts to help lead implementations and onsite professional learning. It is very important to us, and I use these three words - that we help teachers and leaders learn new skills, we help them implement those new skills, and we help them sustain those skills over a period of time that positively affect the quality of education in the classroom. We really want to help educators learn it, implement it and sustain it over time.

Sustaining professional development at the district level is important. What does it require?

That really requires a combination of things. A district could come to us and say, 'you know, we have a need across the district, in every grade level, all teachers. All of our teachers could use some professional development around formative assessment.' We can provide a district-wide initiative on formative assessment. That could involve a layered approach, where all the teachers are taking a PD Online course on formative assessment, and at the same time, our faculty are there providing on-site coaching, mentoring and helping them implement assessment in the classroom in order to sustain that practice over a period of time. The district may also say 'we've identified three other areas, and we have clusters of teachers who went through an observation process, we've identified their questioning and discretion techniques.' This is a great sustainable solution. We can come in and help build a collaborative community of learners around topics like student engagement. The district may also have some teachers who need to individually engage in learning that is specific to their particular practice, and the district needs a solution for that, we can provide that as well.

When we're done building a customized solution for this district, we can provide a high-level district initiative solution, and established clusters of groups of teachers that are identified as interested or wanting to learn more about a particular practice. We have individual teachers who are learning on their own, based on their own needs. That's a really differentiated, customized solution for that particular district that that we believe is sustainable. And we are doing that right now. We have those kinds of things happening across the country in districts.

How do you create solutions for districts that have different needs?

I know that every district is different. Each district has a different culture, a different community and because we have seasoned practitioners in leadership roles at ASCD, we are very wise in creating not only the right plan for that district, but also selecting the right faculty, the folks that are the best match for that particular district. It's very customized, it's very local, and it's very authentic to their needs. Our PD program grows every year and I expect that it's going to get bigger and bigger.

You made reference to differentiating instruction and professional development, where do you see the need for professional development for school leaders, such as principals?

We always talk about teachers - but some of the most important people in the new teacher evaluation systems are principals. The bar has been raised and their ability to go in and observe classroom instruction is extremely important. Principals must understand what good instruction is as well. The teacher evaluation system is going to help us make that shift; it's going to require it, because in order to do those teacher evaluations, principals must understand pedagogies as well as the teachers do. Those teacher evaluation frameworks that were adopted in states and districts in response to the Race to the Top funding requires that principals be able to understand instructional strategies and what they look like in the classroom just as well as the teachers. That shift is going to occur naturally because of the implementation of those frameworks.

In order to support this shift, we offer help with implementation plans and offers coaching for principals. The professional learning, the professional development that's done, is not done just for teachers. It's also done with the principals and the administrators. It's not just instruction, it's also leadership.

What are some of the challenges you have faced as a woman in leadership and what can you offer other women who serve on the path of leadership?

My experience as a woman in leadership is not unlike many other women in leadership positions. You are functioning in a leadership role, you're also managing a family and children and you're trying to keep that balance and do a good job at both of those. That's always been one of the challenges - and now I think that is a challenge of any parent in a leadership role. When I first started my career in administration, it was a challenge to be a woman in that role. Now it can be a challenge to any parent in a leadership role. That's a nice piece to have seen change. The expectations of women in leadership roles have changed to be not quite so unique to the gender.

In addition, women seeking their careers in leadership want to establish credibility, and we want to establish that we are able to do the job. Over the years that I've been in a leadership position, I have learned that I should always be curious, always be willing to learn something new, be a student of leadership, to lead and understand and watch, observe and listen but, at the end of the day, create my own way of being a leader that's authentic to me. As we read books, and there are so many out there right now particularly about women in leadership roles, it's always good to read it and listen to it and take the pieces that are authentic to you. Take pieces of things and create your own recipe of what's successful for you. Knowing what's right for you is very important.

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