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Structured Protocols Aid Professional Development


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.


I think, it is good idea to provide the professional-learning communities for teachers.

We learned the lesson long ago that merely assigning teachers to teams does not mean that educator and student performance improves. Expectations for what occurs within teams are essential to ensuring that time is spent on those practices that are most likely to improve educator practice and increase student learning. There are many styles of protocols. Educators committed to learning teams will benefit most from protocols that prioritize identifying and addressing learning goals for educators based on an assessment of student needs as part of the team cycle of improvement.

Stephen, thanks for the commentary on our ESJ article. A full accounting of the AERJ scale-up study referenced in the ESJ article is available if you are interested. One of the conclusions of our AERJ article referenced your summary of Stecher et al., 2008 as follows:

In possibly related findings, a recent study of the effects of standards-based instruction and accountability pressures suggest they have galvanized increased reports of instructional changes (Hamilton, Stecher, Russell, Marsh, & Miles, 2008; Sawchuk, 2008). However, most of the variance in reported innovation is within schools suggesting a majority of teachers are responding individually rather than collaborating to converge on effective practices. Our study suggests that provided the right conditions, leadership, and protocol, teachers will make use of collaborative time in ways that improve achievement. Providing time for collaboration and supportive administration alone appears to be insufficient to secure the desired outcomes.

Finally, the LT program described in the ESJ and AERJ articles was originally known as Getting Results (GR), which was housed at a university. Pearson acquired the Getting Results program, supported Ermeling's research that extended GR to secondary schools, and re-named it Learning Teams or LT. Since then the LT program evaluated in our studies has been expanded by Pearson to five more states and 190+ more schools. I make a point of this because it represents a relatively rare example of an evidence-based program adopted and marketed nationally by a commercial education company.

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