Group Shot of Office WorkersProfessional development should be based on teacher readiness.

When it comes to professional development for teachers, most educators follow the soup du jour model. As principals, you’ve seen a new topic introduced every year based on the latest hot book, conference, or theory. School-based data rarely drives professional development. For the most part, teachers are treated equally, regardless of their particular proficiencies. Even “differentiated instruction” doesn’t seem all that different for each teacher. A master teacher is often required to sit through a session much better suited for a novice, and vice versa. And there is rarely any follow-up to determine whether the training led to improvements in the classroom. Does that make sense? We don’t think so.

The goal of professional development should be to increase student achievement by improving the performance of teachers. However, it is unlikely that all teachers will have the same areas of need. Teachers who are not proficient in a given strategy should receive specific assistance in that area until mastery is achieved. Likewise, teachers who are proficient in one strategy should receive assistance in another strategy that is aligned with their area of need. Data should be collected during multiple classroom observations to determine mastery. Mastery of one strategy indicates the “readiness” of the teacher to move to another strategy. Professional development for each strategy should be differentiated based on the readiness level of the teacher.

Case Study: William Floyd High School

In the spring of 2013, the instructional leaders at William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach, NY, decided to deploy the differentiated professional development model to improve teaching and learning.

First, we gathered baseline data to determine the overall status of our school in regard to teaching and learning. The main question that we wanted answered was, “Are the students learning what they are supposed to be learning?” We specifically turned our attention toward the communication of objectives, the level of student of engagement, and the use of checking for understanding. We used a “Learning Walk” instrument to collect and analyze classroom walk-through data. The indicators gathered during these walk-throughs were directly aligned with the various components of the formal evaluation system used by the district.

In an effort to develop a common vision regarding effective teaching and learning, administrators and teacher leaders performed walk-throughs in small groups. At first, the analysis of each visit varied from one observer to the next. However, as the number of observations increased, so did the inter-rater reliability. Administrators were trained to use the Learning Walk instrument and to review the various online reports that were immediately available after each observation. Teacher leaders observed the use of the instrument while visiting classes so they could offer suggestions for improvement and be able to explain it to the other teachers. Summaries were automatically updated with each entry. We reviewed the “labeling” for every entry made by the observers in an effort to increase inter-rater reliability. Administrators and teacher leaders were frequently given the opportunity to provide feedback regarding the entire process.

The results of the initial collection of data showed that the classrooms at William Floyd High School were similar to traditional classrooms found in many other secondary schools. Objectives were rarely shared with students who sat passively or copied notes from the board. Only a few students answered questions as they called out or were called upon.

Determining Areas of Need

To improve the delivery of instruction, we decided to provide differentiated professional development and continue to gather data to monitor the success of the training. Since classroom management was not an area of need, the leaders decided to start with the development and communication of objectives. Teacher leaders provided professional development for the rest of the faculty. Rather than employ the typical lecture-style presentation, teachers modeled effective instructional techniques. Following the workshop, the administrative team performed more Learning Walks to determine whether the workshop produced meaningful changes and to identify those individuals who demonstrated mastery. Mastery of various strategies was determined when teachers effectively used a strategy 80 percent of the time during multiple observations.

Teachers who had difficulty with planning and communicating objectives joined a focus group with specific supports for improvement in that strategy. These teachers did not move to another topic (focus group) until they had mastered the art of planning and communicating objectives. Teachers who demonstrated satisfactory performance with planning/objectives moved on to join a focus group for student engagement/group checking for understanding. This practice advanced along a continuum that ultimately included focus groups for differentiated instruction, rigor, etc. All professional development was performed using a “flipped classroom” approach. Prior to each professional development session, teachers were asked to read an article that was assigned to them. During the session, each teacher described the contents of their article and shared strategies they use in their classroom. The goal was for teachers to talk to other teachers regarding the delivery of instruction.

Documented Improvement

From the fall of 2013 to the spring of 2015, we documented the following improvements:

  • Administrators performed more than 1,600 walk-throughs compared to a handful the previous year.
  • The communication of objectives to students increased by 59 percentage points.
  • The communication of objectives that met the guidelines (measurable, aligned, etc.) increased by 82 percentage points.
  • Student engagement increased by 56 percentage points.
  • Copying from the board and passively watching the teacher decreased by 24 percentage points and were no longer the dominant student behaviors.
  • Thirty-five teachers volunteered to receive additional training regarding objectives in an effort to move to the engagement focus group.
  • One hundred teachers demonstrated mastery of communicating objectives/planning and joined the engagement focus groups.
  • Thirty-three teachers demonstrated mastery of engagement/formative assessment and moved to the differentiated instruction/rigor focus groups.
  • The anonymous comments from the teachers who participated in the groups were extremely positive. Teachers said they were thankful for the opportunity to discuss instruction with their colleagues.

In the fall of 2013, all teachers were working on communicating objectives and planning. Currently, 75 percent of teachers have demonstrated mastery of that strategy. More than 20 percent of those teachers have also mastered student engagement/group checking for understanding and are in the differentiated instruction/rigor focus groups. 

Barry Beers, EdD, a former NASSP Principal of the Year, is a senior consultant for the Urban Learning and Leadership Center and the Learning Driven Schools, LLC, in Williamsburg, VA.
Barbara Butler, BS, MS, is the principal at William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach, NY.

Sidebar: Making It Work

How principals can deploy differential professional development for teachers:

  • Gather data to determine areas of instructional need for individual teachers and teachers as a whole before planning professional development.
  • Provide differentiated professional development that is based on the readiness level of each teacher.
  • Gather data after differentiated professional development sessions to determine the effectiveness of the program and to identify future needs.