Sustainable school improvement requires principals who understand and support best practices, a faculty that is willing and able to improve, and learner-centered professional development experiences that address what the school is positioned to improve.

There’s a synergy among these components, as you’ll see with the case study of P.S. 204, a small elementary school in the Bronx that enrolls more than 600 students in grades preK–5. The school supports a diverse student population with an average class size of 32. Approximately 20 percent of the students are in special education, 9 percent are English-​language learners, and 99 percent qualify for free lunch. Sixty students are currently living in shelters.

In the last five years, the school has made lasting investments in its own capacity to improve the quality of student learning. While not all changes are distributed evenly throughout the school, the legacy of professional development experiences that ended two years ago is evident in the values and practices of teachers we see there today.

Aligned Internal and External Beliefs

Our organization, Learner-Centered Initiatives (LCI), provided professional development experiences for teachers in this school over a four-year period (from 2010 to 2014). The impetus for the relationship was a conversation between the school principal and one of our professional developers centered on the shared belief that making lasting improvements in the quality of teaching and learning requires a comprehensive multiyear commitment.

Each year, our staff member worked with most teachers for several days. Staff worked initially on unit design, but later included authentic assessment design; scaffolding strategies for ELLs and special-ed students; rubrics and checklists as instructional tools; and questions to improve students’ thinking. The changes in our work stemmed from the ongoing diagnosis of teachers’ and students’ needs based on their work, its alignment to the teachers’ questions, and the principal’s priorities.

Marcy Glattstein, the principal who engaged LCI, was a seasoned veteran who believed that students’ learning depended on her teachers’ abilities to design quality curriculum and assessment for diverse student needs. Despite several district-wide reorganizations that articulated different priorities for schools, including a focus on published curricula rather than teacher-developed units, this principal never wavered from the centrality of teachers’ knowledge in practice. She secured needed resources for teacher learning and participated in such learning herself.

Her clear vision, goals, and practices served as a lens for decisions about how to navigate mandates and contributed greatly to the sustainability of teachers’ learning over time. “Quality professional development takes hold when it becomes a part of the culture of the school, when curriculum designed by teachers meets the needs of diverse learners, and when teachers use protocols for looking at student work to revise the curriculum based on changing needs,” says Glattstein, who served as principal at P.S. 204 until 2014.

She also promoted distributed leadership, cultivating leaders who shared her vision and could uphold it. Her relationship with staff was supportive, but she also held teachers accountable through clear expectations and ongoing feedback. Unlike other city schools, this school had little turnover during the period of our involvement.

The principal who took over the school in 2014 continued to support teachers’ curriculum work even after our organization ended its formal role in the school. We know this because while new teachers have joined the staff, they are working side by side with teachers who were at the school during the initiative and have continued to refine the work we implemented years before.

Aligned Beliefs and Learner-centered PD Experiences

Learning experiences that are grounded in teachers’ needs, coupled with the expectation that teachers will implement what they learn to refine their practice, can promote the sustainability of what is learned. Teachers were able to build on what they understood and acquire new knowledge and skills—then refine them—based on feedback. They analyzed exemplary practices, compared their own work to them, explored strategies and tools for improving their repertoire, and analyzed their own and each other’s student work.

“My vision of quality teaching and learning includes providing a school culture in which teachers make adjustments to curriculum as needed to increase coherence and CCLS-aligned practices across the school,” says Amanda Blatter, current principal of P.S. 204. “As an instructional leader, I need to stay connected to each unit and help teachers tap resources they can use to push students to their highest potential.”

Sustainable learning also requires that everyone within the system apply the same criteria to the assessment of teachers’ practice and resulting student learning. To support such alignment, LCI engaged staff in classroom walkthroughs to practice giving and getting feedback on the instruction that grounded their curriculum and assessments.

Changes Stemming From Internal and External Alignment

Two years after our work was completed, we visited the school to determine whether the practices we promoted were evident in the discourse, behavior, and work of educators and students. We asked staff, “What are you designing or implementing?” and then probed into the rationale behind what was described. The discourse of teachers and students revealed strong evidence of many of the practices we had promoted. For example, a first-grade teacher spoke about the degree to which the professional learning with LCI enabled her to seek greater coherence in her practice.

“The LCI work stayed with me because it was teacher-designed, and Common Core- and Danielson-aligned. It focused on student engagement,” said one fourth-grade teacher. “What LCI contributed was cohesion with our units.”

We promoted specific practices, such as checklists and rubrics, as instructional tools. Teachers use them to communicate their expectations, scaffold learning, give feedback to students, encourage self- and peer assessment, and assess students’ progress.

Rubric descriptors that are evident in the work are underlined to help students see the connection between their work and the expectations for quality. As one third-grade teacher said, “Because we use rubrics and checklists with concrete anchors, the kids are very clear on what the expectations are.”

In all the grades, we also saw a strong investment in questions to promote students’ engagement with texts and ideas, something that LCI promoted. “We’re exploring themes of community, family, and asking the question: ‘Where do I fit in?’ ” said a kindergarten teacher. “We use our focus on the standards, our work with questioning, and our essential questions. We’re trying to open students up to more thinking and questioning possibilities.”

Challenges to Sustainability

Even though there was widespread use of practices related to scoring tools and questions, other practices were unevenly distributed throughout the school in the teachers’ work. In the upper grades, practices around questioning, assessment, and feedback permeated the curriculum beyond individual units and impacted students’ everyday experiences. In the lower grades, individual teachers referred to these practices but used them in isolation. According to the current administration, the differences are due to the team’s composition and group dynamics, their history, their investment in their original units, and their commitment to improvement.

Such differences raise some questions about the impact of professional development experiences on teachers’ work. These include:

  • How can we structure curriculum unit work to increase the likelihood that the practices embedded in the units will be internalized by all who use them?
  • How can we promote shared accountability for the work, knowing that not all teachers who implement units participate in their design or are equally vested in their creation?
  • What other planned interventions or processes are needed so that the impact of our professional development work is sustained over time?

These questions remind us that sustainable improvement is about what is institutionalized and how deeply it is shared. It requires alignment among professional development interventions and their facilitation, and the expectations of leaders and teachers. It also demands that we consider everyone’s readiness, capacity, and experiences, and that we remember that the culture of a school is far more than the sum of its individuals.

Giselle O. Martin-Kniep is the founder and president of Learner-Centered Initiatives, Ltd., in Garden City, NY. Becca Shubert is a research assistant at Learner-Centered Initiatives, Ltd.