The Key to Effective Schools: Sustainable, Scalable Professional Development Committees Driven by School Leaders and School Staffs

It is amazing to me that very successful entrepreneurs decide to pour money into poorly designed educational initiatives using a logic that they would never use in the world of business.

Mark Zuckerberg poured $100 million into an ill-fated plan to “rescue” Newark. A toxic superintendent, an angry parent citizenry, all documented in the newly released “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools” by Dale Russakoff.

“The Prize” may well be one of the most important books on education to come along in years. It serves as a kind of corrective to the dominant narrative of school reformers across the country.

A lesser reporter might have succumbed to the seduction of such intimate access to the rich and powerful, but Russakoff maintains a clear-eyed distance, her observations penetratingly honest and incisive to what she sees and what she hears. I suspect some may have regretted letting Russakoff in. We couldn’t have asked for a better guide.

The Gates Foundation provides the Hillsborough School District (Tampa-St Petersburg) with $100 million for a pay-for-performance plan negotiated with the local union.

Aside from the flaws within the efforts in Newark and Florida, the plans were not sustainable. Neither Newark nor Hillsborough had the dollars to continue the “innovations” or “reforms” after the grant dollars were exhausted.

Scattered around districts there are excellent innovative programs, frequently the programs are successful due to the local teachers/school leaders; however. the programs are not scalable,

In others words, there are no magic bullets, Gates or Zuckerberg dollars, to create charter schools or to urge teachers to “teach better” by dangling dollars, are fated to fail.

The quality of the teacher is universally accepted as crucial. Yes, poverty risk load factors impact student achievement (See Ed Week report on Center for NYC Affairs research here); and easing the risk load factors is vital; however, improving teacher competency, regardless of external factors, unfortunately, is rarely emphasized as a key to student progress.

How do you “make teachers better?”

In “The Sport’s Gene” (2013) David Epstein explores whether nature or nurture produces great athletes, and, concludes, they both impact success. Some teachers come from a long line of teachers, grew up in households in which inquiry was the standard, the road to becoming a teacher was a natural path. A few are so effective so quickly we wonder about a “teaching gene.” Innate talent or DNA?

… we often confuse innate talent with spirit or effort. Even traits like desire may arise from DNA, but that does not mean they come down to any single gene. Whether it’s running faster, standing taller or jumping higher, multiple genetic pathways may lead there.

You may or may not accept Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours of deliberate practice” rule; however, well-constructed professional development with multiple opportunities for practice improves teacher performance.

Increasing the effectiveness of professional learning is the leverage point with the greatest potential for strengthening and refining the day-to-day performance of educators.

Teachers thrive on opportunities to learn, graduate school is just the beginning, and truly great teachers are lifelong learners, always seeking to improve their practice. In the new world of the Common Core elementary school teachers, trained as generalists, are often lacking in mathematics expertise. Teachers jump at opportunities to explore the complex world of Common Core math.

Many math teachers around the country have adjusted their expectations for students as a result of the Common Core State Standards. But a pilot professional-development program is going above and beyond the new benchmarks by teaching small groups of elementary teachers in three states to teach a math skill that’s typically been reserved for high school and college students.

In too many schools the leaders drive the so-called professional development. In New York City the collective bargaining agreement requires that every school form a professional development committee.

The contract requires that each school form a staff development committee to collaboratively review, consider and develop the professional development that is offered during the new time set aside for PD. We have created this new section of the website to support the committee’s work.

The powers that be should be supporting professional development committees at the school level. How can schools assess the effectiveness of ideas/programs/ that they develop? How can superintendents support professional development committees? Can school teams be trained in action research? Effective school leaders create situations that maximize teacher effectiveness; they lead by example.

The very best schools are constantly involved in cycles of self-renewal, they are never satisfied. Teachers search for new “tools” for their education tool kit. School leaders prod, ask the hard questions, and encourage exploration. Teachers should not be “afraid to fail,” you learn by trying new ideas.

Teachers do not respond to merit pay schemes, teaching is not a skill that you can turn on and turn off. The offer of “pieces of silver,” pay for performance, simply is not a sensible idea, and, in spite of endless programs, research does not support any form of merit pay.

Mark Zuckerberg should have placed a Teacher Center in every school, staffed by a highly experienced educator and supported by the folks at Central and the union; nothing sexy, nothing dramatic, just an initiative supported by tons of research.


One response to “The Key to Effective Schools: Sustainable, Scalable Professional Development Committees Driven by School Leaders and School Staffs

  1. I largely agree with you, particularly about putting a Teacher Center in every school. Unfortunately we go through long doldrums in the profession where professional development is done by all the wrong people for all of the wrong reasons. Occasionally a teacher comes on the scene who is doing miraculous things and we need to find a way to make it safe, advantageous, and convenient for them to share with others. Formulaic and distilled curriculum generally doesn’t jive in the classroom because learning and teaching is personal and about passion. Your essay is a step in the right direction. Attempts to manufacture success generally results in torture.
    We need to figure out a way that our best and our brightest can truly lead us out of the corporate adulation years.


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