Professional Learning in the News

Celebrating Our Public Schools

Public Schools Week is February 24-28, 2020! This is a great opportunity to showcase all we do to support Kansas kids! The national Learning First Alliance (LFA) organization, which includes Learning Forward, has organized many celebrations for the week. It’s a week for school board members, educators, and parents across the U.S. to highlight the importance of public education in their communities and with lawmakers. Nine out of 10 students in the United States – and Kansas – attend public schools.

How might your district/organization celebrate? LFA has created a Toolkit with many activities that you might use/modify for your district. The Toolkit also includes sample Twitter and Facebook posts along with images suitable for those platforms and for Instagram. If you’d like to use photos of local students in your posts, make sure to comply with privacy protections. Districts might host school visits for community members and media; educators might send thank-you messages to lawmakers for their support of public education, and parents could write letters to the editor of the local newspaper.

Statehouse activities on February 26 will include Senate and House resolutions honoring Public Schools Week along with displays by KASB, KSDE, KLFA and other public-school advocates.

“While many of us know that our local public schools are doing a wonderful job with our students, we may not take the time to tell our teachers and administrators we stand with them and the work they do,” said Kansas Learning First Alliance (KLFA) Chair Dr. Laurie Curtis. “Public Schools Week is the perfect opportunity to offer our support and make a public statement of our confidence in the educators in our state.”

Again…..advocate for our Public Schools!

Six Features of Effective Professional Development
Why Following Them May Still Fall Short of Teachers’ Needs 
by Emily Perry

A consensus is emerging from numerous research studies about what makes teacher professional development (PD) effective. The Department for Education used the characteristics of effective PD, according to these studies, as the basis for its Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development. Many organisations now use similar sets of characteristics to design and evaluate PD activities.  

However, we should be wary of turning these characteristics into a checklist. Many PD programmes have these characteristics of effective PD, but don’t lead to positive change. We should remind ourselves that PD is more likely to be effective if it has these characteristics, but we can’t be certain that any of them is essential in improving teachers’ practice, nor that combining them leads to greater impact.

Here are six characteristics that studies agree make for effective PD, what they really tell us, and what they don’t.

1. Collaborative
Teachers working together makes PD effective. Through collaboration, teachers share ideas and challenge each other. But it isn’t always the case that PD must be collaborative to be effective. Many teachers experience PD as individuals, through reading or online resources.

In a recent critique of the evidence used in many studies of PD, Sam Sims and Harry Fletcher-Wood applied a helpful analogy: toothpaste is often flavoured with mint, and toothpaste is shown to reduce tooth decay. Does mint-flavouring therefore reduce tooth decay? No: the mint flavour makes the toothpaste more palatable so that people are more likely to use it. Similarly, collaborative PD may be more enjoyable and engaging, but this doesn’t mean collaboration is a cause of effectiveness. A similar uncertainty about cause and effect might be applied to the other characteristics.

2. Challenging through input from outside expertise
Outside expertise often brings fresh ideas, challenges existing practices and broadens teachers’ perspectives. However, input from outside experts varies in quality. In my own research I’m exploring how these PD facilitators develop and learn their practice. Facilitators combine their teaching expertise with other, less tangible, skills such as building positive working relationships with teachers and modelling new classroom practices. My aim is to understand how we can support facilitators to learn and improve these skills, so that their input can be more consistently beneficial.

3. Subject-specific
Subject-specific is more likely to be effective than generic PD, presumably because it relates more closely to teachers’ classroom practice. However, defining ‘subject’ is not always straightforward. For primary teachers and teachers who work in special schools, ‘subject’ covers multiple areas of practice. Instead of thinking in terms of subject, PD must be contextualised in each teacher’s own classroom practice. For example, while all teachers in a school might attend PD focused on metacognition, each teacher should then be supported to implement new strategies in their own classroom practice.

4. Supported by school leaders
Teachers and school leaders need to buyin to the intended outcomes of any PD activity. School leaders sometimes use generic, whole-school PD as a way of meeting school development aims. One reason why this is less likely to be effective is that it lacks contextualisation, as mentioned above. Another is that teachers may not support the intended outcomes. It may not be the development those teachers need at that time. Teachers have different learning needs at different stages of their careers; we should develop better systems for identifying individual learning needs and matching them with appropriate PD.

5. Active
PD is more likely to lead to changes in practice if teachers are able to experience new techniques and apply them in their classrooms. But this is true only if an input leads directly to a change in practice, and learning is more complex than this. Many inputs from PD don’t lead to changes in practice, while some changes in practice occur without any formalised input. So, rather than focusing on changing practice, PD could aim to change teachers’ beliefs about teaching. This is a more useful way of thinking about ‘active’ PD, since changes in teachers’ beliefs are more likely where teachers apply their learning, trial activities and evaluate evidence of changes in pupil outcomes.

6. Sustained
PD is more effective than a single event. However, teachers often change their practice following a single conversation with a colleague or a resource picked from an online resource bank. We shouldn’t insist, therefore, that all PD activities involve multiple sessions; this is not always necessary. Remember that each professional activity teachers engage with, from their own reflections on their lessons to long-term programmes of PD, forms part of their ongoing learning. PD should be seen as a sustained process, made up of multiple activities, not as a single event.

Ditch the checklist
Teachers have varied development needs that change throughout their career. We could improve our approaches to PD by focusing on the teacher, rather than on the process. If we can build effective systems, which help teachers to identify their individual learning needs and support them to respond to these, we may find we have significantly more impact on the profession. In teaching, we don’t reduce classroom activity to a checklist of ‘what works’; instead we draw on our deep understanding, knowledge and skills of subject knowledge, pedagogy, communication and our relationships with individual students. In professional development we should do the same.


6 K-12 Trends to Watch in 2019
by Roger Riddell, Linda Jacobson, Jessica Campisi

With the events of the past year as prologue,  school climate and culture, new leadership models, and accountability, among others, will dominate the industry in the coming year.     

In the past year, the remainder of states finalized their Every Student Succeeds Act accountability plans, the Trump administration’s Federal Commission on School Safety held a number of listening sessions and issued its final recommendations, and schools continued rethinking approaches around expanding career-based educational opportunities for students as well as their own approaches to professional development.

Using that as prologue, 2019 is guaranteed to bring the next steps taken on all these fronts — from addressing the role of school climate and culture in safety to embracing new leadership models and teacher agency. Here are the six trends administrators should keep on their radar in the coming year.

Improvements in School Climate and Culture
A running theme across conferences Education Dive attended in 2018 was an increased level of attention on school climate and culture in efforts to boost educational equity, ranging from disciplinary practices to digital citizenship in device-driven learning environments and beyond.

Given that many states’ accountability plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act include metrics of climate and culture to assess school performance — including absenteeism and suspension rates, as well as general climate surveys — it stands to reason that it’s a hot topic. And it hasn’t exactly not been top of mind for administrators for some time now, either.

As concerns have risen over the rash of school shootings across the nation annually, discussion of the role of climate and culture in safety frequently tries to break through the prevailing calls to harden security measures. Social-emotional learning initiatives have aimed to not just equip students with soft skills that will benefit them in their future careers, but to also develop a sense of empathy and compassion for their peers.

Coupled with improvements to school mental health offerings, this approach is eyed as a preventative measure, rather than hardened security that’s designed to react when the worst-case scenario occurs and often leaves a school feeling more like a correctional facility than a warm, welcoming learning environment.

Additionally, these efforts have included steps taken away from “zero-tolerance” discipline policies in favor of restorative measures like the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) model to scale back the number of suspensions for minor behavioral infractions. Those harsher practices have tended to disproportionately impact students of color and those with disabilities, contributing to the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Also key in rethinking these practices for some schools have been initiatives that train school resource officers on SEL and mentoring rather than simply serving as disciplinarians within the school building.

With the recent final report from the Trump administration’s School Safety Commission ruffling some feathers with recommendations for hardened security (including armed school staff) and a scaling back of the previous administration’s guidance on rethinking discipline, the actions schools and districts ultimately take, as well as their impact on climate and culture, are worth keeping an eye on.

Public Investment in Early Childhood Education
As researchers continue to seek answers about the most effective ways to support young children’s learning, leaders from the education, philanthropy and business sectors are looking to move the field beyond what states and the federal government are able to fund with public dollars.

In November, for example, foundations and entrepreneurial organizations, such as the Omidyar Network (named for eBay founder Pierre Omidyar) and the LEGO Foundation, came together with Sesame Workshop, the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child for the first Early Futures event. The new Promise Venture Studio, which supports for-profit and nonprofit startups in the early learning field, also led the two-day gathering.

“This new community will examine opportunities to build new capacity in the early learning field as it enters a critical next stage,” organizers of the event wrote in this article. Shifting demographics, with the majority of the nation’s children under five being nonwhite, and changing early experiences, such as children growing up with both parents working and living in a digital world, are among the new pressures placed on providers and school districts serving young children.

Glimpses of how the world of corporate philanthropy has taken interest in young children were seen in 2018 with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announcing a $2 billion plan to fund full scholarships for low-income children to “Montessori-inspired” preschools. And creative models for delivering and improving services for young children are receiving support from the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at Harvard University.

The question is whether public-private partnerships will develop from any of the models getting their start with support from investors and foundations — and if the next Head Start or Sesame Street is hiding among them.

Expansion of Leadership Models
From hiring school business managers to creating more opportunities for teacher leadership, schools will likely continue to experiment with and foster new models for leading schools — a trend that is largely driven by the growing realization that principals can’t be effective instructional leaders if they are also responsible for everything else that takes place on a school campus.

Projects, such as the Wallace Foundation’s effort to redesign principal training programs and New America’s work on how school leaders are making this shift, provide states and districts with guidance in these areas and will likely spur more state and local efforts to provide administrators with professional development focusing on instruction.

From learning how to better support teachers working with young children or how to attract and retain highly qualified teachers in STEM-subject areas, efforts to train principals to lead instruction — and evaluating them on how successful they are — will grow more targeted, depending on a school’s unique needs and challenges. 

Efforts to Boost Teacher Agency and Bottom-Up Leadership
As noted at above, providing teachers with more opportunities to lead is part and parcel of new school leadership models. Just as federal policymakers are returning more decision-making power to states and districts under ESSA, states and districts are realizing that the people who likely have the best ideas of what works in the classroom are those on the front lines.

In November, seven principals shared with us how their roles and responsibilities are changing — with several detailing ways they had expanded the distribution of those roles to teacher leaders or created committees to give educators more voice in decisions. At the core of these efforts is a simple principle: When everyone feels that they’ve had an opportunity to voice their concerns and influence a decision, the buy-in will be greater at the ground floor and a new initiative is likely to roll more smoothly.

Teacher agency is important beyond just leadership, though: It’s critical for innovation.

Stringent accountability measures dictated from the top down, no matter how well-intentioned, can often have the impact of stifling efforts to try new approaches. The fear of punitive measures in the event of failure can simply be too strong. However, magic often happens when the freedom to experiment is granted as exemplified by New Hampshire’s competency-based ed advancementsGeorgia teacher Valerie Lewis’ “Ninja Warrior”-inspired “Ed Obstacles” challenge, and schools participating in the Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative.

Inspiring Change Through Accountability
Whether it’s at a federal, state or local level, there’s an increasing emphasis on holding people or entities responsible for their results. In some cases, that’s to encourage improvement or advancement, and in others, it’s to put an end to what’s no longer working. Regardless, it already has, and will continue to, inspire change.

The nation’s primary federal education policy, the ESSA, rests on holding schools accountable for their students’ performance in a more holistic sense. Every state was required to devise an accountability plan, using five selected indicators, as a way to survey which of its schools were meeting expectations and which were underperforming. All 50 states, along with Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, had their plans approved by the end of September, and each is working to implement these new report cards. The effects are likely to be seen in the coming months.

Individuals and groups are also spotlighting issues in attempts to hold districts and others accountable for change. The educators who took part in 2018’s wave of walkouts, protests and strikes — which are starting back up in Los Angeles — did so to highlight widespread issues, including a lack of school funding and too-low salaries.

Meanwhile, in a response to a number of school shootings, students and other school community members have taken a stand, demanding that federal, state and local politicians do more to combat gun violence. And at a more localized level, select bodies — ranging from the state of Rhode Island to Boston Public Schools — have faced legal action.

Advocacy has become more prevalent in education as a means to boost accountability, and the issues mentioned above continue to develop in 2019.

Creating More Professional Development Opportunities
Schools’ primary functions are to give students a place to learn and to provide them with the tools they need to succeed. But making that happen isn’t possible without the educators, administrators and other school leaders who work in each district. And as schools continue to struggle with finding and retaining high-quality teachers — schools started this fall with 100,000 classrooms that had inadequately certified or inexperienced educators — there’s an increasing demand for opportunities to improve teacher engagement, morale and effectiveness.

Enter professional development.

Just as there’s been a revamp of learning methods for students and a push for different types of learning models — fewer standardized tests, more personalized learning and 1:1 device programs, to name a few — officials are looking for new ways to deliver professional development to educators. A report published earlier this year found that most existing professional development doesn’t meet federal criteria, further prompting a revamp of how it’s done. The one-size-fits-all solution hasn’t worked, and school leaders are starting to ask educators themselves what does.

Teachers are requesting more professional learning opportunities that are collaborative, personalized and relevant, as well as opportunities that can be offered in multiple formats. Similar to their students, teachers want to be able to choose whether they watch a webinar, attend an in-person workshop or try their hand at student teaching. They want options that acknowledge their strengths and help them improve their weaker areas. And they want to interact with their co-workers and have a voice in their work environment, which can make or break the decision between keeping a job and leaving.

Students need teachers who are able and enthusiastic about helping them succeed, and teachers need the same positive outlook and training opportunities to fulfill their duties. As mentioned above, improving school climate and culture is a major trend within K-12. Without adequate professional development for educators — who make up a notable portion of a school’s population — creating a positive environment is less conceivable. 


‘Too Often, Teachers Deny Their Own Expertise’: John Hattie on the Educator Mindframe
by Alix Mammina

After 20 years of researching student achievement, John Hattie thinks he’s found the factor that most affects students’ success: how educators think about teaching and learning.

In his research, Hattie has synthesized the results of over 1,000 meta-studies on more than a quarter billion students to determine the effect that different factors—like teacher professional development, after-school programs, and classroom discussions—have on learning outcomes. A central tenet in Hattie’s work is visible learning—the idea that teachers should view learning through their students’ eyes while helping students see themselves as their own teachers. 

Hattie gave the keynote address at Education Week’s 2018 Leaders to Learn From event on April 12, and later participated in a Facebook Live interview with Commentary Editor Elizabeth Rich.

“We spend far too much time talking about what [teachers] do, as opposed to what they think,” Hattie said during the Facebook Live. “Those moment-by-moment decisions that great teachers make to adjust, to refine, to improve, in light of the impact they have on students, is what the core idea is.”

He further noted that among the top factors that he’s found improve student achievement, most are related to teacher and school leader expertise—including having high expectations, welcoming mistakes as opportunities to learn, and maximizing feedback to teachers about their impact.

In his 2011 book Visible Learning for Teachers, Hattie argued that educators don’t become experts by relying on specific teaching strategies—instead, their success as teachers arises from their constant selfevaluations and the small improvements they make in their everyday classroom work.

In his keynote speech Leaders to Learn From, Hattie emphasized the importance of identifying and fostering expertise among educators.

“We have incredible expertise out there that we don’t use, sometimes because the hierarchy of our school is so dependent on experience and not on expertise,” Hattie said.


If Coaching is so Powerful, Why Aren’t Principals Being Coached?

If instructional coaching is beneficial to teachers, shouldn’t leadership coaching be beneficial to principals? 

In most instructional coaching philosophies the teacher wants to be coached. Instructional coaching expert Jim Knight, someone I work with as a instructional coaching trainer, says that teachers should be the ones to choose to enroll with the coach. Additionally to that, those teachers should be able to choose the goal they want to work on. This initial aspect to the coaching cycle takes a lot of dialogue to get to the heart of why the goal is the best goal for them.

In those cases where a teacher doesn’t know what goal to choose, but wants to do a full instructional coaching cycle, the teacher and coach co-construct the goals together. This may take a baseline observation or a teacher video-taping themselves to look at whether their engagement is authentic or compliant.

According to Knight’s research, coaching is an effective way to provide individualized professional development to teachers because those teachers who choose to be a part of the coaching program are an eager participant in the process. Coaching will help teachers retain up to 90% of what they learned, as opposed to lose 90% when they go to the typical sit-and-get professional development. Knight’s research certainly fits into the research of others who have studied professional development.

For example, Timperley et al (2007) found that the most effect professional development had the following elements.

  • Over a long period of time (three to five years)
  • Involves external experts
  • Teachers are deeply engaged
  • It challenges teachers’ existing beliefs
  • Teachers talk to each other about teaching
  • School leadership supports teachers’ opportunities to learn and provides opportunities within the school structure for this to happen

Leadership support can happen in different ways. In the best case scenario involving school leadership and teachers, a principal would suggest coaching as a way to help any teacher improve. That means teachers who may have a low level of self-efficacy (Bandura) and need assistance or a teacher who is a high flyer and can benefit from a keen eye and effective feedback.

What about principals?
If principals believe that teachers can benefit from high quality coaching, doesn’t that mean that principals can as well? I wonder how many would engage in that type of professional development? Many times the school leader believes that they are supposed to know it all, which is quite possibly why they moved to the principalship. And some principals may believe coaching is for teaching and not for them, which is an interesting dilemma when it comes to who values coaching and why. If coaches are good for teachers, shouldn’t coaching be valuable for leaders too? 

There are leaders who believe that coaching can be just as important for them as it is for teachers. This is the collaborative, growth and innovative mindset leaders should have. If leaders truly believe in being collaborative, they also understand that they have a blind spot (Scharmer) which they lead from on a daily basis, and they may need outside guidance on how to get through that blind spot. For example, a possible blind spot is that they may enter into a situation with a confirmation bias that prevents them from seeing what is really happening in the classroom.

Let’s use this scenario:
A principal may enter into a classroom of a teacher that they don’t necessarily believe is a strong teacher and look for the reasons to support their bias. A coach could help principals understand that they have a bias because that coach is entering without the same confirmation bias.

Additionally, leadership coaches may help leaders understand how they can communicate better with staff, students and parents. They can even help leaders understand how to build collective teacher efficacy, which John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, has found to have an effect size of 1.57.

Practice What We Preach?
Coaching can be very beneficial. I’ve seen the benefits more now than I ever did as a principal because I have had the luxury to work with highly effective coaches around the country. They don’t want the position for status or power, but they do want to coach because they have a goal of helping their peers (build collective efficacy) at the same time they learn from those peers they work with.

The same can be done at the leadership level. Building synergy among leaders and getting them to try new strategies to build collective efficacy among their staff is something coaches can help do, and they often offer an outside perspective because they have worked with many other leaders.

We know from Knight’s research and the research of others including Timperley that professional development, and that’s what coaching is, is a lot stronger when both parties want to be a part of it. If coaching is beneficial to teachers, we can make it better for leaders as well. We just have to have the proper collaborative, growth and innovative mindset to get there.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (September, 2016. Corwin Press) where he explains self-efficacy and how to build collective teacher efficacy. Connect with Peter on Twitter’t_principals_being_coached.html?cmp=SOC-EDIT-FB


Five Ways to Sustain School Change Through Pushback, Struggle and Fatigue

Teaching through projects, interrogating the value of grades, attempting to make learning more meaningful and connected to young people’s lives and interests, thoughtful ways of using technology to amplify and share student work. These are just some of the ways teaching and learning are changing. But moving to these kinds of learning environments is a big shift for many teachers, schools, and districts; it’s hard to sustain change once the shiny newness wears off. That’s when people tend to slip back into old habits, relying on what they know best. The transformation requires a leader who understands how to manage the change process.

“Sustained modes of change can be incredibly meaningful and yield for your community in huge ways, but you have to be incredibly intentional in order to make space for these things to happen,” said Diana Laufenberg at an EduCon 2018 session about how to lead through change. Laufenberg is the executive director of Inquiry Schools, a nonprofit working with schools around the country to make these shifts. She has come to the conclusion that there are five pillars to sustaining change: permission, support, community engagement, accountability and staying the course.


Many educators have become accustomed to working in a suffocating system that doesn’t allow room for their professional judgment or creativity. Leaders have to give teachers permission to try new things in their classrooms in order to gain educator support for the changes. It’s easy to say “give them permission to fail,” but much harder to be clear about exactly what that means in a teacher’s daily life.

“Most of these adults have been successful,” Laufenberg said, “so then when you tell them to try things they’re bad at or not successful at, you need to tell them it’s OK, and give them a structure to get better.” She suggests giving teachers specific examples.

The principal of Enosburg Falls High School in Vermont, Erik Remmers, gave several of his teachers permission to experiment with getting rid of grades in their class. Teachers wanted to do a competency-based assessment model in the hopes it would train students to focus on learning instead of grades. The teachers tested the approach by waiting until the end of the first quarter to give grades, updating students on their progress through conferences instead. Remmers made sure the two teachers clearly communicated the goals and expectations to students and parents, but then he took the heat when parents felt uncertain.

“I like to frame it as permission to learn,” said Zac Chase, a Language Arts coordinator for St. Vrain Valley Schools who co-presented with Laufenberg. “We assume that people are really good at learning, but learning is really hard, especially for teachers because we’re used to making other people do it.” And learning how to teach in new ways often requires teachers to feel uncomfortable and disoriented at times.

Often a leader thinks they are giving teachers permission to try, fail and learn, but teachers don’t trust that the permission won’t eventually be revoked. Laufenberg suggests that leaders and teachers forecast together how the experiment or change might play out, and what permission will be needed down the road. Naming those things early, and getting verbal agreement from a leader, can free that teacher up to confidently experiment.


Teachers have a lot going on, and while it’s tempting to think that setting them lose to try to fail will transform every classroom, in reality there are always bumps along the way. Teachers need support through those moments, and once again, it helps to forecast what support might be needed, confirm it is available at the start, and make sure teachers know how to ask for it.

In San Marcos, California, the district is pushing teachers to use technology to let kids create and showcase their work with a broader audience. There’s also a lot of pushback and fear from educators. It’s Adina Sullivan’s job to support their skill building, highlight teacher successes, and support teachers to go deeper after an initial attempt. Sullivan says it helps when teachers are willing to acknowledge their fears or concerns so she can address them. She bases her support on a strengths-based approach, pointing out brave teacher attempts and successes as often as possible.

The goal is to build the capacity of the teachers and leaders in the system gradually over time. That means the level of support should gradually diminish; if the changes don’t continue without the highest levels of support, something is wrong. Another way to offer support is by connecting teachers doing similar things so they can learn from one another. Whatever the support, it’s unrealistic to ask teachers or systems to change without it.


Big school changes don’t just affect the educators in the building, so bringing students and parents into the conversation early is crucial. And as learning shifts to become more interdisciplinary, connected and real-world focused, there may also be community partners who can help support the vision.

“I walk into meetings assuming that everyone is on my side, whether they know it or not,” Chase said. Assuming good intent and getting other people excited about the vision of change helps provide energy to teachers and administrators as they slog through work that can feel hard.

The gradeless experiment at Enosburg Falls High School has since grown into a schoolwide effort to abandon all traditional grades. It started five years ago when teachers began moving to standards-based grading. But the more they tried to focus on learning, the more grades got in the way.

“We tried to use different scales to change things up,” said Gabrielle Marquette, who taught junior English at the time and is now the district innovation coach. “And the reality is kids were focused on the grade and not the learning.”

The whole staff decided to go to a competency-based model with the incoming ninth-grade class, but knew it would be a big change for parents. Their engagement efforts started early and focused on personal, relationship-based strategies. For example, before the year started teachers invited incoming eighth-graders and their families to come to the school, eat pizza, and talk about what learning would look like.

They also introduced every ninth-grade parent to the online system measuring competency individually. Teachers volunteered to walk each parent through the online portal, explained what the visualizations meant, and answered questions with nearly a hundred families. “It was way more one-on-one conversations and really just trying to be personal about it,” Marquette said.

Shifting to the new grading system has been hard for everyone. The competencies aren’t pegged to grade level and each assignment might include only a few competencies, so it can be hard to tell how a student is progressing. Teachers who were excited about the change initially are struggling. But despite the challenges of upending the traditional school model, the community tends to trust those working at the school. The intense community engagement and transparency around the goals and reasons for the change have given the educators some breathing room to figure out how to make it work.


“This word is fraught with peril and has all sorts of connotations,” Laufenberg acknowledged. “But if you do something, and faculty has been through all kinds of initiative burn, and there’s no wraparound to make sure it’s happening in a productive way, there’s a good chunk of faculty who will sit and wait it out until that next initiative comes through.”

In addition to gaining community support, giving teachers permission to try new things and supporting them as they experiment, leaders have to check in to make sure the changes are happening. Laufenberg worked for a district where all the elements of support were in place and the principal instructed teachers to leave their doors open so he could pop in and make sure things were moving forward. In rebellion, the teachers turned the lights off and taught in the dark.

“We had to have this massive intervention,” Laufenberg said. “We gave you all these things, you said you got it, we gave you the permission, but no one was doing it.” Especially when teachers are used to a new initiative every year, it’s important that leadership send a consistent message and ensure it is happening.

Henry County Schools in Georgia is a big district spanning 50 schools in urban, suburban and rural areas. For the past four years, they’ve been steadily shifting toward a more “personalized” approach to learning. Each year eight or nine schools in the district go through a redesign process, so some schools haven’t started the change while others are several years down the road. It’s an unwieldy change process, but one with a clear vision.

“For us the full answer is kids being good decision-makers about what they learn and how they learn,” said Karen Perry, the district’s coordinator of personalized learning.

To keep schools accountable to the redesign plans they set forth, Perry sends teams of people representing different roles in the district to evaluate how well schools are implementing and give feedback. The school itself will have done some self-evaluation and compiled a portfolio of evidence to show how they are carrying out their vision. The district also provides a school change rubric that helps provide consistency.

Perry says the model is based on a long-standing district practice of “loose and tight.” Schools have always had a lot of autonomy in Henry County, and they still do, as long as they are moving toward personalized learning. For example, the district says schools must have some kind of advisory, but the school decides how it looks, where it fits in the schedule and what curriculum it follows. The district says kids need to be setting goals, but the school decides what that looks like in practice.

The outside team highlight bright spots at the school and areas of growth, based on the school’s own plan and the district rubric. “Almost always those things come back in ways that schools already knew,” Perry said. But the advantage of having an outside group of educators present is that they may have some new ideas about how to solve the issue.

Perry says often the district has supportive resources that she can send to the school. For example, if a school’s teachers are struggling to make projects deep and rigorous, she can send them a project-based learning coach, or recommend teachers visit another school in the district that has already confronted that problem.

“It’s this balance of mostly support, but some accountability as well. You’ve got to do what you said you were going to do,” Perry said.

This project has also created more upward accountability. For example, as the schools began to make changes, their principals made it clear they needed the ability to flexibly staff their schools. And, they want more individualized professional development keyed toward their specific redesign plans.

“Principals have been asking for this school redesign rubric for a long time,” Perry said. The district created it in response to principal feedback. “What they want is an outside point of view because they’re down in it all the time.”

The district has also recognized that in order to sustain this change, they need leaders excited about it. The GOLD Academy is a district leadership program centered on what it means to lead change. District professionals who want to improve or assistant principals who want to become principals can enroll, challenge their beliefs, think with a systems lens, and ultimately become the “bench” that will hop into action when leadership positions open up. Kerry hopes this emphasis on leadership will help sustain the changes they’ve made.


“There needs to be a real timeline of three to five years, where you understand you are on a path of change, and you have to hold the line,” Laufenberg said. “You can tweak, but the big idea, you’ve got to give it some time to take hold.”

She says when leaders don’t do this the staff stops trusting them. She knows that this kind of change work is hard and that at times it will feel easier to start over with something else, but she also believes that when change can be sustained it’s incredibly rewarding work.

After four years in Henry County, Perry is already seeing the effects of staying the course. Despite the inevitable challenges, schools that are just entering the redesign phase are still enthusiastic about the process and the goals. Even better, “the quality of their conversation is so much better than our first cohort because we’re so much farther down the road,” Perry said.

Schools that have gone through the process later are learning from those that came before and they’re seeing success. And it’s easier for teachers to buy into the vision when they can see a class that looks just like theirs down the road, already succeeding.

“The district needs to be consistent in the message that this is what we’re doing in Henry County schools,” Perry said. And despite the fact that her district is on its third superintendent since the project began, that message remains loud and clear. In fact, the new superintendent came to the district because she wanted to be part of the innovation.

Laufenberg cautions change leaders to attend to all five of these areas to successfully make change. “This is a constant, persistent conversation you have to have in your system when you talk about changing something,” she said. “It’s all these things in concert with each other and constant re-evaluation of the full picture.”

She suggests scheduling ways to check in with people in various roles across the district on each of these pillars to make sure the change effort stays on track. It’s possible to continue pushing forward without one of these elements in place, but it’s a lot harder.

Getting to Know Ron Berger….

Ron Berger, Chief Academic Officer of EL Education is the Day 1 Keynote Speaker for the Learning Forward Kansas Annual Conference January 31-February 1, 2018. Get to know Ron and connect with his message of transforming schools through student engaged learning before you attend the conference. A sample of his work, beliefs, and ideas are included in the following article links: 

1. The Importance of Academic Courage via Edutopia October 25, 2017
Courage exists in math as much as in mountain climbing, and students can develop the courage to tackle academic and life challenges. Read more…

2. When Students Lead Their Learning via ASCD Educational Leadership March 2014
Students take a lead role in understanding and communicating their progressread more  

3. What if Assessment Was Used to Elevate Learning Rather than Rank Students? Via TeachingChannel January 8, 2015
Just as good soccer coaches do, teachers must help their students gain a clear sense of — and high standards for — what they do well, what they need to work on, and how to improve. The most important assessment that takes place in any school is not the end-of-year test; it is the assessment that is going on all day long in the mind of every student. Each student is continually assessing his or her attitude, behavior, understanding, and work — “Is this piece good enough to turn in?” “Do I actually understand this concept?” Read more…  

4. Deeper Learning – Looking at Student Work via Edutopia, January 3, 2013
The difference is that these students’ teachers have helped them develop the skills and mindsets necessary to produce work of exceptional quality, and have built classroom and school cultures in which exceptional work is the norm.  Read more.. 

5. Beautiful Work via Buck Institute for Education (BIE)
What I value most in teaching is the opportunity to support students to do beautiful work…with my students it applies as much to their original scientific research and math solutions as to the eloquence of their writing or the precision of their architectural drafting. Always, in all subjects, there is the quest in my classroom for beauty, for quality, and we critique all that we do for its level of care, craftsmanship and value.  Read more… 

6. Fostering an Ethic of Excellence via 4th & 5th R’s of Respect and Responsibility, Winter/Spring 2006
I want a classroom full of craftsmen—students whose work is strong, accurate, and beautiful; students who are proud of what they do and respect themselves and others.  Read more.. 

7. Making Students Partners in Data-Driven Approaches to Learning (an excerpt from Ron’s book:  Leaders of Their Own Learning:  Transforming Schools Through Student-Engaged Assessment)  via MindShift September 8, 2014
Using data with students encompasses classroom practices that build students’ capacity to access, analyze, and use data effectively to reflect, set goals, and document growth. Read More…


Teacher Evaluation….Ratings or Learning
by Steve Barkley

Charlotte Danielson’s article in Education Week, Rethinking Teacher Evaluation, caught my attention with this statement:

“I’m deeply troubled by the transformation of teaching from a complex profession requiring nuanced judgment to the performance of certain behaviors that can be ticked off on a checklist.”

 Danielson identifies that school systems must be able to document for the public that all teachers meet a “good” standard. She sites studies that suggest the number of teachers who fall below that standard is 6 percent or less. Therefore our programs and policies regarding evaluation should focus on professional development for the other 94% of teachers, replacing the emphasis on ratings with one on learning.

She suggests that we know the following things about professional learning which need to be considered:

“First, professional learning requires active intellectual engagement. In the context of an evaluation process, this means using observation and evaluation processes that promote active engagement: self-assessment, reflection on practice, and professional conversation.”

 Joellen Killion’s writing in, The Feedback Process: Transforming Feedback for Professional Learning,  labels the importance of teachers engaging in self-generated feedback that promotes metacognition, reflection, construction of new knowledge, and deconstruction of that knowledge to question its meaning and application in diverse situations. (earlier blog) This requires engaging teachers in deep learning conversations which is not currently present in many school settings. I have often described that administrators need to develop their coaching skills to the highest level when taking good teachers closer to being great teachers. This is the setting where I like to use the questions,” What have you been unable to accomplish in student learning that will drive your future learning? “What do your students need you to learn?”

 “Second, learning can only occur in an atmosphere of trust. Fear shuts people down. Learning, after all, entails vulnerability. The culture of the school and of the district must be one that encourages risk-taking.”

When schools identify the importance of teacher learning it should be clear that we need to create the same risk-taking, encouraging environment for teachers that we want to have in classrooms for students. On a blog post titled, 3 Ways Companies Can Encourage Smart Risk Taking, Salim Ismail suggests:

#1 Resists Saying No to ideas that are presented. Ismail cites an Amazon example where they require managers to write a two page thesis to explain a no as a bad idea.

#2 Never Stop Experimenting. Experimentation is required to have constant improvement and innovation. Teacher innovation can create a break- through in student learning. Ismail again cites Amazon who records the number of experiments emerging from each department and their success rate. How awesome if PLC’s were recognized each year for the number of experiments they conducted.

#3 Reward Insightful Experiments, even if they haven’t been successful in producing the desired results but produced new learning or insights.  School’s instructional coaching, professional learning communities, and professional development should all produce risk-taking experimentation. What should be present in a teacher growth plan that encourages risk-taking and eliminates fear?

Third, a culture of professional inquiry requires challenge as well as support. The culture must include an expectation that every teacher will engage in a career-long process of learning, one that is never “finished.” Teaching is simply too complex for anyone to believe that there is no more to learn.

This matches my reflections in an earlier blog, There is No Mountaintop in Teaching. The more I learn as a teacher the more I know I need and want to learn. We would seek the same for our students….when finishing a course of study they leave with more questions about what they want to explore further than with information and answers gained in the course.

And fourth, policymakers must acknowledge that professional learning is rarely the consequence of teachers attending workshops or being directed by a supervisor to read a certain book or take a particular course. Overwhelmingly, most teachers report that they learn more from their colleagues than from an “expert” in a workshop. When teachers work together to solve problems of practice, they have the benefit of their colleagues’ knowledge and experience to address a particular issue they’re facing in their classroom.

 When I team taught first grade, my co-teacher and I convinced our principal to conduct an evaluation of a lesson where “we” were the teacher and individually we were not identified. The same evaluation was recorded for both of us. The process produced several learning conversations for us from planning to conferencing to reflection. I believe the principal learned as well. I’d love to see additional experimentation with teachers conducting their evaluation/growth plans as members of teams rather than individually.


Professional Learning to Reflect the Realities of Today’s Educational Leaders
by Bret Church

Designing and delivering excellent professional development for our educational leaders will require that consideration is given to the realities our educational leaders face. The following are four considerations to inform the design and development of professional learning opportunities for educational leaders.

1.    Balance Content and Context: Educational author, Jim Knight, reminds us that “people are not motivated by other people’s goals.”  It is essential that educational leaders have the opportunity to transfer their learning to the unique context of their school district or building.  Effective professional learning must strike the right balance between building capacity in our leaders and supporting them to customize it to their unique situation.  While information and expanding knowledge is important, it is readily available.  However, the opportunity to apply that understanding to each person’s unique situation is essential to effective implementation.

2.    Differentiation Isn’t Just for Students: Professional learning offerings for our educational leaders must be differentiated in both design and delivery.  Dr. Phil Lewis, Executive Director of MASSP, recently described professional learning that supports leaders from “aspiring to retiring.”  In addition, differentiation must be integrated into the delivery of our professional learning, offering options aligning to individual needs.  Opportunities for leaders to receive individual feedback specific to their unique set of skills is essential to professional growth.

3.    The Importance of a Strong PLN:  Supporting educational leaders to expand their Professional Learning Network (PLN) allows leaders to access knowledge, perspectives, and feedback on an ongoing basis. Investing in building relationships and communicating with those in a PLN, provides the opportunity for just-in-time support when leaders need it most. Educational leaders with strong PLNs feel less isolated and more capable of addressing the challenges they face.

4.    Time is of the Essence:  The most valued currency to educational leaders is time.  Therefore, considering how best to leverage technology to support professional learning is essential.  This allows educational leaders to participate in spite of their busy schedules and without having to leave their district or school for long periods of time. Considering this reality when designing professional learning will increase participation and therefore enrich the quality and value of the opportunity.

These considerations should inform the design and development of the professional opportunities that are offered to educational leaders.  In addition, it is essential that educational leaders receive quality professional development, no matter where they work, or where they are in their career. 


by Steve Barkley

I attended an international schools workshop in Luxemburg with Dylan Wiliam who presented teaching strategies to increase student learning with formative assessment. One section of the workshop dealt with the role of feedback. Wiliam described that the research on feedback had great variance in results probably due to the fact that individuals respond differently to any feedback.

In an Education Leadership article, The Secret of Effective Feedback,  Wiliam states:

“The only thing that matters is what the student does with the feedback. If the feedback you’re giving your students is producing more of what you want, it’s probably good feedback. But if your feedback is getting you less of what you want, it probably needs to change. “

As I listened to Wilam I considered that each comment he made regarding teachers’ feedback to impact student learning applied to coaches’ feedback to impact teacher learning, skill development and change.

In the same article he includes, “To give effective feedback, the teacher needs to know the student—to understand what feedback the student needs right now. And to receive feedback in a meaningful way, the student needs to trust the teacher—to believe that the teacher knows what he or she is talking about and has the student’s best interests at heart. Without this trust, the student is unlikely to invest the time and effort needed to absorb and use the feedback.”

Consider the application of these thoughts to coaching teachers:

Knowing is a critical element of effective coaching.  It’s why I place such importance on pre-conferencing conversations. When observing teachers without a pre-conference it is unlikely that the observer has sufficient” knowing” to make appropriate decisions about the kind of feedback most likely to gain positive teacher change.

Trust comes from the teacher knowing that the coach is working for the teacher. Without a pre-conference a coach misses the opportunity to clearly communicate that she is aware of what the teacher is committed to achieve and that this understanding will be key to the feedback the coach will provide.

These two elements reinforce my belief that trying to give feedback from walkthroughs is a difficult task. The walkthrough tends to look for the same data in each classroom and therefore isn’t personalized to the individual teacher. There isn’t an opportunity for the teacher to express a focus or purpose so trust in observer is hard to create.  I sense that it is best to keep the walkthrough as feedback to the school leadership that suggests common patterns or raises questions for more in depth exploration. (Earlier blog)

Grant Wiggins in an ASCD Educational Leadership article, Seven Keys to Effective Feedback, describes the difference between feedback and advice.

You need more examples in your report.

You might want to use a lighter baseball bat.

You should have included some Essential Questions in your unit plan.

These three statements are not feedback; they’re advice. Such advice out of the blue seems at best tangential and at worst unhelpful and annoying. Unless it is preceded by descriptive feedback, the natural response of the performer is to wonder, “Why are you suggesting this?”

Wiggins identifies the problem with advice,” As coaches, teachers, and parents, we too often jump right to advice without first ensuring that the learner has sought, grasped, and tentatively accepted the feedback on which the advice is based.”

 It’s not uncommon for new teachers to receive conflicting advice from mentor, principal, and colleague. Giving advice too soon is a common mistake of new coaches and mentors. There is a desire to quickly solve a problem by offering suggestions (advise). This often puts the coach in a role of expert …someone to seek out when I have a problem, with an expectation that they will have the answer….or someone to avoid when I don’t want to be told that I should change.

 Wiggins and Wiliam both offer ideas for engaging in the feedback process:

Wiggins- “… try asking the learner, “Given the feedback, do you have some ideas about how to improve?” This approach will build greater autonomy and confidence over the long haul. Once they are no longer rank novices, performers can often self-advise if asked to.” 

Wiliam- “… to your students. Ask them, “How are you using the feedback I’m giving to help you learn better?” If they can give you a good answer to that question, then your feedback is probably effective. And if they can’t, ask them what they would find useful. After all, they’re the clients.”

When I am coaching I work to have the teacher identify, prior to the observation, the form of my feedback that she would find most helpful. Without that decision, my input later will be seen more supervisory than coaching. At times when the pre-observation conversation wasn’t an option, I begin a feedback conference with questions that help me personalize the feedback.

What feedback might you request from your teachers to allow you to assess your current feedback process?


dennis sparksWhen Questions Are a Barrier to Inquiry
by Dennis Sparks

One reason we ask questions is because we want information.

Another reason is to promote deeper exploration of a subject. 

Some kinds of questions promote such exploration while others do not.

“Honest, open questions,” to borrow a phrase from Parker Palmer, invite inquiry. For example: “What are some things you might do to solve the problem you are having with your friend?”

Questions that clearly have “right answers” or are really disguised statements often thwart inquiry (“closed, directive questions”). For example: “Don’t you think you should call your friend to find out why he said that?”

Many of us have not had the opportunity to learn how to phrase honest, open questions – that is, questions that cause further inquiry and deepen relationships.

We may ask questions to steer the direction of the conversation rather than to truly seek to understand the views of others or to extend their thinking.

We may ask questions that narrow the focus of thinking rather than expand it.

Closed, directive questions often cause people to feel they are being manipulated, which breeds distrust and cynicism.

In addition, people whose habit it is to ask closed, directive questions often perceive honest, open questions through the lens of manipulation, suspecting ulterior motives and becoming defensive.

Good questions stimulate thinking on the part of both the person who asks and the person who answers. They deepen understanding and open up previously unexplored areas for conversation.

Individuals involved in such conversations feel like they have learned something about themselves, each other, and the subject at hand. In addition, they feel respected and understood.

Examine your questions. Do they promote honest inquiry or directly or indirectly tell people what to think and do?

In your experience, what types of questions deepen inquiry and improve relationships?


charlottedanielsonCharlotte Danielson on Rethinking Teacher Evaluation 
by Charlotte Danielson 

The idea of tracking teacher accountability started with the best of intentions and a well-accepted understanding about the critical role teachers play in promoting student learning. The focus on teacher accountability has been rooted in the belief that every child deserves no less than good teaching to realize his or her potential.

But as clear, compelling, and noncontroversial as these fundamental ideas were, the assurance of great teaching for every student has proved exceedingly difficult to capture in either policy or practice…

…I’m deeply troubled by the transformation of teaching from a complex profession requiring nuanced judgment to the performance of certain behaviors that can be ticked off on a checklist. In fact, I (and many others in the academic and policy communities) believe it’s time for a major rethinking of how we structure teacher evaluation to ensure that teachers, as professionals, can benefit from numerous opportunities to continually refine their craft.

Simultaneously, it’s essential to acknowledge the fundamental policy imperative: Schools must be able to ensure good teaching. Public schools are, after all, public institutions, operating with public funds. The public has a right to expect good teaching. Every superintendent, or state commissioner, must be able to say, with confidence: “Everyone who teaches here is good. Here’s how we know: We have a system.”…

…So what do we know about professional learning?

First, professional learning requires active intellectual engagement. In the context of an evaluation process, this means using observation and evaluation processes that promote active engagement: self-assessment, reflection on practice, and professional conversation.

Second, learning can only occur in an atmosphere of trust. Fear shuts people down. Learning, after all, entails vulnerability. The culture of the school and of the district must be one that encourages risk-taking.

Third, a culture of professional inquiry requires challenge as well as support. The culture must include an expectation that every teacher will engage in a career-long process of learning, one that is never “finished.” Teaching is simply too complex for anyone to believe that there is no more to learn…

To read Charlotte’s complete article in Education Week, click here.

Published Online: April 18, 2016,  Education Week
Published in Print: April 20, 2016, as It’s Time to Rethink Teacher Evaluation


dennis sparksThe Gift of Exquisite Listening
by Dennis Sparks

“One social habit that I used to be quite bad at was to truly listen when other people spoke. I sometimes zoned out. I got distracted or my attention started to wander before they were done talking. Or I just waited for my turn to talk again (while thinking about what I should say next). Not very helpful. So things had to change.” —Henrik Edberg

There is no greater gift that one person can give another than sustained, attentive, and nonjudgmental listening.

Being fully heard and deeply understood by another human being is rare and can be life changing.

Because such committed listening also enriches the experience of the listener, it can transform relationships.

In addition, it is an essential ingredient of “deep work” (see previous post).

Henrik Edberg describes the attributes of such listening this way:

“When you listen, just listen.

” Don’t interrupt. Don’t jump in with solutions (this one can be a hard one in my experience).

“Just be present in the moment and listen fully to what the other person has to say and let him or her speak until the entire message is said.

“Sometimes that is also all that’s needed. For someone to truly listen as we vent for a few minutes and figure things out for ourselves.”

“Just listening” requires practice and discipline, however.

Sophia Dembling offers a tool that can help us master this demanding habit:

“Imagine that there is a big arrow hovering over the space between two people engaged in a conversation…. As the listener in this conversation, your goal is to keep the arrow pointing at the other person for as long as possible.

“A devoted listener knows that there is always more to learn about another person, no matter how long you’ve known them.”

What have you learned about the benefits of such listening, and what helps you more consistently offer it to others?



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