Professional development works best when it supports teachers at all levels for an extended time.
“We would not have signed the purchase order without a sound plan for [it],” states Mike Horan, Sarasota (Fla.) County Schools instructional-technology director. That “it” he’s talking about is a key piece of many other school projects. No matter where you are located, no matter what technology is being bought, the biggest part of all these projects just might be the least discussed.
The “it,” of course, is professional development, and it is key to meaningful, technology-rich classroom instruction.
But not all professional-development plans for classroom teachers are created equal. Old-school programs tended to be one-shot offerings that subjected teachers to a four-hour discourse on technology — complete with doughnuts and bad coffee. As the following examples prove, today’s programs are significantly improved, engaging educators in new technologies and providing ongoing support for infusion in the classroom. The best plans center on 21st-century classrooms, support teachers at all levels and do so for an extended length of time.
“Begin with an assessment of teachers’ needs and build the professional-development program from there,” recommends Futurekids President and CEO Dzana Homan. Canned programs often miss the target. Individualized learning plans for educators, on the other hand, can help all teachers tap into the rich potential of notebooks, whiteboards and other tech solutions.
At all levels, professional development should emphasize meaningful rather than low-level integration, adds Leslie Wilson, president of the One-to-One Institute. The ideal program provides teachers a “toolkit” for using technology to complement and extend the curriculum.
Though specifics vary, sound professional-development options incorporate these three key components: mentor teachers who visit colleagues’ classrooms to offer relevant feedback; learning communities, such as interactive wikis for teachers to share ideas and solutions; and assessment and evaluation of the project’s impact.
To prove that one size doesn’t fit all, the following three school examples show how programs can vary, yet still be effective.
Sarasota County Schools is an interactive whiteboard pioneer. In just more than a year, it invested $13 million in whiteboards and installed 3,000 Promethean Activboards in each of its K–12 classrooms. The real gain, however, is not the technology itself but its integration into daily instruction and the equity of access for all classrooms. Credit for the district-wide success story belongs primarily to Horan and his project team, who successfully wedded the installation to a robust professional-development program.
Professional development should help teachers retool their practice to integrate technology invisibly into the instructional program, says Wilson.
The district focused on the economic and educational value of professional development throughout the entire process, from pre-purchase to post-deployment.
Horan’s team built the professional-development program on best practices. That is, they created immediate, relevant, hands-on activities and multiple tiers of training. Level one started with a half-day, small-group session within one week of the installation in each teacher’s classroom. “We wanted to make sure each teacher was comfortable with the new resource,” explains Horan. Three weeks later, the team followed with another half-day round of training to review questions and enhance teachers’ comfort level with the technology.
Horan admits pulling the teachers out of class twice — and paying for their subs with his technology money — was expensive but worthwhile. Because the second training session came after teachers had used the whiteboards, they arrived knowing what they wanted to accomplish. They were eager for instruction and were able to put the training into practice as soon as they returned to their classrooms.
Ninety-five percent of the district’s teachers followed the initial training with an optional 30-hour, eight- module course that delves into instructional integration of the Activboard and promotes continued growth in digital instruction. Teachers meet with a trainer for two hours of each five-hour module, then collaborate on integration in an online environment to access learning resources, post ideas and collaborate through blogs.
The result is a model for tech-rich instruction. Horan says it is not uncommon to walk into a classroom and find a teacher using high-level multimedia to demonstrate difficult learning concepts and engaging students through Activotes, a student-response system that enables individualized assessment.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years and have never had a more seamless integration than with these whiteboards,” Horan says. “Nine out of 10 are in use when I walk around the schools.”
The Sarasota team not only emphasized professional development but also developed a sound plan for economic assessment.
“The Activboards represent a significant investment. We want to demonstrate a return on the district’s investment,” states Horan. The district developed a multilayered data-collection plan. “We expect that the deployment will lead to increased student achievement in a number of measurable ways. It has demonstrated increased engagement among teachers and students. The combination of increased engagement and appropriate content should increase student achievement,” says Horan. The district also plans to compare quarterly internal achievement scores from last year with this year.
Finally, Sarasota schools surveyed teachers about the project and found 95 percent of teachers felt the Activboard implementation met or exceeded expectations on all measurable indicators. “We’re getting a lot of bang for our buck and a lot of interest in positive change from our teachers. Most of all, they appreciate the investment in their classroom and in their teaching approach,” concludes Horan.
The old adage that two heads are better than one certainly applies to a successful joint venture by Osceola and Polk County school districts in central Florida. Although it’s unusual for some districts to collaborate, educators in Osceola and Polk have been working together for years. Last year, staff from both districts took the partnership to the next level and snagged a $1.1 million Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) grant and joined a handful of other Florida districts to become a Florida Digital Educator model program. The districts secured the competitive award by focusing on collaboration, extension and evaluation.
The heart of the project is a plan to multiply the impact of the grant. The technology component equipped 200 teachers with notebooks and Epson projectors. In return, the teachers agreed to a robust professional-development summer camp hosted on the campus of Florida Southern College, one of the grant partners. The summer camp included digital-device training facilitated by staff from the Florida Center for Instructional Technology at the University of South Florida, evening training sessions, online learning communities with digital educators across the state, and peer mentoring. “Our goal is to nurture lead teachers on every campus,” says Karen Seddon, instructional technology specialist with School District of Osceola County. “We believe their knowledge and enthusiasm can be contagious.”
In fact, sustainability is a key component of effective professional development. The most worthwhile ventures incorporate a plan for sustainability, such as online collaboration through wikis or peer mentoring to spur continued growth among staff.
“We wanted to teach teachers how to collaborate to improve instruction, so we showed them how to ask probing questions and enhance lessons with technology,” explains Seddon.
While data-driven decision-making is practiced at all schools for students, this mind-set has seeped into teacher training as well. Ensuring that whatever support is offered is measurable serves two goals: It allows the school to mark its progress and change course if needed, and it proves to teachers that the training is helpful.
The grant-evaluation component is equally strong. An outside research firm will complete two classroom observations in the 200 Florida Digital Educators’ classrooms in the 2007–2008 school year to detail use of digital technology. Another team will collect and analyze perceptions of district leaders, principals and teachers. Finally, teachers involved in the grant will complete a research project to determine how technology affects teaching and learning.
Although it’s early, anecdotal evidence points to the success of the project. Teachers say the professional-development model has changed the way they teach and helped them work one-on-one to effectively integrate technology with a collaborating teacher and their students, says Christie Devane, senior manager of Polk County Public Schools’ technology services.
In fact, the technical trickle-down is a downright downpour in some classes. In Osceola, a second-grade teacher convinced her principal to invest in three notebooks for her classroom and uses them for regular podcasting.
The districts designed the EETT project as a foundation for ongoing digital integration and tech-infused learning. “The program will grow exponentially each year as teachers begin coaching other teachers and form collaborative learning communities that explore technology to engage students in learning and increase achievement,” predicts Devane.
In the past six years, Bendle (Mich.) Public Schools has tapped into a series of state grants worth nearly $1 million to transform teaching and learning. Teachers and students have benefited from grant projects that offer a complete package: hardware, software and professional development, says Curriculum Director Peggy O’Keeffe.
Today, the district is equipped with 700 notebooks in grades three through eight and 11; and a suite of software, including Microsoft Office and Class Server, and Discourse Technologies’ online-assessment program.
The district and its professional-development partner, One-to-One Institute, developed a scaffolded professional-development plan, encompassing everything from the basics of software and hardware to integration into daily instruction. Equally important, the plan incorporated administrative training to help principals support the notebook project, and it offered parent workshops, on topics such as how to care for a notebook, so they could help their students.
“Flexibility is key,” confirms O’Keeffe. The One-to-One Institute offers everything from regional training to site-based workshops and tech coaches who can work with teachers in their classrooms. O’Keeffe identifies tech coaches as the most beneficial element of the professional-development program. Many districts aim to cut costs and duplicate the coach role by naming a lead teacher. The problem with this, says O’Keeffe, is that it can be difficult for that person to be out of her classroom frequently to help other teachers. A coach, on the other hand, can be brought in on a regular basis to work with staff. Districts committed to the lead-teacher model may want to try a team approach, says O’Keeffe, training one teacher at each grade level or content area as the go-to person for tech questions.
The payoff in Bendle is significant. Although it’s difficult to link tech infusion, professional development and achievement, teachers use the notebooks to differentiate instruction and improve learning. A seventh-grade history teacher, for example, might locate content at the fifth- and 12th-grade reading levels to accommodate learners of various strengths. Student achievement and test scores are up. The percentage of Bendle High School freshmen with GPAs below 2.0 decreased from 42 percent in 2003–2004 to 25.3 percent in 2004–2005. At Bendle Middle School, eighth-grade Michigan Education Assessment Program math scores increased from 31 percent in 2003–2004 to 63 percent in 2004–2005.
Other secrets to success include a supportive board and superintendent. “The grants provided [notebooks] and professional development, but the district made sure to find funds to provide supplementary devices like notebook carts, wireless printers and projectors,” says O’Keeffe.
The Total Package
Districts can make the most of their professional- development dollars by following a few simple principles:
- Tie training to tech investments, but don’t limit training to basic how-to’s. Be sure to focus on strategies that use tech to nurture higher-level thinking and learning.
- Look for flexibility. Build an array of hardware, software and pedagogical topics into the program.
- Offer a variety of instructional options, such as site-based workshops, coaching and online instruction.
- Build a plan to sustain learning among teachers, including mentoring and virtual communities.
- Evaluate. Are teachers using new knowledge in the classroom?
The Administrative Angle
It is absolutely essential to provide classroom teachers with the knowledge and training to effectively infuse technology to improve student learning and engagement. But school leaders must also be included in the equation. Chris O’Neal, director of Virginia Initiative for Technology and Administrative Leadership (VITAL), explains his group’s efforts to educate school leaders.
What is VITAL’s objective and its role in initiating technology-infused instruction?
O’Neal: VITAL is designed to help school administrators, principals and central-office staff appropriately position technology in the overall district vision. They need a clear understanding of its benefits beyond test scores. Measures like increased engagement, commitment and interest in content areas among students are equally critical.
What are some of the practical areas VITAL addresses?
O’Neal: We initiate high-level conversations about removing barriers and creating learning environments that transcend the basic how-to’s of technology. Administrators need to provide teachers time to plan, experiment and explore technology, but within the context of the overall health and engagement of the learning culture. Simple changes like carving out specific time for team planning can help teachers move beyond the basics; it gives them the time needed to develop tools and processes to plan higher-level projects.
What are some of the common pitfalls districts face when planning administrative professional development?
O’Neal: The professional-development needs of administrators are very different from those of classroom teachers. Districts must pay special attention to avoid offering “one size fits all” workshops. Just as teaching must be differentiated, so must professional development. Training for administrators must take into account the district vision, the school needs, school-performance data, etc., and must be as individualized as possible.
Can you provide an example of appropriate customization?
O’Neal: Taking data into consideration when planning professional development is always critical. Sometimes this data can be obtained from teacher feedback. Surveying the landscape of one school might reveal, for example, that teachers are not satisfied with team planning times and desire opportunities for collaboration. In this case, having a facilitator spend a day or more with a faculty on making efficient use of time and collaborative-planning strategies might be more helpful than a traditional how-to workshop. Included in this effort might be assistance to the school’s administrative team on how to better manage time for the flow of the school day and restructure faculty meetings. The whole day should be customized to that school’s needs, and even within the building, the efforts should be as individualized as possible.
What should school leaders look for as they plan professional-development offerings?
O’Neal: Professional development should go beyond old-school trainings that focus on tech tools alone. A workshop that incorporates strategies for tapping into MySpace brains is likely to have more impact than one that shows teachers how to use a specific device.
What do these new-generation workshops look like?
O’Neal: Frank, but positive, discussions of the mind-set of today’s digital learners are a core piece of ensuring that classrooms are productive and enriching learning environments for students. Professional development in this area should include current research on understanding the lives of today’s social learners, what makes them tick outside class, and what it is they get from social networks such as MySpace and Facebook. Ongoing and productive reflective activities include opportunities for teachers to make concrete connections between their tested curriculum and the world outside school.
Similarly, professional development could provide educators time to explore the tools of today’s learners within the context of educational-content standards. Structuring professional-development opportunities so teachers can have hands-on experimentation time with Web 2.0 tools and social networking allows them to make more concrete connections in and outside of the classroom. It also provides teachers practical opportunities to “tap into the MySpace minds” and use variations of tools in the classroom that students are using outside school.