Changing Practice: Rolling the Stone up the Hill or Focusing on Implementation
By Linda Diamond, President
“The Gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”
— Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
Research on Professional Learning
Despite a solid and long body of research, school districts continue to futilely emphasize one-off workshops rather than invest in the ongoing, job-embedded professional learning and coaching necessary to change practice. Like Sisyphus, our educators are condemned to participate in the same poor quality professional development over and over with little hope of obtaining sustained support to lead to full implementation. The research on professional development for teachers consistently points out the need to provide ongoing, robust support and coaching to transfer knowledge and skills learned in workshops to classroom practice.
This research dates back to the Joyce and Showers studies of the 80s, and more recent research continues to support the findings: training alone results in at most 10% implementation; whereas, practice and coaching lead to implementation rates as high as 95%. In 2009, Linda Darling-Hammond conducted a study that found 90% of teachers interviewed reported that their participation in professional development was by and large useless (Darling-Hammond et al., 2009). Indeed workshops alone have had a poor track record of changing teacher practice and improving student achievement (Yoon et al., 2007). Yoon analyzed 1300 studies, finding that only those experiences which were intensive and ongoing impacted student achievement. In their 2002 study, Joyce and Showers (2002) found that on average teachers required 20 practice instances to master a new skill. Fuller (2001) noted that the greatest challenge for teachers was not learning a new skill, but implementing it. Furthermore, research confirmed that teachers changed their underlying beliefs only after they saw student success (Gusky, 2002). The Center for Public Education cited this dilemma: “To internalize a practice and change beliefs, teachers must see success with their students, but student success is very hard to come by initially, as learning new skills takes several attempts to master” (Gulamhussein, 2013).
What is the Best Practice to Promote Transfer and Implementation of New Learning?
To improve teacher learning and implementation, professional learning should be grounded in the following principles:
Professional development requires significant time for educators to grapple with new strategies and skills, understandings, and implementation challenges. Some studies found teachers required as much as 50 hours of instruction, practice, and coaching (French, 1997).
Outside experts are necessary to start improvement. Guskey and Yoon (2009) found that professional development presented by outside experts who then facilitated implementation resulted in greater improvements in student learning.
Teachers need support during the implementation stage to change practices. A 2003 study (Truesdale) found that coached teachers transferred learning from workshops, but teachers who only participated in workshops did not. Similarly, a 2009 study of 50 teachers by Knight and Cornett noted that teachers who received coaching following an introductory training workshop were significantly more likely to implement practices they learned.
Initial learning should engage teachers through varied approaches. Just as students need to both thoroughly understand a new concept and practice it, so teachers need professional learning experiences that blend theoretical knowledge with practice and feedback. The most effective professional development included readings, active engagement, discussions, simulations, modeling and feedback (Roy, 2005; Goldberg, 2002; Rice, 2001).
Modeling has been proven to be successful in helping teachers understand and implement new practices. Multiple researchers found that modeling by an expert has been most effective in helping teachers understand and apply a new concept and be “open to it” (Snow-Renner & Lauer, 2005; Penuel, Fishman, Yamaguchi, & Gallagher, 2007; Guskey & Yoon, 2009).
Linking general content and concepts to teachers’ grade levels and materials helps promote implementation. Teachers report that training which links most directly to the content and grades they teach is more useful than general training alone (Darling-Hammond et al., 2009).
Supporting the Dual Role of Teachers: Technicians and Teachers as Intellectuals
The Center for Public Education identified two roles teachers have. First, teachers are technicians who acquire skills and strategies that they must implement in their classrooms. Second, teachers are intellectuals who must continually make judgments and decisions about instruction and students. Schools need to provide professional learning and coaching opportunities that support teachers as both technicians and intellectuals. The charts below from the Center for Public Education’s Report Teaching the Teachers: Effective Professional Development in an Era of High Stakes Accountability show what is necessary.
The Approach of the Consortium on Reaching Excellence in Education
For over 20 years, CORE has provided technical assistance and professional development to the most vulnerable schools in America. Our model rests on the research on effective professional learning that fosters durable implementation. Our approach builds knowledge and skills through well-structured courses and site-based coaching, modeling, and mentoring. CORE’s trainings blend theoretical knowledge with hands on practice, video models, collaborative discussions and reflection, readings, simulations, modeling and feedback from an expert — the hallmarks of quality live and online professional learning. To drive transfer of the learning into the classroom, CORE specialists provide job embedded coaching that includes modeling, practice, feedback, collaborative study, and administrative mentoring. The coaching follow-up can be provided on site in face-to-face visits or virtually using an innovative remote coaching system that enables both modeling by the expert and observing and debriefing of the classroom teacher. Taken together, CORE’s model meets all the principles of effective professional learning. When schools follow through and invest in this complete approach, educators will have the necessary knowledge and support to ensure genuine, sustained student achievement improvement, and a recent survey of participants confirms effectiveness.
I appreciated the opportunities to try new things with my students then reflect upon and solicit opinions from other teachers in a non-threatening manner. — Christine T., Kindergarten Teacher, Colorado
Job-Embedded Coaching and Support
CORE’s job embedded coaching and site support moves from knowledge learning to transfer and application. During on site days, the CORE specialist models practices teachers learned through CORE workshops using the curricula and materials the teachers have. Teachers meet with the CORE expert individually and in grade groups to debrief lessons and then practice together to refine their techniques. In addition, CORE experts support the teachers and administrators as they study student data, collaboratively problem solve and plan instructional interventions, and gain additional practice and coaching. CORE experts guide administrators and site coaches on learning walks to study implementation and identify areas requiring further practice and support. During the course of a year, the CORE expert mentors the site leaders and coaches as they develop their own coaching and facilitative skills, so that they build on the work of the external expert in order to sustain implementation efforts for the long haul.
Our surveys reflect that our school is very pleased with CORE. Many teachers wrote personal comments about how much you have helped them grow as teachers, and overall teachers agree that your work here has helped our school improve overall. — Laura O., SIG Coordinator, South Dakota
Options for Schools and Districts: CORE’s Bundled Research-Based Professional Learning for Educators
Schools may decide, based on budget and time constraints, to begin slowly, with courses in order to develop a common knowledge base, then later build in job-embedded support by CORE experts to lead to transfer and implementation, or plan for the most effective bundled approach right from the start.
Schools that choose a complete approach with strong ongoing support and coaching will get results. Teachers will be better prepared to ensure all children achieve.
Start: Take CORE’s content courses to acquire knowledge and skills to implement best practices in literacy and math.
Next: Bring CORE experts to your site or via a unique and easy-to-use online coaching system*, or choose a blended approach with both on-site and remote coaching to provide practice, problemsolving, expert modeling, coaching, and leadership mentoring to build internal capacity.
Then: Send the leadership team to a CORE-sponsored national conference to learn from colleagues who also participated in CORE services and together build processes for sustainable implementation.
Schools that choose a complete approach, content and pedagogical courses and at least ten onsite days, with strong ongoing support and coaching, get results. Adams County Schools in Colorado followed this approach and realized improved state assessment scores:
When a comprehensive, well-designed professional learning system is implemented in a school or district, gains such as Upper Darby High School’s can be achieved.
If educators take the steps necessary to transfer learning and implement effective practices, student achievement will improve. Professional learning will not be futile. Educators will not continue to struggle with little hope of success. Instead, best practices will take root and all the hard work of teachers will not be in vain.
About the Author
Linda Diamond is President of Consortium on Reaching Excellence in Education (CORE). She is a former school administrator and author of the Teaching Reading Sourcebook and Assessing Reading: Multiple Measures.
*Online coaching saves travel costs and provides teachers with the opportunity to create and share video lessons, lesson plans, and other materials, as well as review model lessons with a personal CORE coach for feedback through the internet. It also allows the CORE coach to watch a lesson while it is occurring.
Darling-Hammond, L., Chung Wei, R., Andree, A., & Richardson, N.(2009). Professional learning in the learning profession: A status report on teacher development in the United States and abroad. Oxford, OH: National Staff Development Council.
Penuel, W. R., Fishman, B. J., Yamaguchi, R., & Gallagher, L. P. (2007, December). What Makes Professional Development Effective? Strategies that Foster Curriculum Implementation. American Educational Research Journal, 44, 921-958.
Rice, J.K. (2001). Fiscal Implications of New Directions in Teacher Professional Development. School Business Affairs, 67 (4), 19-24.
Truesdale, W. T. (2003). The implementation of peer coaching on the transferability of staff development to classroom practice in two selected Chicago public elementary schools. Dissertation Abstracts International, 64 (11), 3923. (University Microfilms No. 3112185).
Weschke, B. & Barclay, R. (2011). Online teacher education: Exploring the impact of a reading and literacy program on student learning. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 15 (2), 22-43.
Yoon, Kwang Suk, Teresa Duncan, Silvia Wen-Yu Lee, Beth Scarloss, and Kathy L. Shapley. Reviewing the Evidence on How Teacher Professional Development Affects Student Achievement. Issues and Answers Report, REL 2007 – No. 033. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest, 2007