Private school PD as a model for city schools?
We're all about guest posts here this week. This one is from Beth Drummond Casey, executive director of the Middle Grades Partnership, about Park School's professional development event on Sunday -- and how the model used successfully there might transfer into public schools:
Conventional wisdom might stress the importance of not looking back once you leave one job for another. Nonetheless, I found myself thinking somewhat wistfully of my 14 years working at Park School as I sat in the audience at Park’s 20th anniversary celebration of its professional development program, FACA (Faculty And Curricular Advancement), this past Sunday evening.
Devoted readers of this blog tend to care about and be associated with public schools. (Like me, for instance: I now help run a program for 600 Baltimore City public middle school students.) But I hope some of you – especially those who believe that effective teacher professional development is the best way to promote student achievement – will set aside your biases about private schools and will read all the way to the end of this post.
I’m remembering Sara’s blog entry last week, the one where she mentioned attending a lecture at which Deborah Loewenberg Ball, a noted education researcher, bemoaned the lack of quality professional development for veteran teachers. Ball noted that it was up to research universities to fill that gap. I disagree. Speaker after speaker on Sunday night at Park confirmed it: We don’t have to wait for universities to decide what we need. We can provide stellar professional development all on our own.
In 1989, two things bothered Sharpless about most teacher professional development. One was the very nature of typical PD for teachers: An outside expert spouts off for a few hours about new stuff; teachers are given no time to process what they have learned, and are sent back to their classrooms, to either forget promptly they ever experienced the PD or – worse – to be held accountable for the new subject matter or way of teaching, whether they had learned anything or not. Through FACA, Sharpless said, he hoped to upend that traditional model for PD delivery, where “what we knew NOT to do with kids, we still did with teachers.”
One other thing troubled Sharpless. Rather than spending the summer reflecting, reading, and thinking about the craft of teaching in community with other teachers, many of his finest practitioners were spending their summer vacations working in occupations that demanded little intellectual investment but offered modest, if not great, financial gain. As Hendler looked back on that time, she spoke of the “indiginity of professional educators becoming house painters in the summer,” just so they could pay their bills.
So FACA was developed around these two entwined principles: Provide teachers time for reflection and collaboration with their peers, and then compensate them fully for an 11th month of work. Next came the truly revolutionary notion behind FACA: Instead of school leaders deciding what teachers should study or work on in the summer, teachers were given the freedom to propose projects themselves. They were urged to create projects that were collaborative and even inter-disciplinary and, whenever possible, were to engage teachers across all three divisions. (Park is a pre-K through 12th-grade school.) All this to create a kind of “intellectual jazz,” as Hendler described it.
FACA has grown tremendously over the years, to the point where – no surprise – proposals for summer work outdo the school’s capacity to raise funds to support every plan. Even so, every summer’s offerings are impressive. The topics teams of teachers explored in 2008 included adolescent readers, social class identity at Park, evaluating the lower school math curriculum, development of a Chinese program, technology and modern language, history of Park, broadening the conversation about race, taking advantage of tech, and developing and planning a new course in science and religion.
Clearly, Sharpless and Hendler’s original vision lives, breathes, thrives, and, for this writer at least, puts forth a model for educators near and far to ponder. Do you have to be a well-resourced private school to pull off this sort of program, or would this model work in a public school setting? Can significant professional development for public school teachers be organized around the intellectual exploration of essential questions in the company of one’s professional peers and still result in impressive rates of student achievement?
I tried imagining a possible example. We can all agree that the problem of Algebra I readiness and mastery is huge both in the nation and in Baltimore. How to ensure more kids get the skills they need to excel in middle and high school math so that the path to upper-level math is open to all students? As far as I can tell, the only real “measure” of algebra mastery right now is whether or not a student passes the HSA test. But can we be sure that the test result tells us anything about a student’s true understanding of algebraic concepts and of his or her readiness to excel in future math classes?
Instead of programming hours of PD to train teachers who then turn around and train students to pass the HSA or the Algebra I course, what if instead we gathered together a few other math teachers, some funders, a program operator or even an education writer who might be interested in exploring an alternative to HSA as assessment? This group would be made up of many who’d be willing to happily leap off the intellectual cliff together in search of answers to questions such as: How do I know when a student is a strong algebraic reasoner? Am I diagnosing the reason for learning gaps accurately? For my students who are already whizzes, am I serving their needs? What experiences must a student have in early elementary school that will ensure strong thinking is in place by middle school? What is the research that can offer answers to these questions and maybe even generate a few more to ponder?
I refuse to believe that a Park-School-like professional development experience is only possible within the walls of a privately funded institution. The FACA model envisioned by Sharpless and Hendler offers those of us in the public sector a challenge, yes. But it’s not an insurmountable one. Sharpless closed his remarks Sunday night by saying that it was high time for schools to “match the energy of students with that of the faculty, to then wrap it in subject matter” and see what happens.
I couldn’t agree more.