A Blended Approach to Teacher PD

With more and more demands for change, here’s a collaborative approach to professional development that is bringing teachers and administrators up to speed
Christopher Piehler

The past few years have been turbulent ones for K-12 educators. Districts around the country have struggled to harness the potential of constantly evolving technology, all the while scrambling to implement the Common Core or new state standards. From California to New York, from Miami to Washington, and Montana to Mississippi, no one in education has been exempt.

Whether schools are introducing new hardware or new standards, the recent turmoil has made one thing is clear: PD is key. Top-down mandates may sound great in a board meeting, but without training for and buy-in from teachers, the grandest plan can fall flat in the classroom.

Change doesn’t have to be painful, though, if districts give their administrators and teachers the tools they need to keep pace with the changes they are facing. To show how blended PD can help teachers adopt and maintain new standards, we took a look at a program in the state of Florida that is finding success. We found teachers who are becoming trainers and students are improving their test scores.

A Spotlight Turned on Florida

When it came time to implement new, more rigorous academic standards, the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) favored a statewide blended learning approach. The FLDOE partnered with Public Consulting Group (PCG) to create a three-tiered professional development model that gave educators from each of the state’s 600+ charter schools the training and resources they needed to teach to the new Florida Standards in mathematics, English language arts, and content literacy.

The blended learning approach used in-person sessions to provide administrators and leadership teams with a bird’s-eye view of the standards and a mission to identify and train Florida Standards experts for their school. Teachers took subject-specific courses online and schools received up to 3 hours of customized face-to-face consulting for every completed course. Finally, each school established a Florida Standards team made up of teachers and administrators who would create an implementation plan to present to the school. To get a sense of how this blended model is working, we spoke to the principals of three schools that are involved in the collaboration. Here’s what they had to say.

“A Big Step Forward Towards College”

Michael Castellano, the principal at Pembroke Pines West Middle School, said that before his school joined the collaboration, “Very little information was being disseminated on the transition to Common Core. There was no training that targeted effective teacher practice and how best to meet demands” of the new standards and the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA).

His school delivered its PD in weekly department meetings and from district trainings, which “weren’t always a good fit.” To get the guidance he and his school needed, Castellano sent his administrative and leadership teams to day-long, face-to-face workshops and engaged his classroom teachers in online courses. Castellano himself completed three online modules and found them to be “very rich,” noting that the blended approach allowed teachers to learn at their own pace without being pulled out of class. After teachers completed the online PD, they shared their knowledge in each department’s professional learning community meetings.

The school’s efforts are being rewarded in the classroom, where teachers who once taught from a single textbook are now using multiple texts and multimedia, with an emphasis on real-world examples. Students are learning to digest multiple sources and produce their own opinions, which Castellano called “a big step forward towards college.” To keep the project on track, curriculum specialists are sharing data trends to ensure that students are making progress. Overall, Castellano concluded, “The model is an all-inclusive approach to effectively building teacher capacity in our school,” that has “changed the landscape what we do in all departments.”

“Teachers’ Most Valuable Commodity Is Time”

At Aventura Charter of Excellence, a K-8 school with about 1,000 students, Principal Julie Alm faced a range of challenges during the transition to the new standards—the first of which was that all the standards were changing at the same time. Overwhelmed teachers were having difficulty updating not only what they were teaching but how they were teaching it. The new standards mandated giving students more control over their learning and creating a more collaborative classroom environment but, like Castellano, Alm found that there was “not a lot of information out there” about how to apply these mandates in the classroom.

The school was delivering embedded PD taught by visitors to the classroom, but the “overwhelming change for everyone involved” required more intensive learning. “To take teachers out of their classrooms for a day of offsite PD” was not an option, Alm said. “Teachers' most valuable commodity is time.” Instead, giving them 24/7 access to online modules has been “a huge time-saver and benefit to us."

After three years of blended PD, Aventura fully adopted the new standards during the 2014-2015 school year. Alm’s teachers have reported “deeper discussions happening in the classroom, which have become more collaborative.” To keep the cycle of learning going, Alm is now inviting other schools to visit her classrooms to see how the Florida Standards work in the field.

“Turning Teachers into Trainers”

For Principal Julie Fredrickson at The School of Arts and Sciences (SAS), a K-8 charter with 344 students, the biggest challenge in adopting the Florida Standards was “fear of the unknown. We were so steeped in other standards.” When it came to curriculum, the school’s most glaring need was in the area of writing.

In February 2013, Fredrickson included herself (along with teachers representing middle school ELA and math) on the SAS team that attended in-person PD sessions. For administrators, the training offered an overview of standards as well as a section on analyzing data and communicating with the school community.

When it came to PD, Frederickson asked teachers to delve into the substance of the standards, but they also learned about data analysis and formed teams to determine how ready the school was to put their new methods into action. Most important, said Frederickson, with support from PCG Education consultants who came to the school once a month, “the staff turned into the trainers.” SAS now has five teacher/trainers ready to help their colleagues teach to the Florida Standards. Having teachers educate their colleagues about the new standards “has helped a whole lot with the angst of this thing,” Frederickson, said, “because otherwise it was all coming from leadership.”

As the school continues its transition to Florida Standards, all this effort has paid measurable dividends in the classroom. Fredrickson recently got her school’s scores on the FSA assessments, and in sixth- through eighth-grade reading and math, SAS ranked either #1 or #2 in the county.

Christopher Piehler is the former editor-in-chief of THE Journal. He has been an ed tech commentator on both TV and radio, has served as a CODiE award judge, and has been a speaker at the FETC and CoSN conferences.

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