Ronald GallimoreEveryone's a teacher to someone (John Wooden)

Close-to-practice teacher development key to improving instruction

Ermeling, B.A. & Gallimore, R. (2014/2015). Close-to-practice learning. Educational Leadership. 72(4), 55-60. Open access at

The Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards face many challenges, but none greater than this: Teachers must make the biggest instructional changes ever asked of them.

For the standards to succeed, teaching must be more than telling, and learning more than listening. Teaching must elicit, prod, and develop students' thinking and improve students' abilities to understand challenging texts, talk and write about complex ideas, and apply what they learn to solve novel problems (Ball & Forzani, 2013; Shanahan, 2013).

Changes of this magnitude require much teacher time and effort—and this work is largely invisible to everyone except teachers. For example, when working with a new math curriculum, a high school algebra teacher must plan, try out, and refine new lessons, learning through repeated trial and error what's effective for students who vary in ability and achievement levels. This is how teachers master new resources, modify instruction, and accumulate usable, classroom-ready knowledge and skills.

It will take even more time and practice for teachers to master the high-leverage teaching practices that the new standards call for. Traditional modes of professional development are too short-lived and too distant from practice to achieve significant improvements.

To produce changes in classroom instruction, the key is closer-to-practice opportunities for teachers to focus on incremental improvements in classroom instruction. Close-to-practice improvement depends on four crucial conditions:

1. Teachers are familiar with the curriculum, so they knows the concepts and skills it required them to teach.

2. Learn inquiry teaching by planning lessons for immediate use in their own classrooms. Focusing improvement activity on highly relevant, day-to-day work and pressing instructional issues bridges the gap between talk and practice and produce classroom-ready, usable knowledge.

3. Engage in deliberate study of the relationship between teaching and learning.

4. Engage in improvement work over time.

Providing teacher learning opportunities that meet these four criteria is challenging for many schools. Schools often discover that there's little guidance for how to organize and institute an effective teaching improvement process

Key to the success of new standards and assessments is the indispensable work of teachers who engage in sustained professional learning opportunities that focus on teaching and learning. The new standards have a better chance of success if we commit to steady, incremental change, what surgeon and author Atul Gawande (2007) called the "infant science of improving performance" (p. 242).


Some Examples of the Problems Districts Face When They Try PLCs

In my last post on July 30th, 2013, I mentioned an article that Brad Ermeling and I did based on visits he made to 40 districts trying to operate PLCs –– professional learning communities. He was invited to visit because they had run into a problem. He discovered two types of PLCs, each of which had some challenge.

“Compliance-driven” was one variety of practice Brad observed. These districts described as PLCs meetings in which teachers were expected to work on mandated districts initiatives, such as training on new curricula and materials, analysis of district assessments, accreditation preparation, etc. Of course this variety of PLC might well be effective, so it would be a mistake to discount their value even if they don’t meet consensus PLC criteria.

A second variety was “workshop-inspired.” About 25 of the 40 districts had sent a teachers and administrators to a local or national workshop, typically led by well known speakers. The workshops provided inspirational case examples of districts and schools that had used PLCS to transform teaching and improve achievement. According to the experts, transformation was achieved by a focus on student learning, embracing high expectations for all, and becoming a community of teacher learners. Returning to their districts, the workshop attendees faced a daunting reality. Workshops had inspired but not provided an implementation model. While there were vivid illustrations of what a PLC looked like once it was up and running, there was almost no guidance for where to start, and how to sustain what for most districts was a radical departure from existing culture.

What Brad discovered in both compliance-oriented and workshop-inspired districts was a little time spent studying and improving instruction. In some districts there was confusion, for example, one educator told Brad “we’ve always been told this [PLC] os mot about teaching; it’s about student learning.” As a result, in many districts he visited the prevailing take-away from the PLC workshop was the need to focus on analyzing student assessments. A group of teacher leaders at a charter school said “we never have an opportunity to work on instruction related to our daily classroom teaching.”

It will be a shame if PLCs get labelled as another reform that came up short because the field did not develop implementation models. It’s an old story documented many times. A great idea is launched, but too little attention to paid to that vast gap between intention and outcome ––implementing intentions so they have a chance to produce outcomes. One of the saddest stories in American education is how often we repeat this cycle of enthusiastic beginnings and tawdry endings. For an insightful, if depressing example, read Seymour Sarason’s classic (1971) account of the fate of the New Math Reform of the 1960s. Sarason’s The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change is as relevant today as it was 40+ years ago. It’s documents why perhaps the dirtiest word in education is implementation.
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