Spending Professional Development Time and Money Wisely

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Perception is everything.  Despite our best intentions, when we present ourselves and our ideas to the world, how others see us or those ideas depends on the context in which the other exists, as well as how we have planned and prepared the presentation.  Our lack of understanding of the other’s condition could be our downfall, or we could get lucky and find ourselves in alignment.

In teaching, we have a few basic tenets that help us avoid misperceptions and misconceptions.  First, we believe in “starting from where the students are,” meaning that we use the students’ experiences to help them construct new knowledge and understanding.  Another important process is “differentiating instruction,” so that students can succeed with the same concept, skill, or content starting at their own level of ability and proceeding at a pace that works for them.  This has evolved into “personalized learning,” which targets that individual’s needs, not just their ability group.  Teachers’ access to technology that interacts and responds to the student has helped make personalized learning possible.  One could argue that it needs improvement, but that can be said of everything.  In fact, a continuous improvement mindset is preferable in many settings, not just educational.

Other concepts that are important to education (and there are many more than what I can write about here) include Understanding by Design, Project-Based Learning, Data-Driven Instruction, Standards-Based Instruction (Education), Evidence-Based Instruction, and 21st-Century Skills integration. These are all laudable ideas, if implemented properly and with care.

That educational researchers and mainstream literature write about these tenets of education often is a matter of record.  Therefore, it surprised me to read in The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth about Our Quest for Teacher Development that teachers perceive the professional development (PD) offered to them to be too generalized (Hasiotis et al., 2015) .  Despite the district or state’s best intentions, many teachers feel that PD is irrelevant to them and their context, rendering it not useful.  Even the job-embedded activities were not helpful, according to the report.  Teachers in the districts studied over two years were disappointed, and the millions of dollars spent on PD were, essentially, wasted.  Meanwhile, those providing PD continued to feel that they were serving their teachers well by creating, adopting, and deploying programs that helped their teachers learn about what great teaching looks like.  Why is the perception so disjointed between those developing and providing PD and those who are receiving it?

According to this report, the problem is not connected to funding.  In fact, their research concluded that districts spend an average of $18,000 a year per teacher, which translates to $8 billion being spent in the United States each year.  The problem is not connected to the amount of time spent, either, according to the report.  Teachers reported spending at least 150 hours, or 19 days, working on professional development activities per year.

The problem, then, is related to spending but not the amount of money or time devoted to the cause.  Instead, it is about how teachers and PD providers are spending their time.  The Mirage includes excellent recommendations for the improvement of professional development.  I highly recommend reading the report.  For this post, I would like to focus on personalizing professional development.

Teachers are students too

The best way to get students engaged initially with the material is to convince them that it is relevant to their lives.  They will take ownership of their learning if we can convincingly answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”  To keep them engaged, however, we need to work with them and provide meaningful feedback.  We do this through formative assessment, a process that is supportive and encouraging.  We design activities that are within the students’ zone of proximal development so that they are just challenging enough that students will learn, instead of being overwhelmed, with a bit of help from us. We challenge the students’ critical thinking, problem solving, creative, and collaborative skills in ways that we know our students can handle and then gradually release responsibility for the learning to them as they progress in their understanding of the concept, skill, or knowledge. In other words, we engage our students in cognitive apprenticeship (Collins, Brown, & Holum, 1991). Why, then, did the teachers in The Mirage study not experience professional development that way? Teachers are students too.

Use Action Research to engage teachers

Action Research is a process that makes the teacher a researcher and a participant in the study(“Action research for teachers,” n.d.; Creswell, 2005). It is a deliberate and well-planned study of one’s current practice. It is also an experiment with the following steps: identify an area of improvement, collect the data, implement a plan of improvement, analyze the data, report the results, and react to the results by proposing ways to improve one’s practice. Action research can be cyclical in that one study leads to another idea, which leads to another study. Action Research doesn’t have to be a lonely process; groups can work together if their research questions are similar, but in the end, each person strives to answer their personal questions and improve their own practice. They answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” themselves.

Professional development in situ

One advantage to doing Action Research is that it is professional development in situ. Action Research is similar to job-embedded activities, which are popular in professional development, but those activities start with prompts that were devised by someone else. Action Research, however, starts with a prompt (research question) that the teacher creates, to answer personal questions. Like job-embedded activities, it encourages the teacher to use the qualitative and quantitative data to hand, which is data related to one’s students. During the implementation process, the teacher is collecting still more data, which is still related to the students and to instructional effectiveness. The teacher then analyzes that data, striving to determine if their implementation plan worked or if more change is necessary. While all of that is similar to a job-embedded activity, that it starts with the teacher-created prompt makes it much more worthwhile.

Another aspect of Action Research that is very important is that teacher researchers are supposed to report their findings. Using in-service days to let teachers present to each other could, potentially, make those hours more productive. First, the teachers are dealing with the same student population. Therefore, teachers will hear their colleagues’ research questions and may choose to adopt that question for their next research project, as it relates to their experience in the classroom. Additionally, they may choose to implement another teacher’s solution simply because it worked for that teacher, who has many of the same students. This may lead to cross-curricular adoption of teaching strategies, allowing the students to experience similar teaching and learning methods within different subject areas. The notion of “what works in education” is, then, adapted to the culture in which the teachers and students are members.

Teachers in The Mirage study would benefit from this type of professional development. Their students would benefit, too. It could, potentially, make an instructional coach’s job much more difficult, and the program could suffer from a lack of rigor if the teachers are not taught how to collect and analyze data properly. Since these teachers think that their PD activities are nearly worthless, however, I think that making the switch could change the lives of these teachers and their students for the better.

Professional development tools

PD tools have flooded the market. There are apps for the phone and tablet, desktop applications, books in all formats, CDs and DVDs, mp4 recordings, YouTube videos, and so much more. I have tried quite a few of these tools and I like almost all of them. When doing Action Research, however, the first and last tool teachers need to use is the data collection and reporting tool, whatever that might be.

Teachers form questions for further study based on their classroom environment (or that of the school, if working in a group). Within that environment, the students figure prominently of course. Data tools can help teachers form impressions of their students. Through different lenses, the teacher can view the students’ progress historically, longitudinally, and currently. Based on these impressions, teachers can evaluate the effectiveness of their teaching and those who taught them before. Data tools with holistic data capture can unite academic progress with other factors influencing a child’s well-being, such as socioeconomic status, extracurricular activities, IEP status, and ELL progress.

Unfortunately, many teachers do not know enough about these tools to use the data wisely – if at all. Teacher preparation programs do not normally teach data analysis. This was true when I was studying to become a K-12 teacher, at least. Because teachers lack this valuable skill, some Action Research projects lack the rigor required to truly make a difference in the classroom. In a study by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation called Teachers Know Best: Making Data Work for Teachers and Students, it was clear that half the teachers studied were comfortable with using data to improve instruction, but the other half were overwhelmed by the idea and claimed they did not have the time to learn data analysis skills, or felt that their current methods worked for them (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2015) It is a fascinating study, one I recommend reading, along with The Mirage.

The last thing we want is to waste even more of the teacher’s and the district’s time. Therefore, I propose that teacher PD needs to include instruction on data analysis along with Action Research. PD providers should design the sessions so that teachers are using their data, thereby making the sessions relevant to them. Instructional coaches can work with teachers to help them understand what they are looking at, and verify the teacher’s conclusions. They can use these sessions as formative assessment of teachers, encouraging them to take risks to reap the rewards of continuous improvement. Make the data relevant to the teacher, help them to see the windows of opportunity the data shows, help them to understand where their students are and how well they can get to where they need to go, and teachers will embrace data analysis. I am sure of it because, after all, perception is everything.


Action research for teachers. (n.d.). Retrieved November 21, 2015, from http://www.nefstem.org/teacher_guide/prep/index.htm

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2015). Teachers know best: Making data work for teachers and students. Seattle, WA. Retrieved from http://collegeready.gatesfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/TeachersKnowBest-MakingDataWork.compressed.pdf

Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Holum, A. (1991). Cognitive apprenticeship: Making thinking visible. American Educator, Winter. Retrieved from http://elc.fhda.edu/transform/resources/collins_brown_holum_1991.pdf

Creswell, J. W. (2005). Educational Research: Planning, Conducting, and Evaluating Quantitative and Qualitative Research. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson / Prentice Hall.

Hasiotis, D., Grogan, E., Lawrence, K., Maier, A., Wilpon, A., Jacob, A., & McGovern, K. (2015). The mirage: Confronting the hard truth about our quest for teacher development. Retrieved November 14, 2015, from http://tntp.org/assets/documents/TNTP-Mirage_2015.pdf

This post was recently published by the SunGard K-12 blog:



Embrace the Backchannel

Those in the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) movement in K-12 and Postsecondary education advocate for multiple means of communication among teachers and students that include using devices equipped with backchannel apps.  These applications, which allow for a digital conversation while a verbal conversation is happening, can allow those who are afraid to speak in class, or those who prefer not to speak in class, to contribute to the discussion through written responses.  Those who are shy and those who are introverted have an outlet that is suitable to their personalities, which helps them contribute to the conversation in productive ways.

Did you know that being shy is not the same thing as being introverted?  It’s true.  A shy person has fears about interacting with others, but doesn’t necessarily want to be alone.  An introvert, on the other hand, gathers energy in solitude and expends a lot of energy when in a group; to recharge, the introvert must retreat and take some time alone to regroup.  This article explains the difference very well.  I used to think I was an introvert.  Here’s a story about how I found out I was wrong.

Marriage and Family Class, Holy Family University, 1992

The class had just received the results of the Myers-Briggs personality test we took the last class.  We reviewed the results in silence, reading the descriptions of each code and correlating them to our results.

After a few minutes, the teacher asked, “Did anyone find their results surprising?”  I raised my hand.

“What did you find surprising, Heather?” he asked.

“That the test says I’m an extravert,” I responded.

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Those were some of the reactions to what I said.  I was shocked.  I’d spent most of my life thinking I was introverted.  Turns out, I wasn’t.  Sure, perhaps at one point I had been shy, but by the time I was a Junior in college, those days were long gone.  Some classmates wondered aloud how I could consider myself introverted when I was always contributing in class, for example.  It was hard to explain to them that I considered myself a loner; being an only child had conditioned me to being quite comfortable by myself for long periods of time.  I am not one to have a great number of friends, either, having espoused the philosophy that if you can count your true friends on one hand, you’re a lucky person.  “Better to cultivate true friendships than try to befriend every person you meet” was my motto.

It turns out that the classification hinges on your preferred sources of energy.  Today, I understand that I am energized when I am speaking with a group, teaching or training, and being social.  I used to be terrified of public speaking, for instance, but now I come away from the experience with something akin to a runner’s high.  The more the audience interacts with me, the better.   Just like a runner, however, it’s easy for me to “hit a wall” and “crash.”  As anyone should, I must be careful and moderate my actions and interactions with other people.

That brings me to the point of this post.  You probably thought I wasn’t going to get there, didn’t you?  That’s all right, because I wasn’t sure I was going to get there either.

Backchannel applications can help introverts and shy students alike.  Introverted students can reserve their energy; shy students can contribute without being terrified.  Teachers do not have to broadcast identities when using these applications, as most of them allow anonymous posting and showing responses in the aggregate.  Those who are introverted can “spend” their energy wisely.  Students who are shy might enjoy seeing results that align with their expectations; in other words, they would feel included within a group instead of feeling like an outsider.

They can help teachers, too.  How often do we teachers make our way through a lesson wondering if everyone understands the purpose and content of it?  I’m sure that the answer varies by teacher.  Even if we ask for confirmation from our students, those who are reluctant to speak in a group setting will often indicate they understand.  A backchannel app helps the teacher gather accurate information about the class.  It is a powerful tool for formative assessment.

To conclude this post, I leave you with a list of my favorite backchannel apps.  I won’t review them here, as many others have done that already, but if you would like more information about any of them, feel free to email me at hmedick@gmail.com, or leave a comment in the comment box below.  Thank you!




Poll Everywhere


Collaborize Classroom

In another post, I will offer more reasons to embrace the backchannel, such as helping students that work at a different pace than the rest of the class.

This post originally appeared on elearningindustry.com.






Three Ways to Motivate Teachers to Participate in Education Reforms

During a recent training session on standards-based education, this question came up:

[icon name=”quote-left” class=””]With all the education reforms going on, how can the reform leaders motivate the teachers?  How do they get buy in?

The best answers I can give are below.
Continue reading “Three Ways to Motivate Teachers to Participate in Education Reforms”

How Standards Can Help Teachers Communicate with Parents and Guardians

There are numerous stakeholders in a child's education: students, teachers, parents, administration, and the rest of the community.
There are numerous stakeholders in a child’s education: students, teachers, parents, guardians, administration, and the community-at-large.

Update: I intended, but didn’t, include guardians in the list of those who are stakeholders in a child’s education.  I apologize to the many wonderful people who care for children and hold titles other than parent, such as “Grandparent,” “Aunt,” “Uncle,” “Sister,” “Brother,” or “Foster Parent.”  Please know that I recognize the incredible contribution you make to children’s lives and regret the oversight.  I was so focused on my experiences with my son that I did not weave guardian into the post. 

Every parent is also a teacher and has at least one student: a child. During the formidable first years, the parent is the primary educator. The child looks to the parent first for guidance, learning how to walk, talk, eat, etc. This little person spends a great deal of time watching, experimenting, and mimicking until one day, the actions make sense.  Then, while Mom is cooking in the kitchen, she hears uncertain footsteps clopping on the floor and turns around to see the baby standing there, watching her.  Dad, beaming with pride, is standing behind the baby. (What a moment that was!)

Most parents start the process of relinquishing at least part of their educational responsibility when they enroll the child in school. The first time the little one walks into a classroom can be a painful and frightening moment for both, for a part of the relationship that is now changing drastically. The parent becomes a partner with a stranger who, although a professional educator, is still completely unknown. The child needs to acclimate to a new authority figure, a new routine, and a new space. Some do not go gently into that situation; others take to it like a duck upon water. I cried for some time after dropping my son off for his first day in Kindergarten, even though he had been in preschool for two years.  That first day made it official, in my mind: I had gone from primary teacher to secondary for at least 9 months of the year.  My son would now spend more waking hours with a caregiver other than me.  Like many parents, I also had to accept the fact that I would not know everything that was happening during that time.

It doesn’t have to be that way, however. Continue reading “How Standards Can Help Teachers Communicate with Parents and Guardians”

Four Ways to Discover Why Students Can’t Do Fifth Grade Math

Did I get your attention with that headline? I hope so, but at the same time, I am dismayed. For a long time, I have tried to stay away from the “[Enter a number here]” headline that pervades educational blogs. Still, it is nice to have folks read the blog, so if the headline caught your eye, thanks for taking the bait!

Recently, a colleague of mine and I went to watch another colleague train curriculum administrators at a school district on our student performance management software.* The trainer, whom I will call Maggie, ran a report to demonstrate how to analyze the state standardized test results. She chose to run the results for fifth-grade math for the 2013-14 school year. The administrators were dismayed by the results, as many students scored in the “basic” range. One asked, “Why is it that fifth graders always seem to do poorly on the math test? It’s a thing – every year it seems to be a problem.”[Tweet “Why is it that fifth graders always seem to do poorly on the math test? It’s a thing – every year it seems to be a problem.”]

That’s a great question, and one that deserves an answer. Maggie ran a comparative report next, showing how the same students performed on their fourth grade math test. They were much better at math the previous year, it turned out. Then, she ran what we call the level movement report. The participants groaned. They could see that many of students fell from proficient and advanced to basic year-on-year. Maggie mentioned how these reports could start the conversation that answers the question: “Why did this happen?”

1. Start with the Data Available
Most, if not all, of the high-stakes tests will provide data teachers can use to start asking questions about student performance. Data is aggregated (and can be disaggregated) by total test score, test section, standard assessed, district, school, student demographic, etc. With the right software, the analysis is easy. Teachers and administrators can drill into the results to the detail they think will be most helpful.  They can use this data to start asking questions such as the one above, then use other methods (interviews, lesson reviews, curriculum analysis, surveys, etc.) to get more information that will help them form answers and intervention plans.

The data will not be as helpful as it could be, however, without evidence from the instructional period related to the standard(s) addressed. That’s where curriculum mapping helps teachers to relate test scores to teaching and learning.

2. Consistently Map the Curriculum
In this district, curriculum administrators had only just begun to map the curriculum using software that would help with data analysis. Our software allows them to tie assessments to the standards addressed in each lesson or unit, and allows teachers to “diary map” their lessons that can also contain assessments tied to standards. To make this process as effective as possible, teachers and administrators have to commit to putting data into the system in a consistent way and in a timely manner. They can’t just start out strong and then let the entry fall by the wayside, which often happens with these initiatives.

How can you avoid this from happening? Make the data entry as easy as possible. To effectively tie standards to assessment, teachers can use software to help them build assessment frameworks and administer assessments. Students can take assessments using “bubble sheets,” can take them online, or can take them using pencil and paper. Teachers can upload scores using a CSV file and let the software make the connections between standards and performance.

The right software can also provide robust reporting features that can show the same data in multiple formats – and therefore, from multiple perspectives.

3. Always tie assessments to standards addressed in a lesson or unit
Fair, meaningful assessments (formative, summative, benchmark, or diagnostic) always evaluate the student performance against the objectives of the unit of instruction, be it a lesson, unit, or an entire course. Those objectives should be tied to standards – those concepts and skills that students are expected to master at a certain grade level.

Creating, administering, and evaluating such assessments can be quite difficult without the support of appropriate software.  Having to manage assessments by hand would be a daunting task.   It can also be difficult if one has to do it alone.  Forming data teams can help teachers evaluate data.

4. Form Data Teams

A data team is a group of individuals (in this case, educators) who convene to analyze data and create information from it.  Data by itself is not enough to create a perspective or understanding of what is happening.  People must interpret that data.  Working together can help educators to create a deep, rich understanding of what is happening.

For more guidance on establishing data teams, this document may prove helpful: http://www.nctm.org/news/content.aspx?id=27192.

*Please note that I am an employee of SunGard K-12 Education.  The opinions expressed in this blog post are mine alone, however, and have not been influenced by anyone within the organization.

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The Curriculum Map and the Trip to the Wedding


I have been busy creating short videos for work and play.  I wonder what you will think of this one?  Take a look and let me know.

I really like the following sites for information on curriculum mapping.



http://pdesas.org – I have to throw that in there since it is the Pennsylvania DOE’s site and because it’s good.

Questions?  Comments?  Kudos?  Please leave a note using the form below.  Thanks!

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Thoughts on Standards-Based Grading

In the interest of full disclosure, I work for a company that develops, markets, and sells software to K-12 institutions, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and the company is not responsible for them.

The software includes an SIS (Student Information System), a performance management system, a special education system, and finance software. In the SIS, we have a standards-based grade book. When our product manager presented it, and the educational theories behind its development, to us recently, my first reaction was that of a parent, rather that a teacher. I thought,

4426.cstarinterrobangYou mean to tell me that students will not be penalized for missed assignments or for incomplete assignments? What?! That’s insane. You’re just inviting students to decide that the assignments aren’t important, and they won’t do them.

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That was how a lot of parents, teachers, and administrators reacted, too, when they decided to move to standards-based grading in St. Louis. The point of SBG, however, is to get an accurate “picture” of a student’s progress that does not include, for example, points awarded for doing homework. Instead, the grade produced indicates mastery of a standard, minus all the “fluff” that inflates grades and does not demonstrate true learning.

In addition, under SBG, students are able to actually master a standard. That means that they will be able to try, fail, and try again.

Another variation of the SBG theme is competency-based education. In my company’s world, they are basically the same thing, which might be a problem in some educators’ eyes, but it really isn’t. Basically, the grade book looks at the standards loaded by the district first, allowing a teacher to load assignments and assessments into the grade book under each standard measured. It allows teachers to answer the question, “How will we assess that this student has reached proficiency on this standard?” A student has to master the concept, skill, and / or standard and demonstrate mastery in order to ‘pass.’ From my understanding, that is how CBE works – it’s based on students demonstrating proficiency in some manner of a concept, skill, or knowledge. It does allow for more individualization than SBG (read the article below for a great overview), but our grade book would accommodate that level of individualization, I believe.

[aesop_quote type=”block” quote=”The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” size=”1″ align=”center” height=”auto” text=”#FFFFFF” background=”#222222″ width=”100%”]

When I was in grad school, I learned about a Middle School that was trying a different method of educating that refused anyone to earn less than a B. If you did poorly on a test or a project, you did it again until you earned the grade they considered acceptable. That presumes you did some remedial work in the meantime as well. In theory, that’s awesome. We would have a lot of kids, then, who would not be well-rehearsed in the ways of “doing school.” It would be a boon for differentiated instruction and personalized learning, too. Kids would be able to go at their own pace and master a concept or skill in true fashion, rather than trying to keep up with the middle. Imagine this: Kids would be allowed to make mistakes! Those who are “quick learners” (I am not among them, by the way) would be able to move on to more challenging concepts and skills and master higher standards. From what I understand, a number of online schools use standards-based (or competency-based) methods with their students. I love that idea – in theory.

In practice, it’s probably a logistical nightmare, especially for the teachers who have to keep track of each student’s progress, which could be all over the grade book map. I’m not sure that means we should abandon the idea; in fact, I think it means we should reconsider the following.

  • Doesn’t the design of SBG and CBE actually mirror what happens in life?
  • Do the traditional grade levels still apply in our century?
  • What is more important – being on track with others, or truly learning something?
  • What are we telling our kids when we espouse the ideas behind traditional academic success?

For now, I want to address the first question. In the article I referenced above, one of those who are not keen on the concept indicated that what happens in SBE and CBE does not reflect the ways of the real world. I disagree.

“That’s not how the real world works.”

Interesting. The first thing you learn when you engage in any project is this: deadlines are soft. Miss a deadline and you’ll need to explain yourself, but it’s not like it’s unexpected. Additionally, “getting something right” is more important than a deadline, and often “getting something right” means going off the rails and trying something other than what management expected. Staff takes ownership of a part of a project, and almost everything at work today is part of a project. Today, managers expect staff to be independent, knowledgeable, and flexible. Staff does not just do what it is told. Staff members start out with the goals they are given, but those goals can often shift. So, yes, this type of education does reflect the real world.

More later… It’s time to open presents!





More on Consideration Number One

I simply found it fascinating that an educator would say that SBG and CBE do not reflect the real world.  I understand why the person said it.  If you don’t meet the goals set in the workplace, there are consequences.  If you don’t do the work you’re supposed to do, there are consequences.  As I said above, however, adults set these deadlines while collaborating on a project or task, and the goals are continuously revisited for validity.  The manager does not set a goal in a grade book and give you a zero if you don’t meet the goal.  Yes, you have to explain yourself if you don’t meet the goal, but if you can explain yourself well, the penalties are often slight or not imposed at all.

Which brings me to my next point: Communication feeds the heart and soul of any human organization, project-based or not.  [pullquote]Communication feeds the heart and soul of any human organization, project-based or not.[/pullquote]In this reformed version of grading, students and teachers work on communication and collaboration skills, two very important skills to have as one enters the workforce.  If done right, I believe the students will learn to acknowledge that goals and deadlines are important, but more importantly, they will learn to communicate with their teacher when they are struggling to meet them or believe the assignments are not going to help them achieve their goals.  I think that educators are misunderstanding a fundamental part of this learning process when they allow students to miss deadlines or not complete assignments at all.  That’s a misconception about the process that absolutely must be addressed.  Students are missing vital learning opportunities when they do not attempt an assignment simply because they know they will not be penalized.  When students and educators agree that the assignments are learning opportunities and that they should communicate about its effectiveness and collaborate to make changes if necessary, that is when true learning takes place.  That reflects what happens in the real world.