Scaling up innovative professional learning systems for teachers

How can we invest wisely in innovative professional learning for American teachers? What does scalability require?

Points of connection across the globeHow do we redesign professional learning systems for teachers—and take those changes to scale?

What we already know about scaling up

The school reform community has a lot to learn from the long litany of literature, beginning with the sociologists Waller (1932) and Lortie (1975) about the school structures that have kept (and continue to keep) teachers from learning from each other. And there’s plenty to keep in mind about scalability:

  • The RAND change agent studies of the 1970s concluded that effective policies are ones that are mutually adapted by those who implement them.
  • Michael Lipsky taught us a similar lesson in the 1980s. He made the compelling case that “street-level” professionals, especially those who work with conscripted clients (as do police officers and teachers), must always reinvent policy in order to take into account the context-specific complexities of their work
  • And as Dick Elmore pointed out in the 1990s: “The problems of scale are deeply rooted in the incentives and cultural norms of the institutions, and cannot be fixed with simple policy shifts or exhortations from people with money.” He tried to inform policy leaders that getting to scale requires teachers—who do the real work of teaching and learning—to “think of themselves as operating in a web of professional relations that influence their daily decisions, rather than as solo practitioners.”

Driving innovative professional learning systems

Here are two key drivers of innovative professional learning systems:

New ways to de-isolate teachers. Advance opportunities for teachers to witness the practice and reflections of their colleagues, whether they teach next door or across the world. This is already happening to some extent, but imagine the results if teachers were accorded time for (and professional acknowledgement and support of) their interactions via platforms like the CTQ Collaboratory, the Teaching Channel, and Better Lesson as well as Twitter and other forms of social media yet to be invented.

Policies that value teachers’ spreading of their teaching know-how to their colleagues. This is especially important when it comes to the next generation of evaluation systems.

Other strategies to keep in mind

Of course, those are only starting points. To get to—and beyond—these starting points, education stakeholders can take these steps:

Surface and tell professional learning stories. Too many Americans (including policymakers) believe that teachers are not working if they are not teaching in front of students. Teacher leaders are spreading expertise now—if in limited or informal ways. We need to make sure that policymakers know what is being shared, how, and (most importantly) why this matters for students.

Prepare teachers as researchers. Preservice recruits to teaching in the U.S. must be prepared (as are their peers in top-performing countries like Finland and Singapore) to engage in systematic inquiry with a growth mindset and an evidence-based approach.

Design seamless connections. New recruits to teaching, like their counterparts in Singapore, need to be prepared and assessed in ways consistent with how they are evaluated as veterans.

Create time for teachers to be imaginative. As is the case in top-performing nations, teachers in the U.S., need time to learn and flexible work schedules (that look different on different days of the week) to inspire creative efforts (independent and collective) that benefit student learning.

Make school conditions matter. If teachers are to be responsible for student outcomes, policymakers must be accountable for the conditions that need to be in place for teachers to learn and lead to achieve those results.

Tackling this issue

Last week, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation assembled a small team to consider how best to scale up innovative professional learning for teachers. Building on previous investments in teachers’ professional learning, the Foundation has launched a portfolio of work called Innovative Professional Development (iPD) that is evidence-based as well as personalized to what teachers (individually and collectively) need to help students learn (and learn deeply).

The team included think tank analysts, top-level state policy officials and district administrators, professional development experts, and leaders of nonprofits and university-based R&D centers. I learned a great deal from those in the room, and even more when we were joined by administrators and teachers of Bridgeport, CT, one of 14 sites supported by the Foundation in its quest to figure out iPD. I was invited to help drive discussion (along with several other participants) and touched on many of the points outlined in this post.

I hope that some of these ideas stick. What do you think?

  • DeidraGammill

    You should see what we’re doing in Petal, Mississippi!
    I think the team should visit Petal School District (Mississippi) and observe how district-wide job-embedded professional development, in the form of lesson study, is responsible for creating a culture of deep professional learning, trust, and collaboration among our teachers, which translates into incredible learning experiences for our students every day. Lesson study is researched-based, our results are longitudinal, evidenced-based and impressive, and we’re one of the top performing districts in our state. Am I proud to be part of such an amazing learning team? You bet! Would I love to share our success (and how we’ve overcome obstacles) with other schools around the nation? Absolutely!

    Our district has embraced the policy that teachers must have ongoing support (in the form of time, resources, and opportunities for continued growth) and the confidence of their administrators (that they are professionals and can be trusted with that time and those resources and opportunities)in order to provide students with viable learning opportunities and avenues for growth as thinkers, creators, and citizens.

    It’s pretty amazing what happens when teachers are trusted with their own profession; we hold ourselves to higher standards than any the government wants to mandate. But don’t take my word for it … come see for yourself!

    • MelissaRasberry

      Wow, exciting things are happening in MS!
      Deidra, thanks so much for sharing the story of your school district. Indeed, it sounds like exciting things are happening there. I’m always curious when I hear stories like this:

      What lead to this transition? What do you believe convinced administrators at the school and district level to place PD in the hands of teachers?

      Perhaps if we can learn more about what created the transition in Petal, we can share those tipping points in other places across the country.

      P.S. I’d love to hear from your colleagues in TLI. Please encourage them to chime in on this post as well!

      • DeidraGammill

        Lesson study was given time to grow and develop
        In 2004-2005, the science department at my high school piloted lesson study. Our then assistant superintendent had learned about lesson study at a conference and brought back the idea and a commitment to supporting this type of job-embedded PD for teachers in our district. It wasn’t an easy year. To quote the science department chair: “At first, some of my colleagues and I were excited about the opportunity to have time each day devoted to collaboration. The excitement waned within the first few weeks. Years of professional isolation had left some of us indifferent, inflexible, intolerant, and intimidated. Differences of opinion resulted in heated discussions, angry tears, and frequent trips to the principal”s office. Some group members strongly resisted this change in professional development. It took an entire semester for us to begin to work together as a team. However, after working through the initial pain often times involved in change, we have become more focused, and the team time has given us more opportunities to grow professionally than we have ever had.”

        From there, lesson study grew, department by department, then school by school, but it wasn’t implemented district wide in a single year or even two. The shift was gradual so teachers had a chance to get on board. Currently, lesson study includes the core subjects at the high school (the CTE department is moving into it); daily collaborative team time at the middle school; and grade level professional learning communities at the elementary schools.

        The biggest reason job-embedded PD has been successful in the Petal School District is time – lesson study has been given time to grow and develop organically. Too often schools/districts buy into fads/programs/the-next-big-thing and give up on it after a semester or a school year if the results promised aren’t instantaneous! Districts are as guilty of the same “fast food” mentality that permeates our culture – we want it, and we want it NOW – even though authentic learning and collaborative trust take time to develop and grow.

        As a result of this commitment to time, teachers and administrators hired by the PSD find themselves immersed in a collaborative culture.Everyone acknowledges the challenges that accompany something like job-embedded PD, but they are not willing to give up simply because things are sometimes difficult. Of course, once this type of PD started making a real difference in the work of individual teachers AND in the growth of our students (in the classroom and on standardized tests), all our stakeholders became even more committed to making job-embedded PD a permanent part of our school culture. Because everyone is on board – from the school board to principals to teachers – change in leadership (we’re interviewing candidates for superintendent next week) do not mean changes in how job-embedded PD is valued by our district.

  • Craig Armstrong

    Scaling innovative professional learning systems for teachers

    I teach entrepreneurship courses for undergraduate, graduate, and executive students at the University of Alabama. This summer I’m going to use this very topic as an overriding theme for a foundational course in entrepreneurship with undergrads. I would love to hear ideas from teachers who are passionate and creative about this topic but don’t have time to develop the tools they want.

    • BarnettBerry

      Connect teacherpreneurs and your students

      Craig. We would love to connect CTQ teacherpreneurs with the students in your entrepreneurship courses at the University of Alabama. Our book, Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead But Don’t Leave, tells 8 powerful stories of teachers who lead boldly, and how their work in the larger social entrepreneurship movement inside the non-profit sector. 

      let’s connect them:


  • SandyMerz

    Living with the policies you promote –

    One of keys to teacher leadership is the the credibility that comes wanting to live with the policies we promote.  That’s what I thought (again!) when I saw what you wrote about the RAND study – which I can’t wait to read. 

    PD is so big an issue with teachers who so long have been mandated to sit though sessions that were irrelevant or boring or pedestrian just to get their seat hours for recertifaction. We thirst for individualized PD that can help us fill the missing pieces in our puzzle.  

    Let’s hope opportunities will continue go grow for teachers to lead the development of these learning systems as well as participate in them.



  • Mary Stump

    Building the road for the drivers of professional learning

    Thank you for the good reminders of what we know about scaling. The challenge: this takes time — we need a long, strong road, not a temporary fast lane that disappears. A workshop or a couple hours on a webinar will not create Elmore’s “web of professional relations.”  Professional development that is thin and tied to a specific curriculum or one leader will NOT stick. PD that is based in theory and practice of teacher learning, classroom practice, student learning and discipline specific discourse, WILL stick.  As someone involved in scaling a professional development program (Reading Apprenticeship) I see these learnings continually validated:  When secondary teachers are given the time to come together and dive deep into their own expertise, and structures are in place to help them form real communities of practice, AND administrators and policy makers support and understand this work, the culture does shift — the professional web is developed and wonderful things happen for teacher and student learning.

    • bradclark

      valid point

      Professional development that is thin and tied to a specific curriculum or one leader will NOT stick. PD that is based in theory and practice of teacher learning, classroom practice, student learning and discipline specific discourse, WILL stick

      No quick fixes or shallow changes.  We want deep and meaningful shifts toward authentic learning for Teachers and Students in pockets all around the US.  I think this is happening.  It is about connecting the dots to make a broader push.  Barnett’s propostiion of scaling (and the supporting evidences that undergird his argument)  the most effective professional learning models is timely.

      Side note:  What are your main take-aways from Elmore’s work?

  • marsharatzel



    You’re definitely onto something.  Along with these ideas, I think you have to establish in teachers the belief that they should own their learning.  Help them shift from a belief that someone will do it for them into a belief that they are the masters of their ship.  They set sail for designations of learning.  They conquer new ideas and test out ideas within their classrooms.

    I’d imagine a new boldness  in our profession as we “de-isolate” ourselves.  And a new confidence in what we know and our expertise as we embrace action research within our classrooms again.

  • AnneJolly

    One Step Further . . .

    I totally agree, Marsha.  I’d even take this one step further.  Teachers in PLCs, or whatever they call their collaborative groupings must own the learning of their colleagues as well.  I have to care whether the other teachers in my PLC “get it” and stay motivated to implement successful teaching practices.  I have to be willing to support them when they aren’t successful and are discouraged.

    We, as teachers, have to work together and hold ourselves responsible for the professional learning and growth of all teachers in our school.  When that kind of collaboration and caring becomes the way we do business, imagine what the learning scenario will look like for our students!  Imagine what the school culture will look and feel like. 

    • bradclark

      MR and AJ

      You folks are nailing it on the head (which is awesome because your identified needs are localized yet completely applicable ot our KY context…which speaks to the validity of this work).  Individual ownership and peer to peer expectations of excellence are crucial.

      I do think that MR brings up a terribly valid point that underpins the entire scaling process:  We must re-insert action research into our daily practice.  THAT is what we need admins to buy into as well.  The classroom as implementation experiment promotes inquiry, which is then modeled to students.  Learning is an iterative process.  Why should we pretend otherwise?

      • marsharatzel

        Action research finds its groove

        Action research is one of the most self-affirming techniques out there.  It builds analytical power (regardless of the outcome) and helps to give authentic reasons for collaborating and networking with others.

        Issues related to scale, in my mind’s eye, have to embed a reason for teachers to go beyond their own classrooms….what compelling reason is there to expand the idea beyond your own four walls?

        Conducting an action research project, in the background research and in the communicate the results phases, have all the compelling reasons a teacher might need.  They only need the help in understanding how to network and how to give/take with those networks.  From there I imagine that a teacher will also learn to reach out to those same networks in their background phase and potentially in the brainstorming phase.  Again….all of this is generated from the personal needs of the teacher.

        I would challenge buildings and districts and even states to then celebrate this research.  Why not “celebrations” where this kind of in-the-trenches discoveries are presented.  It would take an investment of genuine interest in teacher development…and not a showcase just to say they’d had a showcase.  But one where teachers can swap research….  ever been to a National Board conference???  There you find packed rooms full of teachers eager to hear what another teacher has researched, analyzed and discovered about teaching.

        It’s possible and would re-energerize the profession.  But do our schools and districts really want teachers thinking up their own projects?  Finding success in their own work?  Finding confidence in becoming more analytical and more self-critiquing?  Do they really want a more “learned” faculty?   When we start believing and acting as if what goes on in our schools is about learning (as opposed to covering material and testing students to see who absorbed the most), then I think the idea of action research might find it’s groove.

        • ErnieRambo

          Action Research – Our Way or the Highway?

          Marsha, I recall years ago, when the National Writing Project mentioned “the teacher as researcher” in a newsletter and I just couldn’t imagine what I might like to research. Now, of course, I think I could develop at least one new action research topic every day. Our school district sponsored an incredible opportunity to conduct action research under the guidance of Douglas B. Reeves. All of us who participated gained wonderful experience and the results of our research projects were even published in his book, Reframing Teacher Leadership to Improve Your School. The collaboration between a noted researcher, local university faculty members, our district’s research department, and teachers resulted in a number of findings and promoted a high level of professional actions among the participants. Teachers were paid a stipend for their effiorts, their work was published, and they were well received at an Action Research Data Fair that spring. Over the next three years, the opportunity to particpate was offerred, with less and less school district support each year (in other words, no stipend and no teacher-release time). 

          The lack of support for continued action research after our celebrity researcher moved on to other projects made me wonder if my school district truly wanted to encourage the development of teacher leaders. Did the district seek teachers who recognized the needs of their students and took the initiative to learn how their needs might be met, or was the district attempting to make an appearance of being interested in teacher leadership, as they continued with their top-down leadership model? I fear that my district prefers that our teachers simply let the “experts” who are no longer in the classroom do the research while those of us in the classroom focus on mastering the Components of Effective Learning. 

          I would like to encourage my colleagues to engage in action research, but they say that they are “too busy” or they “don’t know much about research.” I think that my next action research project might focus on how school faculties can be encouraged to lead without waiting for their school district to ask them! 

          Getting back to my being unaware that teachers could be reserachers, I wonder if current pre-service teachers are encouraged to conduct action research projects as they begin their practice. How can we cultivate a generation of teacher researchers?

  • KrisGiere

    Scaling is a challenge.

    You all have adressed this topic very well.  Professional Development is something that has been on my mind a lot lately.  We don’t always get or (those of us in admin positions) provide the best PD.  Often, PD does the opposite of many of the best practices that we teach during the very same PD events.  I really like Barnett’s point and Brad’s commentary about PD that will stick.

    As you can see, I don’t have a ton to add, but I would like to mention Stanford University’s PERTS lab.  Their mission is to help educators scale up innovations that will transform the profession for the better.

  • BarnettBerry

    Maybe this is the Bottom Line re innovative PLS

    I guess the bottom line may be what I heard from a district administrator yesterday where one of the CTQ teacherpreneurs both teaches and leads:


    “It has only been 2 years since (those who lead PD for the district) have come to recognize that when teachers come to our workshops they have ideas and solutions for their colleagues, and they are not coming to hear just what we have to say.”


  • RachelEvans

    Chiming in…

    I recently participated in the Shanghai GCEN meeting on Scaling Up Effective 21st Century Teaching. This thread calls to mind some of my key learnings from that experience.

    In Shanghai, conversations about education lie in stark contrast to those taking place in the US. The talk in Shanghai is about teachers and teaching. At home the conversation is about students, curriculum, data, and evaluation.

    As a classroom teacher myself, I was impressed by the laser focus on the actual act of teaching. The Shanghai teachers spend time researching best practices for content delivery. In their Teacher Research Groups (TRGs) they spend time discussing how they will teach a lesson. They watch each other teach, they comment on what they see, they provide feedback for how one might tweak this or that to improve student learning. They are focused on the how.

    My experiences in the US have been much different. I spend time on the following:

    • Analyzing student data from a recent test
    • Aligning standards with upcoming units
    • Creating formative/summative assessments that are aligned to CCSS
    • Unit/Lesson planning–generally focused on the what.

    Given that time is such a precious commodity, what we do when we come together is critical. I have been asking questions at my PLC meetings about how we are using/organizing our time. What are we spending our time doing? And does the expenditure have a direct and positive impact on student learning?

    Of course we cannot stop discussing the CCSS, or data completely, but I think we can be more intentional about how much time we dedicate to those things and begin to carve out some time for professional learning that is focused more on teaching methods, strategies, and peer observations. 

    My last thought is about word choice- I motion that we change the term “Professional Development” to “Professional Learning.” When you develop something, you hope to get to the end of it– to launch whatever it is into the stratosphere and watch it take hold. But our goal should never be to get to the end– we are lifelong learners and that is what we are trying to build in our students.

    Not to mention that it is true PD has been lackluster. So now, teachers associate PD with negative experiences. “Professional Development” has lost it’s impact. 

    Professional learning, however, is about continued growth. It does not assume that one is not good enough, yet. It only offers to teach you something new.

    And so I close with two questions:

    1. How are we spending our limited collaborative time?
    2. Could we reorganize that time to include teacher-focused professional learning? (e.g., sharing teaching strategies, methods, peer observations/feedback)
  • SandyMerz

    Time, the precious resource

    You are so right, Rachel.  Almost all of our mandated PDs are related to data and setting smart goals.  In our team meetings, pretty much  the same thing.  But when I look at the books I read – like Teaching Like A Pirate by Dave Burgess or the PDs I choose to attend (and likely have to pay for) the focus is on teaching.  

    Even a book like The Signal and The Noise by Nate Silver recommends focusing on process  and not outcomes – the core process of education is teaching.  

    I will contradict myself a little.  A couple of years ago every teacher had to go through something called Effective Elements of Instruction.  It was the district’s not too bad attempt to standardize instruction.  Data, etc. were’nt mentioned, just entry level teaching practices – objectives, engagement, and the like.  I’m no entry level teacher but found the review useful.  

    But even that was a framework of procedures more than actual teaching techniques. And, guess what? Now we get visited by auditors with checklists noting if we’re incorporating the EEI’s – more data.

    Thanks for the super comment.

  • BarnettBerry


    ALL of your responses are profound. I need to ask a question: To what extent does your teacher evaluation systems, I believe many built from Charlotte Danielson’s framework, focuses on the what instead of the how? 

    • ScottEDiamond

      “What” and “how”

      I may be being dense – how do you mean to distinguish “what” from “how?”


      • DeidraGammill

        After re-reading previous

        After re-reading previous comments, I realized that I was left of center with my response. Tried to delete entirely but failed! 

        If the “how” is practice and the “what” is data related, then perhaps the evaluation should be the “why.” That’s the essence of the NBPTS process after all; the evaluator collects evidence and observes practice while the educator provides reflection. A more complex (and authentic) form of holistic evaluation but one with possibility. 

  • ScottEDiamond

    Not professional development. Professional Association

    The ideas to decrease teacher isolation and increase teacher voice arereally not professional development issues. They are issues of professional association. Teachers have been de-professionalized, and we need to reverse that process.

    The description of the Gates meeting was interesting. Could you imagine assembling a small team to consider how best to scale up innovative professional learning for doctors and including only (?) think tank analysts, top-level state policy officials and hospital administrators, professional development experts, and leaders of nonprofits and university-based R&D centers? The doctors would laugh.

    Doctors own their profession. We don’t.

    • BarnettBerry

      Coud not agree more, Scott

      Scott, You are so right….and of course, your point is drivng force behind the CTQ Collaboratory. Teachers must not just be at the table; they must set the menu. we are getting closer, yet we have a long way to go.