All You Can Learn: DC Public Schools’ Personalized PD Buffet


Walk into the 10 pilot myPD sites in District of Colombia Public Schools (DCPS) and you’ll see professional development (PD) ordered from a menu. Teachers can pick their own combo based on their needs: for instance, they can choose a side of virtual coaching, with an online module as the main course, or skip the appetizer and spend all their time with online courses. This is part of a new model for personalized PD, where teachers get resources matched to their own needs and choices, making DCPS an example for how large urban districts can support personalized PD on a massive scale.

But these new moves toward innovation weren’t part of a grand plan, but came from an honest look at a real problem. Two years ago, as DCPS began preparing for Common Core, the district realized it wasn’t ready.

When it came to preparing teachers for Common Core, “we knew we weren’t developing teachers fast enough," says Rebecca Maltzman, Director of the Teacher Development Strategy at DCPS. “To get them ready we had to accelerate the rate of their development much faster.” After taking a look at the student performance data, they concluded the current state of PD wasn’t making enough impact in two critical areas: with new teachers and teachers whose skills had plateaued.

PD at this time at DCPS resembled that in most other districts around the country. The district would hold five district-wide PD days. But some questioned the wisdom of doing the same thing year in, year out and expecting better outcomes. “Educators were saying they’d gone to the same reading session five years in a row. They just couldn’t access content for where they were in their career trajectory,” says Paige Hoffman, DCPS Coordinator of Teacher Development Strategy.

The rest of the year, they left it up to school leaders to fill in the gaps with instructional coaching and on-site PD time. “We saw a wide variety of what’s covered during that time. That’s where you see a lot of resource gaps,” says Hoffman.

So the district decided to break the PD mold and try something different. With the help of a repurposed $5 million iPD grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2013, DC Public Schools formed the myPD team to dive into the problem and design a solution that got to the heart of this problem.

Developing a Plan

The myPD team set out to create a model that would give each teacher individualized PD they needed. While personalization was the destination, just how to get there was unclear.

The problem wasn’t a lack of resources: the district had access to videos from Relay Graduate School that teachers could access on their own at anytime, virtual coaching through TNTP’s service, ‘Great Teaching, Great Feedback’, and BloomBoard, which they use to upload observation data. In addition to the technology, the district was filled with coaches of all varieties, from content to specific learner needs like English language learners or special education students.

But these materials were scattered across the district, and it didn’t know how to weave them together and give teachers what they need at the right time.

“When we talked to teachers about PD they gave hundreds of responses about what works and what doesn’t,” says Maltzman. But what stayed the same was the need to give teachers choice. “True development can’t happen if you tell someone to just do something,” explains Maltzman.

So with choice at the heart of their model, they looked for ways to ensure the choices teachers matched up to what their schools and students needed. To do this, they began creating structures that would give teachers opportunity for reflection, refinement and followup. With the bones of their model in place, they began looking to resources that could fit within this model.

That’s when the menu came into play, and their model began to take shape.

Getting Personal

The myPD team started to create school specific menus of PD resources based on the school’s initiatives and student populations. They asked schools to complete a readiness assessment, where teachers and school leaders all identified the current strengths and gaps in the schools PD resources. With all this data, they began to build a unique PD menu for each school.

Every school's menu of possible resources looks different. Some have dual language coaches from the central office, mixed with virtual coaches with content specialties, and a bit of Relay asynchronous courses on the side. Others might have a menu focused on special education or literacy. As teachers look at the menu, they can also request different resources be added, such as coaching in a specific content or skill set.

With the menu in place, teachers are assigned a mentor (a teacher leader, coach or administrator from within the school). These mentors walk teachers through the menu and guide them to items on the PD menu that are right for them, recording the teacher’s choices on the BloomBoard platform. “The mentor is there to push the teacher during those conversations to think about their own school setting, student population, initiatives, and what they are struggling with,” says Hoffman.

Once a choice is made, teachers stick with that activity for a six to ten week period. Every two weeks they check in with the mentors to make sure they are on track. Mentors record the teachers progress on BloomBoard again, through a set of forms the district hacked together to track these interactions.

At the end of the six to ten weeks, the teacher evaluates him or herself and reflects on how to refine their practice from there. The teachers use forms on BloomBoard to record their reflections. Then together with the mentor, the teacher either sticks with the same resource or chooses the next item.

Roll Out

While the model seems ideal, rolling it out hasn’t been simple. “It was a really big shift to say you get to choose your own PD,” says Hoffman.

Getting buy-in for this new model was key, between both people and technology. “Building trust between people, and rebuilding trust with technology is really really difficult,” says Hoffman.

So far, they are six months into the pilot with ten schools and are looking to include more next year. “We will spend this year learning lessons that can help inform next year,” says Hoffman. So far, the team has seen not only a shift in the way 10 schools are doing PD but in the attitudes and buy in from the district’s leadership.

“We don’t think that this current model is what everyone should do district-wide. What we are doing is shifting the thinking of how people think about PD. We want to make personalization a part of the psyche of how people think about PD,” says Maltzman. 

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