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3 Ways to Fix District PD—Tap Internal Talent, Analyze Your Data Footprint, and Listen

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Like many small districts seeking professional development opportunities for their teachers, the Mancos School District in southwestern Colorado has seen its share of what Principal Cathy Epps calls “one-hit wonders.”

These kinds of offerings were often delivered by experts from Denver, which is nearly a seven-hour drive from the rural 450-student district. They had limited impact on professional learning, says Epps, principal of the Mancos Early Learning Center and Elementary School. The district shifted its PD focus to peer coaching a few years ago. But when Mancos decided to adopt Mastery Connect, an online resource to help track student mastery of Common Core standards and to align curriculum, leaders realized that they needed a more intensive approach to training teachers to use the new digital tool.

“There’s so much to do as a classroom teacher, and if your comfort level with technology isn’t there, you’re going to say ‘forget it,’” Epps says. “Staff needed time to get comfortable with it. Unless you’re doing it all the time, it gets hard and lost in the transition.”

1. Consensus with Consistency

Last fall, Mancos worked with the Colorado Education Initiative (CEI) to conduct a “readiness assessment” of its ability to support and train educators to adopt the new tool. Using a collaborative process, facilitators met with school leaders and teachers to tease out the most critical professional development needs. In larger districts, a representative team often holds this “consensus meeting,” but in the 50-teacher Mancos district, the entire staff participated—and they weren’t shy about saying what they wanted.

“It was really powerful to hear the different pieces of feedback in the same room,” Epps says. “It came out loud and clear that with technology, we needed to do better about supporting staff—not just talking about it in August, but supporting it with someone people know over time. It’s the ongoing piece that matters.”

So in January, the district tapped a teacher—whose peers asked for him by name during the consensus meeting—to provide ongoing weekly training on MasteryConnect. For the rest of the school year, this teacher held 90-minute PD sessions focused on hands-on instruction and assistance every Thursday after school. The presenting teacher was paid for his time preparing and teaching the sessions, and his peers received continuing education units for attending.

“Sometimes two people show up, sometimes there’s 10,” Epps says. “It’s really casual, but we designed it for what people want.”

2. Data Deep Dive

This kind of highly targeted support—tailored to specific needs that teachers face in their own schools—is exactly what we were trying to help districts do when the Gates Foundation created PDre design. It’s a digital toolkit and community of practice designed to help districts and partners like CEI improve professional development for teachers. (In addition to supporting PDredesign, the foundation has also made investments in CEI and MasteryConnect.)

Along with the readiness assessments, PDredesign is expanding its offerings to help districts delve deeper into how technology is employed and supported.

A data and technology inventory allows districts to identify all the technology and digital tools used in their schools—both formally and informally. It also lets them assess where student data resides within school systems and how easily it can be tapped to help teachers better understand their students and their needs. Together, these assessments “represent your technology and data footprint,” says Sean Perkins, founder and CEO of Mobility Labs, which co-designed and is managing PDredesign for the Gates Foundation.

From there, a small team of district leaders and teachers can conduct a “data and tech analysis.” This is a deep dive exploring how best to support teachers’ use of existing technology and data and identifying what Perkins calls “white space”—areas where there’s no technology in place to meet student needs. The district team can then develop a roadmap that identifies new tools (tapping into EdSurge’s product index); they also ensure that these tools are matched with effective professional development so that teachers get the most out of them.

3. Keep Listening

The key to this work is involving teachers and staff at all levels, so the recommendations are tailored to specific needs. In some districts, these consensus-building exercises have served as a starting point for deeper conversations about the future direction of the district’s overall technology use. In others, it’s helped leaders understand what technology is actually being used, and where teachers need the most support in using it well. That’s critical, given the growing belief among educators that digital tools are worth their time. “More and more products are making their way into the classroom and the back office,” Perkins says. “Every year, this will be a bigger and bigger challenge.”

In Mancos, the weekly technology-focused PD sessions will continue this fall. Their focus already has expanded to incorporate new tools and projects, including Google Docs and opportunities to use technology to support project-based learning. By asking teachers what they need—and listening to what they say—the district has helped create a lasting structure to support technology use over time.

“People wanted more,” Epps says. “It’s grown into a constant resource that educators know that they can keep coming back to.”

This article was sponsored by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and not written by the EdSurge editorial staff.
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