Last winter at the U.S. Department of Education, staffers sifted through stacks of applications from schools and school districts hoping to win the district’s first “model professional development” award. After visiting likely candidates in towns and cities across the country, staff sat down to select up to 10 winners. Only five made the final cut.

What distinguished winners from the near misses was “the understanding that professional development must begin and end with students,” says Terry Dozier, the Secretary’s Special Advisor on Teaching. “Some very good sites were doing a lot for their teachers—all sorts of workshops and options—but they really hadn’t focused on what their students needed,” she notes.

San Francisco Unified School District, one of three district award winners, scrutinizes test score data at every grade level at every school in the district. At a school where 3rd-graders are having trouble with geometry, for instance, a district consultant might meet with 3rd-grade teachers to rethink math curriculum or teaching methods.

San Francisco even keeps track of the kind and amount of professional development that every teacher in the district participates in. The district compiles test score data, results of teacher and student surveys and classroom observations to monitor the impact of that training. One startling discovery, says Associate Supt. Maria Santos, is that it actually takes between 200 and 250 hours of professional development in a specific content area to bring changes in classroom practice and student achievement. (See story.)

The Education Department also selected two individual schools as winners. “We wanted to have some example of what can be done at the school level,” says Dozier. “In some buildings, you may have strong leaders, committed staff, and you’re ready to move forward, [while] the entire district may not be as enlightened.”

“We didn’t wait for anyone to solve our problems,” states Mary Russo, principal at Samuel Mason Elementary in Boston, one of the award-winning schools. Russo led a turnaround of the failing school that focused on teacher learning and collaboration. “Our school system had no strong professional development arm when we began. We had to do it ourselves,” she says. (See story.)

One purpose of the annual awards program is to give examples of programs that illustrate the Department’s “Principles of Professional Development,” according to Dozier. “When I went around the country talking to people about them, they would say, ‘Oh, we’re doing that.’ And I knew that they weren’t.”

The Department also wants to highlight the importance of professional development, which too many education officials still see as “a fringe benefit that they can cut,” says Dozier. She notes that one award-winning district recently suffered budget cuts but kept the professional development program intact. “They told me that because of the national recognition they could not cut the professional development fund,” she says.

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