Why Look Elsewhere?: Improving Schools From Within

Consultants don’t hold all the answers for professional growth and school renewal by RICHARD P. DUFOUR

In my third year of teaching, I was put in charge of the "teacher institute day" for my school district. I was certain of my goal--to find a humorous, motivational speaker who could entertain more than 200 diverse elementary, junior high school and high school teachers.


The speaker was a huge hit, and I basked in the kudos I received from the administration and my colleagues. The fact that nothing changed when teachers returned to the classroom the next day did not trouble me. I never had expectations that anything would change.

Six years later, as the young principal of a comprehensive high school with more than 100 faculty members, my perspective changed. I realized that a consultant should do more than entertain. He or she also should inform about best practices. A genuine staff developer would present content that was research based, substantive and significant.

So for the next teacher institute, I arranged for a consultant to address the entire faculty on the topic of effective teaching. He presented a wonderful, concise synthesis of the current research and even demonstrated some of the techniques he referenced. I expected to see significant change in teacher practices, and in a few instances I did. But when most teachers returned to business as usual in their classrooms, I was more inclined to vilify the complacency of teachers than to consider the possibility that my approach to professional development was flawed.

By the time I was hired for my second principalship, I had recognized that content alone was insufficient to alter practice for most teachers. Even if the content was timely and the consultant was able to generate some initial enthusiasm, teachers were unlikely to gain mastery of the new knowledge and skills without frequent opportunities for practice and feedback. Armed with that bit of insight, my focus shifted from the content of training to the process of training.

The All-Important Context
My search for a consultant focused upon finding someone who could develop and implement an ongoing training process that would help administrators and teachers benefit from a clinical supervision model. I then worked with the consultant to develop a program that trained department chairs and representative teachers simultaneously, called upon them to observe one another in the classroom and gave them the opportunity to practice their emerging skills in clinical supervision upon one another.

This program continued for two years and had a significant impact on the mechanics of instruction and the relationship between teachers and administrators.

It wasn't until later still that I realized the most significant factor in determining the ultimate impact of a staff development initiative is neither the content of the topic nor the process used to provide the training, but rather the context of the school in which it is presented.

Content and process are critical elements of a professional development program, and certainly schools should be attentive to those elements. But in the final analysis, the major determinant of any professional development program's effectiveness is school context. It is context--the beliefs, expectations, behaviors and norms that constitute the culture of a given school--that plays the largest role in deciding whether a professional development program will make a difference in that school.

Any consultant or facilitator who has attempted to help a school launch some aspect of school improvement has observed the phenomenon of school context at work. Two schools initiate major professional growth programs designed to improve conditions for teaching and learning. The consultant, content and presentation strategies are identical, but the faculty in one school embraces the concept and works to implement it while the teachers in the other respond with total indifference.

These different reactions can only be attributed to the context or culture of the schools themselves. It is becoming increasingly clear that in the right school context, even flawed staff development activities (such as the much-maligned single-session workshop) can have a positive impact.

Conversely, in the wrong school context, even well-conceived and delivered activities are likely to be ineffective. While schools certainly should be attentive to the content of the ideas presented to staff and the process of the strategies used to help teachers master that content, they should focus primarily on creating a context or culture conducive to professional growth and development.

Not a Magic Pill
What is the "right" school context? Researchers both inside and outside of the educational establishment offer remarkably similar conclusions regarding the best path for sustained organizational improvement. Schools are most effective when they function as professional learning communities characterized by shared vision and values, collective inquiry, collaborative teams, a willingness to experiment, a commitment to continuous improvement and a results orientation. In the absence of these attributes, professional development initiatives are likely to fall flat.

The ancillary assumptions that (1) school context is critical to effective professional development programs and (2) the most promising context is that of a learning community have significant implications for how school districts can best use external consultants.

A consultant cannot serve as the antidote for a school characterized by fragmentation, confusion, teacher isolation and commitment to the status quo. In their longitudinal study of the relationship between school restructuring and student achievement, Fred Newmann of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and his associates could not find a single school that had been transformed by the work of an external agent. As they wrote in their book Authentic Achievement: "Those schools whose culture already predisposed them to address issues of intellectual quality and professional community found productive ways to use the resources and opportunities offered by external agents. (But) external agents alone did not guarantee that schools focused on key elements of school improvement."

Even the best consultant is no substitute for a school culture that fosters a learning community, and the hard work of building that culture must fall to the people within the school. It cannot be farmed out.

I do not mean to suggest that consultants have nothing to contribute to a school improvement initiative. In fact, when used appropriately, consultants can make a major contribution to a school's renewal effort. Most schools will need help in developing the capacity to function as a learning community, and consultants can provide that help. They can make faculties more aware of the benefits of a learning community and can stimulate curiosity, if not enthusiasm, about the potential of this paradigm shift. They can help to identify and resolve obstacles in the change process. They can train, oversee and support change agents within the school who can lead the transformation. They can provide a detached but sympathetic analysis of the workings of a school, suggest areas that need attention and facilitate the development of strategies to address those areas.

Even if principals and teachers have developed their ability to function as a learning community, consultants can make enormous contributions to an improvement initiative. As Michael Fullan observes in his book Change Forces, the presence of external training and support can be an indicator of the vitality of the school. Consultants can stimulate the investigation of new ideas and practices, assist in the development and analysis of action research projects and establish a bridge between the world of school practitioners and the world of researchers.

All of this can be enormously helpful to a school if its culture ensures that teachers work collaboratively to explore and implement the ideas and practices that are presented.

Building Internal Capacity
Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., which has 3,300 students in grades 9-12, has attempted to use consultants to build its internal capacity to function as a learning community. Consultants are used to present new information and ideas, and then teachers work in teams to apply their training to their classrooms.

For example, after science teachers were trained in calculator-based learning, they worked in pairs to develop laboratories using the new technique. They then worked collaboratively to assess the results and discuss the modifications they might make to improve the experience for students. Social studies teachers received training in problem-based learning, and then worked in their curriculum teams to develop problem-based learning components for their courses and strategies for assessing the impact of those components. Mathematics teachers were trained in cooperative learning strategies and then worked in course-specific teams to build on that training as they implemented a cooperative learning approach in all mathematics classrooms.

This pattern of initial training by consultants serving as the basis for reflection, collaboration, experimentation, articulation of desired results and continuous improvement processes is repeated over and over throughout the school.

Stevenson also has used consultants to provide some staff with the extensive training that allows them to assist their colleagues in developing new knowledge and skills. For example, 20 members of the staff have gone through extensive training in the World of Difference program, run by the Anti-Defamation League, and now facilitate workshops in this diversity appreciation program for the rest of the faculty. Other staff members have been trained to serve as on-site consultants for the school's technology initiative.

This focus on developing internal expertise has been supported by Stevenson's board of education in several ways. Every member of the staff--administrators, teachers and counselors--is assigned to a team with responsibility for clarifying intended results and developing strategies for improvement.

The school board pays for all staff members to join a professional organization so they remain current in their field. It encourages teachers to make professional presentations and has established a fund to support the expenses of teachers selected to make presentations at state and national conferences. It encourages teachers to write professionally and publishes a journal comprised of the writings of the Stevenson staff.

In addition, the board provides an entrepreneurial fund that annually supports grant proposals from teachers who propose action research projects. It funds extensive summer curriculum projects to provide teachers with time to collaborate on how they can become more effective, and it has built extra days into the school-year calendar devoted exclusively to collaboration.

The message of the board is clear: The preferred path to improving Stevenson High School is not through contracting with external agents to serve as the source of innovation, but by developing the full potential of its own staff to function as a learning community.

A Dynamic Process
Those who look to consultants to solve the problems of a school that continues to operate under the traditional model of fragmentation and teacher isolation are almost certain to be disappointed in the results.

The key to the effective use of consultants is the development of systematic processes that engage staff in the work of a professional learning community as they consider the ideas presented to them. Is the training used as a catalyst to engage staff in reflective dialogue, collaboration, action planning, articulation of intended results and continuous improvement processes? If so, consultants can contribute to the transformation of a school. If not, consultants are likely to have little impact on improved teaching and learning.

Richard P. DuFour is superintendent of Adlai E. Stevenson High School District 125, Two Stevenson Drive, Lincolnshire, Ill. 60069. E-mail: rdufour@district125.k12.il.us