Linking professional development to improved outcomes

DATA DRIVES Change: Linking professional development to improved outcomes

Mitchem, Katherine J


A common dilemma facing administrators and staff developers is how to design and deliver professional development activities that produce an impact in terms of capacity building, teacher learning and development, and student outcomes. The challenges this presents are even more marked in rural areas, where school systems must also contend with additional barriers when attempting to implement strategic changes. To encourage the development of productive professional development, many studies are beginning to indicate the importance of making evaluation central to the design of professional development. This article presents a mnemonic strategy-DATA DRIVES Change-to guide the design, development and evaluation of professional development in rural settings. In addition, the article provides a practical application of the strategy to an ongoing rural professional development project.

A common dilemma for staff developers and administrators in rural schools is identifying how to meet the professional development needs of faculty and staff at the same time as meeting the goals of the school improvement plan and the demands of federal and state mandates (Mizell, 2001). Limited resources and the knowledge that yet again the faculty’s wish list will include training on managing disruptive behavior, preparing students for statewide assessments, and how to get the parents of challenging children involved makes the task daunting and somewhat unrewarding. Why is it that professional development activities appear to produce little impact in terms of capacity building, teacher learning and development, and student outcomes? As Mizell (2001) pointed out, “for too long the professional development practices of too many school systems and schools have led nowhere. Year after year, their staff development has amounted to little more than a disparate set of adult learning activities with few demonstrable results other than participants’ mounting frustration” (pp.18-19).

Identifying how to design and deliver more effective professional development is central to the quest to improve the translation and use of research findings for educators, policy makers, and other stakeholders (Carnine, 1997; Greenwood & Abbott, 2002). The stakes have been raised with the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation (Council for Exceptional Children, 2002) in which the United States government declared that it will “judge all schools by one measure and one measure alone: whether every boy and every girl is learning-regardless of race, family background, or disability status” (President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, 2002, p.4). The challenges this presents are even more marked in rural areas, where school systems must also contend with additional barriers when attempting to implement strategic changes such as those advocated by NCLB. These barriers include a limited tax base for needed revenues, a need to deliver service over a wide geographic area, unqualified or underqualified teachers, high transportation costs, and a lack of access to effective professional development (Ludlow, 1998; Helge, 1992).

In recognition of the challenge facing education in general, and rural schools in particular, the National Staff Development Council (2002), as well as other professionals in this field (Guskey, 2002), have generated guidelines to assist administrators and staff developers in planning effective professional development activities. These guidelines include the importance of making evaluation central to the development of professional development to enhance its success (Guskey, 2002), assessing the context (participant characteristics, organization characteristics, and attributes of the training activities), and using this information to inform the design and delivery of professional development (Mitchem, Wells, & Wells, 2003; NSDC, 2002), Provided in this article is a mnemonic strategy (see Figure 1 ), incorporating both these guidelines and a practical application of this strategy, to help administrators and staff developers in designing, developing, delivering, and evaluating professional development that produces change in teacher practice and, ultimately, improved student outcomes.

Determine the Goals for the Professional Development

The first step in this process is to determine the goals or desired outcomes of the professional development. Although this may appear to be an obvious step, it is often overlooked or given only cursory attention. Clearly articulating exactly what the desired outcomes of the professional development are provides the framework for designing the content and process of the professional development. For example, a school district in West Virginia identified an increasing number of elementary school students who exhibited such disruptive behavior that a motion to open an alternative school for these students had been suggested. After surveying and interviewing key stakeholders, the special education coordinator, Susan, identified a need for skills in schoolwide behavior interventions as well as in dealing with challenging individual students. She decided that the desired outcomes for the district included: (1) developing and implementing schoolwide positive behavior supports; (2) minimizing disruption to maximize instruction; and (3) creating a skilled school-based team to develop behavior intervention plans for the “frequent flyers” or most challenging students.

Assess Where You Are Now

With these outcomes in mind, Susan’s next step was to assess the context in order to determine the current levels of performance of the school district with regard to disruptive behavior. To accomplish this, she pulled office disciplinary referrals (ODR) and in school suspensions (ISS) from each elementary school and, assisted by a colleague from the university, Maria, summarized these data by school, problem behavior, location and time of offense, and repeat offenders. Susan and Maria then looked at each school and identified strengths and weaknesses in terms of problem behaviors, faculty and staff, facilities, and support systems currently in place. With this information in hand, it was time to get the individual schools involved again. Susan contacted administrators at each school and asked them to invite a team of faculty and staff who were interested in minimizing disruption to maximize instruction to a meeting at the district office to plan for the summer institute. After a brief overview of the overarching district goals for the institute, and a description of the ODR and ISS data we had graphed for each school, we asked each team to compare the data with their thoughts on what were the most significant problem and to determine goals for their schools.

Target the Influential in Your School and Enlist Their Support

Most schools contain a small core group of faculty that influences what occurs in the school. Many an administrator has discovered, to his or her chagrin, that without the support of this group, very little will change over the long-term. This was especially true of one school in the district where a small group of experienced older teachers had dissuaded newer faculty members from a focus on proactive rather than reactive strategies, teaching schoolwide expectations, and providing rewards to students for “doing what they should be doing anyway.” The team was at first discouraged and pointed out that they had tried this before and met with such resistance that the faculty had recommended the board consider opening an alternative school for students with challenging behaviors. Essential in this situation is the strategic targeting of one or two of those faculty who are influential and the diplomatic recruitment of their support. One way to accomplish this is to acknowledge their authority and to ask for help. In this case, one of team shared the school’s data with one of the “influential” teachers and asked for her input as to how the problems could be resolved. Other schools that had the faculty and staff on board invited parents, students, and business partners to be a part of the team.

Assess Barriers and Bridges

The next step was to gather the team together and brainstorm what barriers the team would face in implementing training and, ultimately, this proactive approach in the school as well as potential bridges for overcoming these barriers. Together they recognized that a number of older, more experienced teachers were reluctant to develop some complicated token economy system that would be time-consuming and logistically difficult to implement as well as a “special education thing.” Focusing instead on the notion that children needed to be taught how to act in a variety of situations, just as they needed to be taught how to add, subtract, read or write, helped many of the concerned teachers to realize that incentives were a small part of what was planned and could be conceived of simply as public recognition and praise.

Design and Deliver Professional Development Activities to Meet Your Goals

Having gathered information about the context of each school, data on the level and intensity of the problems each school faced, and a group of people to assist in the planning of the institute, Susan and Maria were ready to work with the team to design and deliver the institute’s professional development activities to meet the school district’s goals as well as each school’s goal. It was clear that each school was at a different stage in the process of developing schoolwide positive behavior support plans, so the challenge was how to make training meaningful for all participants. This is a typical characteristic of adult learners and not just true of district wide training sessions. The first day of the institute required each team to develop a plan of what they wanted to accomplish that week by taking their desired outcomes and their present level of performance and listing the actions and steps needed to move them from the “now” to the “goal.” Each team developed an agenda for the next day with measurable objectives as well as a list of barriers and bridges encountered each day prior to leaving in the afternoon. Participants shared identified barriers and bridges with the entire group as part of the closing activity and encouraged others to reflect on helpful strategies. School district and university facilitators of the training reviewed the agendas, noted schools that needed mini training sessions on particular topics such as “data collection techniques” or “strategies for dealing with very tough kids,” and identified facilitators to lead those sessions.

Recognize importance of the goals, activities, stakeholders through public relations (PR)

An often overlooked factor when attempting to bring about systems change through professional development is the need to publicly recognize the importance of the professional development goals and the activities in which faculty and staff are participating. In this situation, Susan invited the superintendent, board members, the local news channel and newspaper reporters to visit the summer training institute and talk with participants. The school district’s work to make schools a safer, more positive place for faculty, staff, students, and parents was broadcast on the evening news and demonstrated the commitment of the school district to the work that school teams were carrying out.

Integrate Participants’ Insights and Experiences

As indicated earlier, in the group of teachers or schools attending training, there is typically a wide range of experience among participants. One noted author describes five stages of learning: novices, advanced beginners, competent, proficient, and expert (Senge, 1995). It is critical to consider these different levels of performance in designing the activities that will take place. Maria and Susan utilized the differing skill levels in a number of ways. More advanced teams shared ideas, materials, and strategies that each had used successfully. By the same token, many of the novices, who were not as entrenched in “this is the way we’ve always done it” were the ones able to think outside the box and present innovative and creative ways of addressing system or organizational problems.

Validate Accomplishments of Participants

At the completion of the training it’s an excellent idea to review with participants what they have accomplished and what remains to be done. Celebrating what participants have accomplished allows successes to be shared and enthusiasm for the continuation or implementation of the work to be generated. Again, it’s important to publicly recognize the importance the goals and activities to the district, schools, and participants themselves and to ensure that there are opportunities in place for follow-up, review, and monitoring of implementation.

Evaluate Outcomes and Impact

Be sure to evaluate not only how the participants viewed the training, the facilities, and the refreshments, but also the outcomes and impact achieved. For example, Susan and Maria collected the following artifacts from the teams on completion of the institute: list of identified and defined expectations across each setting; lesson plans for teaching expectations; strategies to overcome faculty resistance; schedule for opening day presentations; system for collecting and summarizing data; and description of incentive system. These artifacts served both as products for participants to take back to their schools to share with other faculty and staff who had not attended training as well as examples for other schools in the district to use in developing their own schoolwide discipline system. In addition, follow-up sessions were scheduled at nineweek intervals to which teams brought the following items: graphed office referral data and targeted appropriate behaviors; in-school suspension data; attendance data; and grades. These data should not be used to compare schools across the district but rather to inform decisions about the next cycle of professional development. The questions to ask should include, “Have we accomplished what we intended? If not, what did we not accomplish? Do we know why? What are our goals for next year?”

Start Over-Based on Which Outcomes You Accomplished and Which You Did Not

If the ultimate goal of all professional development is to encourage sustained use of effective teacher practice, then Susan and Maria are ready to begin the cycle again. They must consider the outcomes that emerged from the evaluation of the professional development and the implementation of the content. Careful evaluation of what was accomplished allows schools and participants to identify what must be addressed in the next cycle of professional development. Evaluation of professional development must focus on educators’ acquisition of new skills and knowledge, how this new learning affects teacher practice, and how the change in practice impacts student outcomes (Mizell, 2001).


Carnine, D. (1997). Bridging the rescarch-to-practice gap. Exceptional Children, 63, 513-521.

Council for Exceptional Children. (2002, September). No Child Left Behind Act of 2001: Implications for special education policy and practice. Arlington, VA: Author.

Greenwood, C.R., & Abbott, M.A. (2002). The research to practice gap in special education. Teacher Education and Special Education, 24, 276-289.

Guskey, T. R. (2002). Does it make a difference? Evaluating professional development. Educational Leadership, March, 45-51.

Helge, D. (1992). Solving special education reform problems in rural areas. Preventing School Failure, 36(4), 11-15.

Ludlow, B.E. (1998). Rural personnel preparation. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 14(2), 57-75.

Mitchem, K.J., Wells, D.L., & Wells, J.G. (2003). Using evaluation to ensure quality professional development in rural schools. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Mizell, H. (2001, Summer). How to get there from here.. Journal of Stuff Development, 18-20.

National Staff Development Council (NSDC). (2002). NSDC standards for staff development, (n.d.). Retrieved August 14,2002, from

President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education. (2002). A new era: Revitalizing special education for children and their families (ED-02-PO-0791). Jessup, MD: Education Publication Center.

Senge, P. (1995). Organizational Learning. Retrieved September 10, 2002, from

Katherine J. Mitchem, Ph.D.

West Virginia University

Copyright American Council on Rural Special Education Winter 2003

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved