Norman Public Schools
The fifteen years since Elaine Hale became the Director of Staff Development in Norman, Oklahoma, have been filled with lessons learned. "Professional development permeates every level, area, and program of the Norman Public Schools. It has been the catalyst for our success in teaching and learning, and for the excellence we have achieved as an educational community where each person is valued for their contributions to continued professional growth that, in turn, supports and encourages students to higher levels of achievement." Her first lesson taught her that she needed to go slowly, because jumping ahead was usually followed by backing up.
Over the last several years, while the student population has become increasingly more diverse, Norman Public Schools' student achievement has increased. For example, district assessments in fifth grade writing increased from 87% of the students passing in 1995 to 95% of the students passing in 1998. In mathematics, student scores increased from 87% in 1995 to 93% in 1995. Eighth grade students had similar gains. Their scores in math increased form 78% passing in 1995 to 83% passing in 1998. Eleventh grade students also increased in mathematics from 66% in 1995 to 74% in 1998. Similar gains occurred in science and reading.
"We spent a lot of time making staff development the norm and creating a climate that supported learning," says Hale. Today that norm is firmly in place in this district of 12,720 students. The culture of accepting and honoring teachers and principals has evolved over time. One of the lessons learned for Hale is that it takes time and that all have to participate in the decisions about how to improve schools. "Everyone has to participate for progress to occur and the district has to create a climate where everyone will participate."
The key to this success was establishing processes, procedures, programs, and products to focus the district's staff development program. The district framework for professional development, Decisions for Excellence, serves as the unifying force for the staff development program. Within it are the critical components of Norman Public Schools' success.
The processes outlined in Decision for Excellence focus on helping all staff members acquire the skills that effect change and that support planning and implementation of school improvement efforts. The procedures included in Decisions for Excellence ensure that participatory decision making occurs at all levels of the district and with all employee groups and community stakeholders. The program component of the framework has two major elements, the professional skills and continuity of curriculum. Professional skills are what teachers should know and be able to do to plan, teach, and assess students. Continuity of curriculum focuses on integrating the content areas, thinking skills, and application of learning. Lastly, the product is student achievement. All the district's professional development efforts and resources are directed toward ensuring that students learn.
The one-page model of professional development was an instrumental tool in helping the district integrate professional skills, curriculum, and monitoring so that they all worked toward improving student learning. The model provides a big picture of the whole professional development program and keeps everyone focused on the results it strives to achieve. The annual evaluation of professional development provides data for strengthening and improving the program.
The district's Professional Resource Opportunities (PRO), a cadre of up to eight teachers from each school, provides support to each school. This cadre of teacher leaders together with their principal serve as instructional leaders within their schools. To meet this expectation, the PRO cadre participates in intensive preparation to develop specialized skills in professional development, change theory, adult learning theory, models of professional development, research in effective professional development. These resource people participate in annual retreats and ongoing training to hone their skills in effective professional development as well as in a specific area related to learning. For example, cadres of PRO are well-versed in brain-based research and learning theory, multiple intelligences, technology integration, application of learning, and assessment. Cadre members provide learning opportunities to schools throughout the district.
Other lessons Hale learned in the last fifteen year were patience and the art of knowing "when": when to push, pause, deliver new learning, practice, reflect, and process. Over the years the beliefs and values that were the foundation of the district's professional development plan have helped the district stay on track.
Another lesson learned was that the district staff's role was more that of facilitators and encouragers. The district staff has to model support and encouragement in hopes that principals will support and encourage their teachers, and teachers will do the same for their students.
Professional development in Norman Public Schools is pivotal to all change and improvement efforts. All staff participate in decisions which directly affect them and, as a result, seek opportunities to grow and learn as professionals.