One common faculty complaint of professional development is that it doesn’t lead to improvement. Four years ago that was certainly the way many educators felt here in the Farmington Public Schools in central Connecticut. Even though providing engaging professional development is a hard challenge, we were committed to finding ways to make PD more responsive and relevant. Hearing from our teachers that this was a pain point for them strengthened our resolve to act.
How did we know that so many educators felt overlooked by our professional learning efforts? In short, we asked them. At Farmington, we have collected feedback from students, families, teachers and staff using stakeholder surveys for many years. Our goal is to ask questions and gather data in ways that let us use stakeholder voice to influence and impact district work. As assistant superintendent, I regularly visit classrooms and participate in committees with students, faculty, and staff to better understand teaching and learning across the district. We are constantly looking for ways to strengthen partnerships among all stakeholder groups, and surveys are an invaluable source of information that has an influence on district practice.
For our PD survey, we used an online survey and data collection platform called Panorama Education to ask faculty to reflect on this statement: “The professional development I participated in this year helped me improve my practice.” Four years ago, the results showed that too many faculty did not feel like PD helped them improve.
First, we unpacked the question with our Professional Development and Evaluation Committee (PDEC), which includes teachers from every building. By gathering survey data first, we knew where to focus our discussion and our efforts. Together, we discussed: What do we define as good PD? What are we looking for in PD opportunities?
Next, we approached the Board of Education with possible solutions to our professional learning needs. They understood the importance of the ongoing capacity building of our teaching faculty. The Board of Education approved a budget for traveling permanent substitute teachers to enable “just in time” professional development for all teachers. Principals would approve time out of the classroom for teachers to pursue PD aligned with school goals. For example, one department team asked for substitutes so that teachers could get together during the school day to calibrate expectations of student work.
The relative cost of program was low, and the payoff has been significant. We know that anecdotally and from stakeholder surveys. By the end of the year, the percentage of satisfaction for the PD question went up. The next year, it went up again. Over the course of three years, the percentage of favorable responses has grown 35 percent at the secondary level.
After the success of the first year of the PD program, we went back to the Board of Education and asked to add six half-day release days to offer two full hours of PD six times per year. By amplifying teacher voice and working together — with teachers, administrators, and the board — to find solutions, we have been able to design high quality professional development experiences that are timely and relevant.
How do we know if our new approaches to PD are improving outcomes for students? We certainly look at achievement data. But we also care very much about the kind of engaging learning experiences students have in classrooms every day. Again, the district is focused on developing students as “leaders of their own learning” so we listen to their voices through surveys and focus groups. We ask students to reflect on whether they feel they can make choices about the topics they want to read and learn about. Over the past three years, we have seen an 18 percent increase in favorable responses to that question. Other survey indicators are also pointing to a positive trend toward increased student engagement. Teacher learning has resulted in greater student agency and involvement. Seeing improvement in student perception, we can say that these professional development improvements are being felt by students.
Stakeholder surveys allow us to be strategic about the investment of resources that will have a real impact on learning. In this case, it meant we could use teacher input to improve PD and to determine that we have made real progress with our new initiatives. Now that we have these surveys in place, we won’t ever go back to a time when we don’t have a system for amplifying teacher and student voices and measuring outcomes in the process of continuous improvement.