A co-authored blog by Timothy Anderson, Bloomington Public Schools, and Cassandra Erkens
Recently, an educator posted a blog in which he asserted that today’s schools need to be more savvy as they hire educational consultants. While we agree that the premise of his title is true, we would argue for the school/consultant relationship to be more savvy for very different reasons and in very different ways than the author suggested in his article. Quality school improvement work goes well beyond consultants showing up on time, and delivering engaging content, and remaining open minded. Both the consultant(s) and the school(s) need to be more sophisticated in their overall approach to getting quality work done.
When schools and districts strive to function as learning communities, they must internalize and own their own professional development. Every team meeting should in fact be a learning conversation that informs practice. (For information on Job Embedded Professional development, see the report put out by Learning Forward.) This is not to suggest that going out for external training opportunities or bringing in external consultants for staff training disappear completely, but it is to suggest that educators must interact with external resources differently. Professional development can no longer stop at exposure to strategies coupled with implicit faith in both 1) the outside experts to provide quality and 2) the internal staff to apply it.
In a learning community based organization, the consultancy model changes in the following ways:
- Teams seek desired expertise to answer their own provocative questions;
- Teams strive to implement proposed new practices with fidelity;
- Teams have a compulsion to measure effectiveness of those strategies through an action research orientation; and
- Teams work to develop their own mastery such that they themselves can grow the organization’s capacity to fully implement and internalize the work.
In this model, teams are not dependent on outside consultants to lead them; instead, they partner with outside experts regarding where they are and where they need to be. Together, school leaders and outside experts co-create and enact plans to address identified next steps. The new consultancy paradigm involves collaboration internally and externally.
A Case Study: Bloomington Public Schools in Minnesota
Bloomington Public Schools developed a new professional development model to follow the guiding principles of quality professional development in a collaborative organization. In both June of 12 and June of 13, each secondary school in the district sent a leadership team (comprised of building administrators and teacher leaders) to a two-day leadership academy, held in one of the schools. The goal of the academy was to empower teams to manage their own growth regarding the district’s ongoing initiatives:
- Creating school-wide, responsive intervention systems and plans;
- Analyzing School Data – qualitative and quantitative;
- Developing a formative rich assessment culture and practice; and,
- Aligning grading practices and policies to the best practices that truly support learning.
During the academy, each team was given a room within the school to call home base for the full two days. They remained in their home base room so they could discuss their building specific, staff needs and then strategize their next steps. Teams had access to current online data, digital handouts, templates and protocols to support their work as well as projectors, flip chart paper, post it notes and the other essentials critical to support the needs that spontaneously arise during planning sessions.
To support their work, a team of internal coaches and external experts was hired relative to the emerging needs of the district relative to each of the target areas (Interventions, Data Analysis, Formative Assessments, and Grading). In 90 minute blocks of time, experts rotated to meet with the individual teams. The consultants were advised not to deliver a typical presentation. Instead, they were to listen, guide, and facilitate the individual team’s work as it related to their specific area of expertise. Those consultants were prepared for each site’s work ahead of time with site-specific data.
Over the course of the past two years, Bloomington’s secondary schools have taken responsibility for their direction in school improvement efforts. They no longer wait for a consultant to advise them based on the topic of the day. Now, when consultants visit the Bloomington schools, they are advised on the specific support that the site is seeking. Throughout the presentation, they are given feedback as to whether or not their efforts are hitting the desired mark. Together, school leaders and consultants strive to move the school forward.