Professional Development to Build Organizational Capacity in Low Achieving Schools




Director:  Fred M. Newmann

Staff:  M. Bruce King, Peter Youngs



Supported from1996-2000 by the Field-Initiated Studies Educational Research Grant Program, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education (Grant No. R308F60021-97); the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Spencer Foundation; and the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison.



Reform of the education system to enable all students to meet higher standards presents major challenges to public schools.  Schools vary in their capacity to meet higher standards, but little is known about how to increase the capacity of schools with persistently low levels of student achievement.


The study describes positive features and unresolved difficulties of professional development in nine elementary schools across the United States.   The schools were selected through a national search for schools serving large proportions of low-income students. Each school had a pattern of low student achievement, but showed improving levels of achievement over the last three to five years and attributed their progress to schoolwide and sustained professional development. Each school also participated in site-based management and had received significant professional development assistance from one or more external agencies. The schools were chosen to represent different approaches to professional development and different kinds of assistance from district, state, and independent providers.  After initial visits to nine schools in 1997, we chose seven schools for follow-up that planned to sustain professional development aimed at key aspects of capacity and that represented different district and state policy contexts.  Four of these schools with the greatest potential for strong professional development were visited three more times through 1999 and the other three schools were visited one more time in 1999.



  1. School organizational capacity consists of the interaction of five main components: teachers' individual knowledge, skills, and dispositions; technical resources such as instructional materials, assessment systems, and equipment; school-wide professional community among the staff; instructional program coherence; and principal leadership.

  2. Professional development is more likely to enhance capacity when it addresses several aspects of capacity instead of focusing only on teachers' individual knowledge, skills and dispositions. To the extent that the set of professional development activities at a school addresses many aspects of capacity, it can be considered "comprehensive" professional development.

  3. Schools varied considerably in the extent to which they used comprehensive professional development, but rarely was professional development used to strengthen collective professional inquiry, a key element of professional community.

  4. Comprehensive use of professional development can occur through adoption of externally developed instructional programs and also through school-based approaches.

  5. The extent of comprehensive professional development in a school was strongly related to the school’s level of capacity at the time of the initial visit and to principal leadership that channeled professional direction in this direction; modestly related to funding for professional development; but not clearly related to external technical assistance or to policy support from the district and state.

  6. Districts and states often failed to support comprehensive professional development.  They were more likely to reinforce professional community and program coherence when policies were internally consistent and remained consistent over time.  Districts and states can support comprehensive professional development through both centralized and decentralized approaches, but their ultimate effect on school capacity depends considerably upon local school context.


These conclusions are elaborated in the study's three final reports:





Professional Development that Addresses School Capacity: 

Lessons from Urban Elementary Schools


Fred M. Newmann, M. Bruce King and Peter Youngs

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Professional Development to Promote Schoolwide Inquiry


M. Bruce King

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District and State Influences on 
Professional Development and School Capacity

Peter Youngs

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Connections Between District Policy Related to Professional Development
and School Capacity in Urban Elementary Schools

Peter Youngs

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Further Information


WCER Project Information