Professional development to promote schoolwide inquiry



M. Bruce King


University of Wisconsin-Madison

Wisconsin Center for Education Research

1025 W. Johnson Street

Madison, WI 53706



fax        608-263-6448


15 February 2001




MS # 1363, accepted for publication in Teaching and Teacher Education




This paper was supported by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement (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. Any opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of supporting agencies. Helen Marks, Fred Newmann, Virginia Richardson, and Peter Youngs provided helpful feedback on previous drafts. The author also thanks two anonymous reviewers and Greta Morine-Dershimer for their comments on the initial manuscript.

Professional development to promote schoolwide inquiry






This paper explores the extent of teacher inquiry, and how professional development can promote schoolwide inquiry, in seven urban elementary schools in the US. The regular and systematic inquiry present in two of the schools is highlighted. The schools’ organizational contexts that facilitate inquiry are also considered. As a key element of professional community, the ways in which inquiry contributes to, and interacts with, other aspects of teacher community are examined. The paper also reflects on the issue of strict or flexible community boundaries and how inquiry can help to keep a school’s faculty focused yet dynamic, as well as open to dissent and change.



Keywords: Teacher inquiry, Professional development, School organization


Professional development to promote schoolwide inquiry


I.            Introduction


Teacher Inquiry

Two strands of the current school reform agenda, both in the US and internationally, are teacher inquiry and organizational learning. On the one hand, the restructuring and reculturing of schools should promote inquiry in which educators critically examine their own beliefs and practices (e.g., McLaughlin & Oberman, 1996; Richardson, 1994). This emphasis on inquiry and reflection has become one aspect of redefining teacher professionalism in many first-world countries (Conway, 2001). On the other hand, schools need to become learning organizations (Argyris & Schön, 1978). Schools as learning organizations help teachers interrogate, integrate, and apply knowledge and values in the process of continual improvement (Leithwood & Louis, 1999; Louis & Marks, 1999; also Crowther & Kaagan, in press).

This study begins to bring these two strands together. Much of the research on teacher inquiry has focused on pre-service teacher education or on the individual teacher or small group participating in some form of action research. But recent research is emerging that shows teacher inquiry to be necessary for ambitious instructional reform. Also, professional development that entails inquiry into subject matter and teaching has shown positive results on teacher learning, practice, or student learning (Darling-Hammond & Sykes, 1999; Lytle & Cochran-Smith, 1994; Smylie 1998; Wilson & Berne, 1999). This study seeks to further understand the contributions of professional development to schoolwide inquiry, as well as the benefits of inquiry to a school’s professional community.

Teacher inquiry entails a number of critical features. At the individual level, inquiry suggests a vision of the teacher “who questions her assumptions and is consciously thoughtful about her goals, practices, students, and contexts” (Richardson, 1994, p. 187). Inquiry puts teacher practice and student learning under scrutiny; and it generates and reinforces core beliefs, norms, and values of the community. Teachers become students of their craft as they struggle with key issues of determining academic content or subject matter, implementing instructional strategies, responding to students’ development, or understanding social conditions of schooling relevant to equity and justice concerns (Kruse, Louis, & Bryk, 1995).

At a minimum, then, collective inquiry involves teachers talking to each other about their practice and how it relates to student outcomes, and being willing to disagree. Other criteria indicate more complex inquiry, such as inviting or searching for dissenting viewpoints; making taken-for-granted assumptions explicit and challenging them; analyzing data, knowledge, and information; reaching collective understanding or decisions; and sustaining a focus on a specific topic. Similar to Cochran-Smith and Lytle’s (1999) “inquiry as stance,” this conception of inquiry suggests, not a one-time activity or project, but a defining feature of a community in which teachers investigate and critically examine practices, theories, and research, and collectively confront issues in a systematic and continuous way.

Typical professional development activities represent the antithesis of careful inquiry.  These activities tend to be imposed by external authorities without significant input from teachers and rarely sustained or followed-up. Often, professional development is divorced from teachers’ work contexts, and presents material that teachers see as irrelevant to student learning in their specific school settings. Different activities throughout a year or a period of years tend to lack consistent focus, either for individual teachers or for a school. And, perhaps most importantly, traditional professional development mirrors traditional forms of instruction where the learners, the teachers, are passive. In contrast, professional development that promotes inquiry will involve teachers in determining content and process, will relate specifically to their students, will be sustained and systematic, and will entail active learning that may lead to important changes in beliefs and practices.

Inquiry and Professional Community

            If innovative approaches to professional development stress only individual teachers’ learning, while neglecting to help a whole faculty to integrate their learning for the collective advancement of students in that school, organizational learning is diminished. We would not expect substantial changes in practice or student learning for a school as a whole. From this organizational perspective, inquiry should not be a solo activity, but one aspect of a school’s professional community. Recent research has shown the importance of teachers’ professional community for school reform. Drawing on the conceptual and empirical work of Louis, Kruse, Marks, and colleagues (e.g., Louis, Kruse, & Associates, 1995; Louis, Marks, & Kruse, 1996; Newmann, King, & Rigdon, 1997; also Westheimer, 1998), a strong schoolwide professional community consists of (a) a clear shared purpose for student learning, (b) collaboration among staff to achieve the purpose, (c) professional inquiry by the staff to address the challenges they face, and (d) opportunities for staff to influence the school’s activities and policies.

Although teachers can engage in careful individual inquiry about their practice, inquiry as a collaborative activity among teachers at a school is what contributes to professional community. Because they are in an organizational setting, teacher reflection becomes a joint responsibility that encourages them to work collectively toward shared understandings and commitments (Kruse, Louis, & Bryk, 1995). Inquiry that is pursued individually by teachers in a school, even if a significant number of them are doing it, could lead to organizational fragmentation that weakens overall student and staff learning.

            Some caution is warranted, though, in advocating a strong professional community in a school. The term “community” tends to be associated with positive, even progressive, social conditions. But like other social arrangements, community can have ambivalent tendencies (Wagner 1994). On the one hand, community entails harmony, consensus, mutual understanding. On the other, there is an urge to unify to the point where homogeneity is valued, even enforced (Young, 1990). As Noddings (1996) points out, “In all strong communities, there is a significant measure of normocentricity … (which) can produce admirable or deplorable results” (p. 254).

Thus shared norms, values, and goals define communities but these can lead to either strict or flexible boundaries to the community. With strict boundaries, where norms are highly explicit with little room for negotiation or interpretation, comes silence or exclusion. Disagreement and diversity are perceived as a threat, and minority viewpoints are unwelcome. Critical reflection seems essential to avoid these potentially negative outcomes of community. Inquiry should be seen as an integral part of professional community because when communities inquire about their norms, values, and goals, as well as practices to achieve them, difference or conflict is inherent but their cultivation contributes to flexible boundaries. That is, norms are continually revisited and refined, dissent or new perspectives are welcome, and the community is dynamic rather than stagnant.

In this paper, then, I will explore the extent of inquiry, and how professional development can further schoolwide inquiry, in seven urban elementary schools. From these schools, different examples of inquiry are highlighted, including the regular and systematic inquiry present in two of them. Aspects of the organizational contexts of the schools that facilitate collective inquiry, including leadership and structures, will be considered. I’ll then analyze how inquiry contributes to, and interacts with, other aspects of teacher professional community in these schools, and return to the issue of strict or flexible boundaries and how inquiry can help to keep a professional community focused yet dynamic, as well as open to dissent and change. The conclusion will draw implications from the study’s findings and suggest further research.

II.            Research Methodology and Analysis

            This investigation is part of a larger study of professional development to build school capacity. Our definition of capacity included the following five dimensions: the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of individual staff members; professional community; program coherence; technical resources; and principal leadership.[1] Seven public elementary schools in the US participated from spring 1997 through fall 1999. They were selected through a national search for schools serving large proportions of low-income students which a) had histories of low achievement, b) had shown progress in student achievement over the previous three to five years, c) attributed their progress to schoolwide and sustained professional development, d) participated in site-based management, and e) had received significant professional development assistance from one or more external agencies.[2] In addition to the five criteria, the schools were chosen to represent different approaches to professional development and different kinds of assistance from district, state, and independent providers (see the Appendix for professional development and demographic information for each school).

            The study intentionally sought out schools that used professional development in exemplary ways according to the criteria outlined above. One indication that we did in fact locate such schools is that, according to teacher survey data, all the participating schools scored consistently higher on dimensions of school capacity than did a comparable sample of schools in Chicago. On measures of inquiry (or reflective dialogue), the seven schools in the professional development study were significantly higher than the Chicago schools (Smith 1999).

            Initial data collection in spring and fall of 1997 involved fieldwork in the seven schools for three days by a team of two researchers. Visits to the schools were scheduled so that significant professional development activities could be observed. Observed activities included workshops or in-services with outside authorities, but also activities internal to the school such as common planning or release time for teachers to meet in committees, cadres, grade teams, and as a school as a whole, as well as meetings to network with teachers from other schools. Researchers also interviewed school staff (10 to 12) and representatives from external providers of professional development and collected pertinent documents as well as achievement, demographic, and fiscal information.[3]

Four of the schools (Falkirk, Kintyre, Lewis, and Renfrew[4]) with the greatest potential for comprehensive professional development, that is professional development that consistently addressed most or all dimensions of capacity, were visited three more times through 1999. The other three schools (Carlisle, Pitlochry, and Wallace) were visited once more in 1999. Research methods in the follow-up visits followed the same general pattern as in the initial visits, but interviews raised issues that emerged in prior visits on how professional development addressed the different dimensions of capacity.

We conducted two stages of analysis to determine the level of teacher inquiry at each school, as well as the extent to which professional development addressed inquiry over the course of the study. The first stage of analysis occurred after each school visit when research staff compiled field notes from their observations and interviews and wrote a report addressing the research questions of the full study. At this stage of analysis, the school report focused on how professional development addressed three aspects of capacity: teachers’ knowledge, skills and dispositions; professional community (each of four dimensions including inquiry); and program coherence.

The second stage of analysis took place after all data collection had been completed and all of the school reports were written. We used the reports to rate each school (high, medium, or low) on several variables. One was the level of collective inquiry at the time of the first visit and the final visit. A second was the extent to which inquiry was addressed by professional development over the course of our study. To be rated high on inquiry, professional development activities at a particular school met at least four of the following criteria. Teachers

¨      have considerable control over process and content;

¨      critically discuss issues of school mission, curriculum, instruction, or student learning;

¨      address areas of disagreement and entertain diverse viewpoints;

¨      draw upon relevant data and research to inform deliberations;

¨      sustain a focus on a topic or problem, and reach a collective decision.

Research staff assigned individual ratings for each variable; when there was disagreement, the ratings were discussed until consensus was reached. The ratings were used to inform explanations for why some schools used professional development to address capacity more comprehensively than others did. The next section presents the three major findings of this study.

III.            Findings

1.         In a select sample of schools, only two used professional development to strongly address schoolwide teacher inquiry. In the other five schools, the extent of collective inquiry was limited.

Even though all the schools in this study used professional development in innovative ways and demonstrated some gains in student achievement, we found schoolwide inquiry to be low in five of them. In short, teachers’ work in professional development rarely met the criteria for inquiry. There seems to be at least two possible explanations. One, while inquiry was low at these schools, it may have been somewhat better than at other schools with little success in raising achievement. The comparison to the sample of Chicago schools noted above provides support for this explanation. Alternatively, the low levels may indicate that in the short term, collective inquiry may not be necessary for school improvement that enhances achievement. In part IV. Conclusions, I’ll return to this issue and argue why in the long term, professional development should promote schoolwide inquiry.

Over the course of the study, there were examples of relatively high quality inquiry at the five low schools. However these examples represent isolated instances of inquiry rather than a consistent element of the schools’ approaches to professional development. At Carlisle, for instance, collaboration among teachers was high through grade level team meetings and a mentor program for new teachers. Teachers consistently reported sharing ideas with and receiving suggestions from colleagues. But there was little evidence that staff participated in dialogue in which they critically discussed issues of mission, instruction, or achievement; addressed areas of disagreement; or used data to inform their deliberations.

At Wallace, there were many instances of teachers’ sharing ideas for practice. However, inquiry was irregular and rare. An external consultant working long-term with the school affirmed that the professional development needed to work more on reflective practice. One veteran teacher said that most dialogue and professional development at the school was too shallow. She said bluntly, There are too many buzzwords such as reciprocal teaching, problem-solving, blah, blah, blah.  What does it mean if it’s not part of you?

Similarly at Kintyre, observations and interviews revealed lots of sharing of ideas but little inquiry among teachers. But during our last research visit in fall of 1999, staff analyzed the school’s results on state tests. With facilitation from the school’s “resource teacher” (a district staff person who worked with three or four schools on a weekly basis), teachers made efforts to generate a collective understanding as shown by their summaries of the data and recommendations for action to the large group. This activity, along with other professional development in the fall of 1999, indicated that the school seemed to be taking constructive steps toward enhancing all aspects of professional community, including collective inquiry.

Professional development that strongly addressed inquiry throughout the study was evident at two schools. Lewis and Renfrew Elementary Schools consistently involved teachers in collective inquiry through professional development opportunities. Lewis Elementary, in an urban district in Texas, enrolled 560 students. Students were 78% Hispanic, 14% white, and 8% African American, and 93% were on free or reduced price lunch. Since 1994, professional development concentrated on implementation of Success for All (SFA) programs. With an initial faculty vote of 100% to adopt SFA, they began implementing the reading program in 1994, the math program in 1995, and World Lab (integrated science and social studies) in 1997.

In an urban district in California, Renfrew enrolled an ethnically and economically diverse student body of 675. Students were 44% Hispanic, 14% African American, 38% white, and 54% were from low-income families. During the study, professional development focused on developing grade level standards and assessments in literacy and mathematics, and discussing implications of assessment results for curriculum and teaching. The staff continuously examined the issue of achievement gaps between students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

As we will see, Renfrew consistently met all five of the criteria for collective inquiry. Teachers had considerable control over both process and content, and they critically discussed issues of school mission and assessments and standards for student learning. Areas of disagreement and diverse viewpoints were valued, and teachers drew upon relevant data and research to inform discussions. In different settings, teachers sustained a focus on critical issues and reached some collective decisions. Lewis met all criteria but the first one. That is, after adoption of Success For All, teachers didn’t have a lot of control over the process and content of professional development.

Inquiry at Lewis

            The main goal of professional development at Lewis was to help teachers to faithfully implement curriculum and methods developed by Success For All (Slavin et al., 1996). When inquiry occurred, it was usually oriented toward the issue of, “How well am I doing and how might I do better in implementing the designated strategy to ensure all students’ success?” Both school-based SFA facilitators, one in reading and one in math, emphasized that, beyond helping individual teachers to implement the program, their role was to encourage teachers’ questions and seek their feedback on the program, and to offer workshops based on identified needs.

            One important site for collective professional inquiry was the quarterly grade level team meetings to discuss students’ progress. The meetings occurred for 45 minutes during scheduled grade level common planning time. The main purposes were to place students in reading classes for the next 8 weeks and to discuss teachers’ success with instructional strategies. The reading facilitator said these meetings were productive because they had information on student achievement and all teachers had input. Teachers examined the results from reading assessments in order to make recommendations for student placement. All teachers were expected to discuss recommendations before the reading facilitator gave her input. In these discussions, teachers revisited learning expectations and reinforced their commitment to and responsibility for improved learning for all their students. Critical discussion of curriculum and instructional strategies continued in regular grade level meetings independent of the facilitators. Teachers saw the discussion of student achievement levels and of instructional strategies as directly contributing to their learning.

The math facilitator said that SFA trainers established effective relationships with Lewis teachers that encouraged them to reflect on practice. For example, first and second grade teachers, implementing the program for the first time in ‘97-98, felt comfortable telling the trainers that certain things did not go well, or that they did not understand aspects of the program. She had a positive reaction, especially to the training because, as she put it, there was an open exchange -- they [teachers] were comfortable talking about the lessons, problems, the whole cycle.

Throughout the four research visits, teachers’ careful consideration of implementation issues was evident, both in-house in grade level teams (both with and without the school-based facilitators) and with the external SFA trainers in de-briefing sessions or workshops. For example, a meeting with the reading facilitator and the “reading roots” (primary level) teachers dealt their reactions to the recent implementation check by trainers. Discussion of the trainers’ feedback involved reflective professional inquiry in the sense that teachers noticed discrepancies between the trainers’ oral and written feedback, they raised questions and asked for explanations for ratings, and they considered the adequacy of trainers’ limited time to observe each classroom. In short, the teachers took feedback from SFA trainers very seriously and, rather than merely complaining about ratings that disappointed them, they explored how the trainers may have reached their conclusions. When some of their concerns were not adequately resolved in the meeting, they suggested that the issues be raised explicitly with the trainers.

Neither Success For All nor district-sponsored professional development emphasized professional inquiry in the sense of urging teachers to become innovators who critiqued and discovered effective new instructional approaches, new ways of organizing curriculum, new approaches to parent involvement or school governance. Overall, professional development at Lewis put the most emphasis on training teachers in the comprehensive reading, math, and World Lab programs developed by SFA. But opportunities for staff collaboration and the prevailing culture that featured clear shared learning goals for the school combined with facilitator leadership to promote schoolwide inquiry. Though not an explicit focus for the school, the practice of professional development at Lewis emphasized collective teacher inquiry that focused on complex technical issues of program implementation.

Inquiry at Renfrew

Professional development at Renfrew focused on teachers clarifying specific outcomes in literacy and math at each grade level, ways of measuring these outcomes, and reflecting on results, especially with regard to gaps between students of different racial or ethnic backgrounds. With financial support from the state’s school restructuring initiative and grants received by the district, the entire staff met together yearly in two institutes of three to four days each and in formal inquiry groups of about 15 teachers, which were led by an external coach and meet every other week for three hours. The first institute occurred before school opened in the fall in which faculty develop “essential questions” for the year (e.g., What am I doing differently to ensure that the inequitable pattern of student achievement no longer continues?). The second was held mid-year where staff members examined grade level progress in addressing the essential questions. Staff consistently analyzed standardized and performance-based achievement outcomes in the mid-year institutes.

Ongoing inquiry related to the essential questions was evident in inquiry groups where teachers also discussed classroom practice and professional readings. One teacher, for example, described the influence of her inquiry group this way,

We’ve talked a lot about issues surrounding inequality and racism…So when I do go back to the classroom, I’m always thinking about my kids of color and how I treat them and how other people treat them, and constantly thinking about what could I be doing or what am I already doing or not doing enough of and all that.  In that way I feel like inquiry has made a very strong impact.  I’m not saying that I’ve completely resolved all of the issues.

One inquiry group facilitator described the work of the groups in this way. She said their overall purpose was for teachers to

hold up beliefs and principles for critical questioning.  It was in this way that the focus was on practice.  The topic of discipline provides a good example.  The teachers basically wanted students to be quieter and more responsive to their instruction.  [In inquiry] they tended to trade very particular techniques for punishment and reward at first, then began to inquire into the problem in a deeper way.  What theories of child development underlay their notions of who was “in control” of behavior in the classroom?  What were patterns of instructional practice that coincided with more or less “bad” behavior?  What were their definitions of “bad” behavior and where did they come from?  To what extent were their definitions influenced by culture and gender differences, or by students’ family affiliations?  They raised some of these questions themselves, and sometimes I raised them or encouraged them to stick with them for awhile…

            Renfrew teachers participated in collective professional inquiry in other contexts. In grade level team meetings, teachers scored student work in reading comprehension and writing according to standards in their performance assessment scheme. For one of the teams, an activity involved keeping a journal on how each teacher responded to students of color who they considered to be “at-risk.” They also conducted peer observations with a partner teacher that focused on classroom interactions with those students. Another team decided to have each teacher target five students having the most difficulty with writing, to use guided writing activities, and to track progress over a few months.

            The practice of collective professional inquiry was an explicit and integral part of the fabric of teachers’ work at Renfrew. But there was strength, weakness, and ongoing tension in their use of inquiry. Its strength was demonstrated by the fact that when an external consultant to the school violated it, she was not invited back. Her in-services were oriented toward transmitting knowledge and skills, rather than involving teachers in determining the content and processes for workshops, and engaging them in critical dialogue. On the other hand, it seemed that it took a considerable amount of time and effort for teachers to prioritize and make decisions when engaged in inquiry. There was often reluctance among staff to push the process to a conclusion or collective decision. Unfortunately, many issues were left unresolved and then staff had a myriad of things to deal with in their various groups.

            Furthermore, the conduct of professional inquiry brought conflict to the surface. Discussions of the extent of teacher responsibility for eliminating differences in achievement among racial and ethnic groups, and the issue of flexible “developmental” goals for individual students versus fixed grade level expectations for all, provoked significant disagreement. While Renfrew teachers have been participating in joint inquiry that few schools have achieved, they also have faced the special challenge of managing conflict to advance collective professional growth and minimizing its threat to community.

            In contrast to the five schools where teacher inquiry occurred only occasionally, Lewis and Renfrew systematically used professional development that emphasized collective inquiry. Lewis adopted an external program and inquiry there focused largely on the “how to” of implementation. Renfrew teachers developed standards and assessments internally, and their inquiry tended to address the “for what” of instruction – equity in student achievement.

2.                  Supports for schoolwide inquiry included organizational structures and school leadership.

Organizational Structures

Both Lewis and Renfrew scheduled release time for teachers to meet in various groups. At Lewis, grade level teams met at least twice per week during a 45-minute common planning period. The teams met with the school-based SFA reading and math facilitators once each month. Grade team leaders and the principal also met together once per month. Program implementation checks were regularly scheduled in both reading and math, during which trainers from national SFA visited the school and observed instruction. During the visits, the school consistently scheduled time for the trainers to meet with teachers by program component or grade levels.

With considerable external financial support, Renfrew instituted structures that supported school-based professional development, including collective teacher inquiry. They used seven staff development days per year for the two institutes. Teachers reported that the extended time to meet with colleagues, that is, multiple and consecutive days, was a significant foundation for successful professional development. By banking instructional time, school started an hour and a half late every Friday, time which the staff used for meetings. Monthly meetings occurred for the whole faculty, and for grade team leaders with the administration. Multi-grade level teams (K/1, 2/3, 4/5) met every other week, with specific grade group teachers or teaching partners (e.g., first grade teachers) meeting at least weekly. The school’s financial resources freed teachers from their classes for formal inquiry groups every other week for three hours.

            While none of the other schools had the kind of opportunities for professional development that Renfrew enjoyed, most had instituted more time for teacher collaboration through common grade level planning periods and extended day-early release. As with all structural reforms, these may bolster innovation and school improvement but they offer no guarantees. For example, at Pitlochry, another SFA school with similar structures as Lewis, professional development did not consistently support inquiry or other aspects of professional community. In spite of the initial vote of the faculty to participate, not all staff were committed to school goals or to implementing SFA. Some teachers resisted the amount of preparation time needed for SFA lessons, the emphasis on cooperative learning, and the shift to nontraditional instructional approaches, especially in math. Staff also noted that some teachers were uneasy with facilitator and peer feedback, and this kind of critical discussion of instruction was minimal. While other teachers liked the help they received from the reading facilitator, it was done largely one-on-one. Grade level teams, even with common planning time, met irregularly. In contrast to Lewis, assessments and regrouping of students in reading were done solely by the facilitator and thus were not a focal point for collective discussion and inquiry. The math facilitator relied on classroom teachers to contact him for help rather than taking a more proactive role. The fact that teachers approached him infrequently may be indicative of a lack of trust among staff members and a culture that did not value careful critique and inquiry.



            Principals at both Lewis and Renfrew maintained a consistent focus for schoolwide professional development. They used funding and outside expertise to serve this focus, and “buffered” teachers from outside mandates or reform initiatives that might otherwise interfere with their school’s efforts. They worked to maintain high teacher expectations for student achievement and norms of trust and collaboration, and they reinforced open channels of communication within the school. As we’ll see, the principals of the two schools did differ in their direct involvement in activities to promote teacher inquiry.

At Lewis, the principal and the facilitators expected teachers to critically engage with implementation issues and provided forums for addressing these. That is, in this context of following an externally developed program, teachers considered SFA not simply a “script” but a comprehensive program (curriculum, instructional strategies, and assessments) in different subject areas that invited inquiry. Ongoing assistance for inquiry came mainly from the school-based reading and math facilitators rather than the principal. The facilitators regularly visited classrooms, offered demonstrations, arranged for teachers to observe one another, and participated in grade level meetings to discuss instructional issues. Both facilitators emphasized that their role was to encourage teachers’ questions and seek their feedback on the program.

The school’s reading facilitator discussed how she tried to improve teachers’ instructional strategies. Her general approach was to call grade team members together if she perceived any weaknesses in implementation and to ask them if they had any suggestions about how to deal with it. She said that teachers’ problem solving together had been a critical component of staff development. She also has tried to promote teachers teaching teachers at the school. She encouraged Lewis teachers to offer workshops to the rest of the staff on different program aspects, and made arrangements for the meetings. Although voluntary, attendance was consistently high.

            The school’s math facilitator conducted regular observations of students and teachers. After identifying students who struggled in math, she would observe their classes and then meet with the teacher to discuss ways in which these students might be helped. While this activity entailed meeting with teachers one-on-one, it was consistent with the culture and practice of teachers examining their implementation of the SFA program in light of their immediate context and how well their students were doing.

Leadership support for inquiry at Renfrew could be traced to the district superintendent. His vision for professional development was school based, and entailed an explicit emphasis on inquiry. As he stated, the

school community has to decide what they will focus on … to create an environment where teachers can examine their practices in light of a knowledge base, and to really take a look at their instruction in theory and practice, going out and trying things, coming back and talking about it, going out and trying it again.  It’s more than a coaching model; it’s much more what we call inquiry-based.  It needs to relate to their practices, to student success and what they mean by student success.  It seems to me that looking at student work should be one of the central organizing elements.

He perceived inquiry to be productive at Renfrew in part because the school had a principal who passionately believed that teachers needed to be actively engaged in examining their practices.

            The school’s principal argued that small teacher inquiry groups would result in school change. Their model for these groups included norms of confidentiality and privacy. Groups were not necessarily action oriented but could be. For her, the critical component was tying these groups to the more public inquiry system conducted at institutes, and grade level and whole staff meetings that were connected to the school’s essential questions. She said, For me, thinking about pushing the envelope toward change, I’m not sure if I didn’t have this other parallel strategy going on, which is schoolwide and every body is engaged in it – having those two strategies, they are very complementary and they really really help.

            In facilitating pre- and mid-year institutes, Renfrew’s principal designed activities for the staff that included examining achievement data disaggregated by race/ethnicity and social class, discussing instructional strategies and other teacher behaviors that might help students from different backgrounds, and reviewing results from a staff survey to identify areas needing attention. Teachers were always involved in planning these activities as well as helping to facilitate them during the institutes. To make formal policy and plans for professional development, the principal consulted with the lead teachers from the grade level teams, and no major change was made without wide support throughout the faculty. In the meetings we observed, teachers consistently voiced ideas, proposals, concerns, feedback, and criticisms, with direct encouragement for this kind of dialogue from the principal. She summarized her approach to fostering teacher inquiry,

My own personal belief is that I will never change anybody’s value system and belief system.  However, I can put them in an environment where they have an opportunity to re-examine it.  I know I have people all over the map in terms of that development.  I have people who are in total denial that they have any biases or prejudices that may be affecting their teaching.  I have people who are on the road to really understanding and figuring out what to do about that.  I have teachers of color who go between being frustrated and angry, and hopeful.  To find the right strategies that meet all those different people… it’s the hardest facilitation I’ve ever done.

She acknowledged that she received critical support from the regional network of schools involved in the California restructuring initiative and the California Consortium for School Restructuring (CCSR). The Consortium coordinated regional networks and developed the “protocol” process to assist school staffs to reflect rigorously, in a supportive context, on its efforts. Her comments suggest the importance for ongoing professional development and technical support for school leaders as well as teachers.

            At both schools, leadership for inquiry acted not to arrive at predetermined conclusions or to consolidate the power of those in formal leadership positions. Rather it was facilitative, promoting broad participation and influence, as well as encouraging open exchange of ideas and deliberations. Principals and teachers valued both individual and collective growth as important outcomes of inquiry.

3.                  Inquiry and other aspects of professional community interacted and affected one another.

            As discussed previously, the study’s framework for professional community included (a) a clear shared purpose for student learning, (b) collaboration among staff to achieve the purpose, (c) professional inquiry by the staff to address the challenges they face, and (d) opportunities for staff to influence the school’s activities and policies. At both Lewis and Renfrew, inquiry helped to build teachers’ shared commitment and collaboration, and in turn, these aspects of professional community were foundations for further inquiry. Teacher empowerment was strong at both schools throughout the study, and seemed to be important for productive inquiry as well as strengthened by it. But before looking at these two schools, we briefly consider one of the other schools where professional community suffered because inquiry was weak.

            At Falkirk, inquiry and sustaining focus in professional development were chronic problems over the course of the study, and this seemed to harm the school’s professional community. Some of these problems were due to the shifting educational policy environment. The state implemented a centralized testing and accountability system that entailed a dramatic shift from previous policy under which individual schools identified their own learner standards. The new policies entailed a change in the school’s focus for learning with little teacher commitment. But some of the problems were school-based. Falkirk was an Accelerated School, a model that provided structures and processes for school improvement including inquiry (see Hopfenberg et al., 1993). However, teachers failed to practice the inquiry process well or consistently. Some teachers said of inquiry that they were “spinning wheels.” Although collaboration occurred in the Accelerated Schools structures (e.g., cadres, steering committee) and in grade level team meetings, commitment to shared goals and teacher empowerment was uneven. Falkirk abandoned the Accelerated Schools model with the change of principals mid-way through the study.

In contrast, the staff at Lewis adopted their specific direction for school improvement through a process that entailed broad-based involvement and careful inquiry by teachers. In 1993-94, the teachers began to investigate programs that, based on research, would offer more success with disadvantaged students than the faculty had been able to achieve to date. The principal explained that prior to that time, the staff had worked hard and tried a number of things, but had concluded that nothing produced the results they wanted. A committee of 10 teachers examined alternatives that included visits to other schools employing different programs and presentations to the rest of the staff. They were impressed with Success For All and made a commitment to adopt the program, with 100% of the faculty voting to do so. They used a similar process in the spring of 1997 to investigate programs for science and social studies. As opposed to contrived consensus on a decision already made by a principal or accepting an external mandate to adopt and implement a specific program or approach to reform, Lewis serves as a promising example in which teacher inquiry builds on and reinforces shared commitment, collaboration, and influence, other aspects of professional community. In a cyclical pattern, as the school progressed in its implementation of SFA, students became more successful, which in turn raised teachers’ expectations for learning. Their commitment to learning goals was reinforced, as was their practice of inquiry to enhance their implementation.

At Renfrew, staff scrutinized conditions of schooling relevant to equity and social justice. While it was extremely challenging for teachers to examine issues of racism and prejudice in their own attitudes and practice, it seemed to help generate and reinforce commitment to shared learning goals. Inquiry both involved and contributed to collaboration in that teachers’ beliefs and their students’ achievement levels were subject to collective scrutiny in a supportive environment. Teachers struggled jointly with key issues of determining academic outcomes by grade level and ways to measure them. One inquiry group facilitator noted the challenge and importance of inquiry to the schoolwide program and a shared focus. She said that what Renfrew teachers did with inquiry was incredibly healthy. It’s extremely tense and difficult. But there’s this sort of kick-over point where if a school as a whole doesn’t come to own the work, it’s never the school’s work.

Previously, it was noted that communities have shared norms, values, and goals but that these can result in strict or flexible boundaries. With strict boundaries comes silence or exclusion; the strength of shared norms imposes uniformity with little or no room for dissent. However, when communities inquire about their norms, values, and goals, difference and conflict are inherent, and their cultivation contributes to flexible boundaries and growth.[5]

Renfrew serves as a good illustration. We were initially concerned that the strength of the school’s professional community could lead to two negative outcomes: (a) silencing or disempowering some teachers, because collective bonds or norms were so powerful (yet fragile) that they could not tolerate dissent, or (b) increased conflict that destroys community, when collective bonds are not strong and mature enough to handle disagreement. One inquiry group facilitator put it this way, They were always teetering on the brink of fracture caused by the tension of going too far (toward assumptions of the existence of racism and toward more explicit anti-racism) for some teachers, and not far enough for others. But through inquiry, the common focus of the community could be continually negotiated. As one teacher put it, Within that commonality for the school, it has to be open-ended enough that each person can take that and make it individual. Collective inquiry, as suggested in this study of schools with innovative approaches to professional development, was not a common practice or easy to achieve. Yet when it was, as in Renfrew’s case, collective inquiry with broad involvement and honest examination of goals, values, and practices at the school level seems to be a key ingredient for organizational growth and may offer a safeguard against possible negative outcomes of increased “community.”

IV.              Conclusions

In this study of professional development in seven elementary schools, the extent of collective teacher inquiry was limited. In most of the schools, professional development activities that involved inquiry were isolated instances rather than ingrained into the fabric of the school’s culture. Only at two schools, Lewis and Renfrew, did teachers engage in schoolwide inquiry in an ongoing and systematic way. These two schools offer at least an existence proof that innovative forms of professional development can address schoolwide inquiry.

But Lewis and Renfrew illustrate contrasting approaches to professional development and the focus for inquiry. Teachers at Lewis focused on the implementation of a comprehensive program developed by an external organization that also provided continuing technical assistance. Renfrew teachers approached school improvement through their own ongoing development of standards and assessments, and through critical examination of issues of social and educational equity. These schools illustrate that professional development can meaningfully address collective teacher inquiry with either approach.

It does not seem particularly surprising that with their approach, Renfrew teachers engaged in inquiry. At the same time, the more prescriptive program at Lewis might be associated with limited opportunities or limited need for inquiry. But the Lewis experience with Success For All suggests that adopting an established program does not necessarily preclude teacher inquiry and that inquiry, together with school-level decision making, can contribute to shared learning goals and implementation of the given program. Further research can help determine if schoolwide inquiry, as well as other aspects of professional community and school capacity, plays a significant role in different models for comprehensive school reform.

This study does not suggest that schoolwide inquiry is necessary to enhance student achievement. Certain forms of instruction may be less dependent on collective (or individual) inquiry even though, as we have seen, teachers engaged in and benefited from inquiry with the prescriptive SFA program. Some schools at any particular point in time may not be ready, or attention to other matters (e.g., teacher instructional knowledge and skill in a particular subject area) may take precedence. That is, in the short term some aspects of the school might deserve more attention than others.

From this study, sustained schoolwide inquiry at two schools strengthened other aspects of their professional communities—shared commitment to learning goals, collaboration, and teacher influence. Collective inquiry also seemed to encourage organizational growth by keeping a community focused, yet dynamic. Coupled with the research on professional community in schools and on organizational learning, the implication may be that in order to build capacity or to keep it at a high level, in the long run professional development at all schools should entail collective schoolwide inquiry. Though this study is suggestive, more research is clearly needed to help to further understand inquiry’s contribution to and interaction with professional community, instructional quality, and student achievement.



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Professional Development at the Seven School





·         Success For All—reading, math, World Lab

·         School-based reading & math facilitators

·         Grade level teams






·         Grade level standards and assessments

·         Essential Questions: Achievement equity, focus on literacy

·         Teacher inquiry groups, pre- and mid-year institutes, grade level teams




·         Montessori

·         Alignment with state assessment

·         Schoolwide literacy training

·         Grade level teams

·        District resource teacher for professional development




·         Accelerated School Model—cadres, school as a whole, steering committee

·         Literacy training for all teachers

·         Grade level teams

·         Graduate courses for teachers on site




·         Alignment with state & district standards and assessments

·         Responsive classroom

·         African-centered language arts

·         Grade level teams, half-day for professional development every two weeks, week-long summer workshops




·         Success For All--reading & math

·         School-based reading & math facilitators

·         Health education initiative

·         Monthly meetings for SFA reading facilitators in the district




·         Core Knowledge

·         Alignment with state assessment program





·         District curriculum frameworks

·        Grade level teams, new teacher mentors

Demographic Characteristics of the Schools










Geographic Region, U.S.








Grades in Each School








Student Enrollment








% Low Income Students








Student Mobility %








# of Full Time Teachers








% Ethnic/Race Composition,

Students (Teachers)








            African American

8 (5)

14 (10)

48 (35)

97 (20)

100 (76)

96 (55)

6 (4)


    .5 (0)

.5 (3)

          0 (0)

0 (0)

0 (0)

0 (3)

0 (0)


77.5 (41)

44 (37)

          9 (3)

0 (0)

0 (0)

4 (18)

0 (0)


14 (54)

38 (50)


2 (80)

0 (24)

0 (24)

90 (96)




[1] See King & Newmann (2000), Newmann et al. (in press), and Youngs (2000) for descriptions and findings from the larger study.


[2] Approximately 80 nominations were received, and information was gathered through a school questionnaire and phone interviews with principals and other key participants in the schools’ development. Initially, nine schools participated but only seven were followed up.


[3] Interviews at each school included the principal, staff members with direct responsibilities for professional development, and teachers. Among teachers, we interviewed those who participated in the major professional development activities of the school, representatives from the different grade levels at the school, at least one who had important concerns about the school’s program of professional development, and at least one new to the school.


[4] School names are pseudonyms.


[5] Strike (1999) analyzes this tension in somewhat different terms. He inquires into the extent to which schools can be communities organized around shared constitutive beliefs without violating liberal principles of inclusiveness.