Professional Development that Addresses School Capacity:

Lessons from Urban Elementary Schools


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

University of Wisconsin, Madison


January 5, 2001




For publication in the American Journal of Education.


Portions of this paper were presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, April 28, 2000.


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. Michele Fine, Charles Payne, Virginia Richardson, and Mark Smylie provided helpful suggestions.  Authors are deeply grateful for the assistance provided by staff in the schools, districts and states participating in the study.  Any opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of supporting agencies.



Professional development for teachers is often recommended as a strategy for school improvement.  But professional development has generally failed to improve teaching, because it is usually implemented in ways that violate key conditions for teacher learning.  Researchers tend to agree that to promote the kind of teacher learning that leads to improvement in teaching, professional development should concentrate on instruction and student outcomes in teachers’ specific schools; provide opportunities for collegial inquiry, help, and feedback; and connect teachers to external expertise while also respecting teachers’ discretion and creativity.  Finally, these experiences should be sustained and continuous, rather than short-term and episodic. These points have been made by Corcoran (1995), Darling-Hammond and McLaughlin (1996), Hargreaves (1995), Lieberman (1995), Little (1993), Lytle and Cochran-Smith (1994), Renyi (1996), and Richardson (1994). We agree that individual teacher learning would be enhanced if professional development were more consistent with these points.  But, as explained below, professional development is more likely to advance achievement of all students in a school if it addresses not only the learning of individual teachers, but also other dimensions of the organizational capacity of the school.

We present a conception of school organizational capacity and argue that professional development ought to address all aspects of capacity rather than only the competence of individual teachers.  Based on a study of urban elementary schools across the United States, we describe how professional development at seven schools studied over two years addressed main aspects of school capacity. Because of non-comparable data on trends in student achievement, we were unable to examine the extent to which comprehensive professional development boosted student achievement. But we were able to identify factors that help to explain why professional development in some schools addressed multiple aspects of capacity more than in others. Finally, we discuss implications of the conceptual framework and findings.

School Capacity: An Organizational Perspective for Professional Development

Each school contains a unique mix of many teachers’ and students’ competencies and attitudes, and a unique set of social, cultural, and political conditions, all of which influence how teachers interact with students (Bryk et al. 1998; Fine 1994; Fullan and Stiegelbauer 1991; Louis and Miles 1990; Lytle and Cochran-Smith 1994; Sarason 1982). Individual teacher competence is the foundation for improved classroom practice, but to improve achievement of all students in a school from one academic year to the next, teachers must exercise their individual knowledge, skills, and dispositions in an integrated way to advance the collective work of the school under a set of unique conditions.  The collective power of the full staff to improve student achievement schoolwide can be summarized as school capacity.

Recognizing that student learning and the teaching that affects it depend upon a variety of factors in the school and the community, we present one formulation of these influences in Figure 1. This scheme represents our synthesis of a variety of research (e.g., Cohen 1995; Fine 1994; Fullan 1993; Gamoran, Secada, and Marrett 2000; Hill and Celio 1998; Lee, Bryk, and Smith 1993; Rowan 1990).  The figure shows student achievement affected most directly by the quality of instruction.  Instruction in turn is affected by school capacity, and capacity is affected by actors which sponsor policy or programs on a variety of issues, for example, curriculum and assessment standards, teacher certification, hiring and promotion, school size, school governance procedures, and, of course, professional development.


Of course, many factors not listed in the figure also influence student achievement and the quality of instruction.  These include organizational features such as time for teachers to plan and school autonomy from unreasonable bureaucratic constraint, school learning climate, the level of support from parents and community organizations, and school funding.  Our point is not to offer a comprehensive model of all the factors that affect student learning, but to suggest that many factors influence instruction through their influence on school capacity.  Viewing school capacity as the key to improved instruction offers a parsimonious way of interpreting how a long list of otherwise discreet factors may affect instruction.

What do we mean when we say that something, such as raw material, a product made of material, a human being, a group of people, has high or low capacity?  Capacity often refers to the potential of material, a product, person or group to fulfill a function if it is used in a particular way. For example, a piece of iron has the capacity to be a skillet for cooking, a building to be a theatre, a person to be a teacher, a group of adolescents to be a political force in the community.  To characterize the capacity of an entity, one must first describe its intended function.  Once one knows the intended function, one can then characterize capacity at any point in time as high or low, depending upon the complexity and magnitude of future investments necessary to fulfill the potential to carry out the function.

At a given point in time, the less complex and the lower the costs (in effort and resources) of future investment in development, the higher the capacity.  Thus, Carnegie Hall has higher capacity for offering live entertainment through classical music than Yankee Stadium, because converting Yankee Stadium into a concert hall would require far greater resources than producing a concert in Carnegie hall.  Similarly, a college graduate who excelled in mathematics has higher capacity for becoming an effective mathematics teacher than one who failed in math and dislikes the subject.  The purpose of our empirical research is not to compute the actual transition costs of schools moving from low to high capacity, but to examine the extent to which professional development addresses key aspects of schools’ capacity to offer instruction that boosts achievement, and to explain why some schools have more success than others in doing so. 

Different renditions of school capacity have been discussed in the literature on school reform and organizational change. The conception in Figure 1 is a synthesis of ideas from different lines of research on school improvement.

·        School capacity includes the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of individual staff members. Staff must be professionally competent in instruction and assessment centered on curriculum appropriate for their particular students, and they must hold high expectations for all students’ learning.  The contribution of these individual human resources to student achievement is well recognized in research on teacher education and in programs of professional development.[1]

·        Individual teaching competence must be put to use in an organized, collective enterprise.  This element of capacity calls attention to the educative importance of social resources in the school, which we summarize as schoolwide professional community.   A strong professional community consists of (a) the staff sharing clear goals for student learning, (b) collaboration and collective responsibility among staff to achieve the goals, (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.  Definitions of professional community vary slightly in the literature, but studies have shown higher school professional community to be associated with higher student achievement (Louis, Kruse and Marks 1996; Lee and Smith 1996; Louis and Marks 1998).[2]

·        A third dimension of school capacity is program coherence, which we define as the extent to which the school’s programs for student and staff learning are coordinated, focused on clear learning goals, and sustained over a period of time. Program coherence can be considered an indicator of organizational integration.  When schools pursue programs that are uncoordinated with one another or that address only limited numbers of students or staff, or that are terminated after a short period of time in order to adopt newer approaches considered to be more “up-to-date,” organizational fragmentation weakens student and staff learning.[3]

·        Instruction that boosts student achievement requires technical resources, that is, high quality curriculum, books and other instructional materials, assessment instruments, laboratory equipment, computers, and adequate workspace (e.g., Corcoran and Goertz 1995; Gamoran, Secada, and Marrett 2000; O’Day et al. 1995).  Reform efforts to improve academic standards and assessments, to provide better technology, higher quality children’s literature and systematic curricular programs, and to remodel outdated physical facilities can be seen as efforts to improve school capacity through the enhancement of technical resources.

·        Finally, school capacity requires effective principal leadership (e.g., Hallinger and Heck 1998; Smylie and Hart 1999). In most schools, the principal has the legal authority to affect each of the above aspects of capacity, for better or worse, depending upon the quality of leadership.  Teachers and other staff may also exert positive and negative leadership.  But since legal responsibility for the school resides primarily with the principal and since research has shown the principal to be so influential in the life of the school, we recognize the principal’s leadership as a critical force in the school’s capacity to educate students.

As shown in Figure 1, we view the different components of capacity as interactive.  For example, teachers with a sound knowledge of subject matter may be more likely to select high quality instructional materials, but high quality materials may also help to improve teachers’ subject matter knowledge.  A faculty with a strong professional community might be more likely to integrate curriculum across grade levels to increase program coherence, but it is also possible that adoption of a coherent curriculum framework could stimulate increased collaboration and consensus and thereby enhance professional community.

Figure 1 suggests that a school’s capacity can be improved or limited by a variety of policies initiated by the school itself and by external agencies, especially the district, the state, and reform projects of independent organizations such as foundations, universities, or professional associations. Professional development can affect all aspects of capacity.  Whether voluntary or required, the topics of professional development can influence teachers’ knowledge, skills and dispositions.  The extent to which professional development is structured as an individual or collaborative activity, the extent to which it fosters professional inquiry, and the extent to which it promotes teacher influence in the school all affect professional community. Professional development can promote program coherence by supporting focused, integrated work over a sustained period of time, or it can exacerbate program diffusion by promoting unrelated, short-term innovations.  Professional development may improve the quality of the school’s technical resources, for example, when teachers are assisted in preparing curriculum units or new assessments.  And professional development for principals can enhance principal leadership.

Policies in other areas also have impact.  For example, the kinds of knowledge, skills and dispositions that teachers have or need to have are affected by standards for curriculum and assessment, and policies on teacher certification, hiring, and promotion.  Professional community is influenced by school size, the extent to which hiring policies attract teachers who have similar educational philosophies and an interest in collaboration, and the extent to which school governance supports teacher influence in school decisions.  Program coherence is affected by the degree of integration among curriculum standards and the extent to which program mandates and incentives for innovation promote focused and sustained school improvement.

The main implication of this conception of how schools contribute to student achievement is that professional development should attempt to address all aspects of school capacity. A reasonable case might be made that professional development should be designed to fit the specific capacity needs of a school at a particular point in time.  For example, in one school the most obvious immediate need might be individual teacher expertise in teaching reading, while in another school, it might be reducing fragmentation in professional development.  We agree that in the short term, some dimensions of capacity might deserve more attention than others. As an analogy consider efforts to maintain good health.  Professional knowledge suggests that everyone should attend to all aspects of preventive health, even though in the short run some aspects may need more attention than others. Similarly, in order to build capacity or to keep it at a high level, in the long run all schools should aim professional development at all dimensions. In this study we could not compare schools on achievement trends, but it should still be instructive to document how professional development can address all aspects of capacity and to explain why some schools seem able to do this better than others.[4]

Research Methods


            Nine public elementary schools 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 three to five years prior to participation in this study, 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. 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.[5]

The schools were located from coast to coast. As shown in Table 1, they included grades pre-K or K to grades 4 or 5, and enrolled from about 500 to 800 students.  Demographic characteristics of staff and students varied, but the schools reflected many urban schools in the United States with large percentages of African American, Asian, and Latino students and large percentages of students from low-income families. Annual student mobility averaged 31%.[6]


All schools reported that more than 50% of their students in the early 1990’s scored below national grade level norms or minimum testing standards issued by their states or districts for reading and/or mathematics.  In six schools at least 80% of the students scored below such indicators in at least one of the two subjects.

Data Collection

            Data collection in spring and fall of 1997 involved fieldwork in the nine 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.[7] Researchers interviewed school staff (10 to 12) and representatives from external providers of professional development, observed professional development activities and classes, and collected pertinent documents as well as achievement, demographic, and fiscal information.[8] 

After initial visits to nine schools in 1997, we chose seven schools for follow-up that planned to sustain professional development aimed at the 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. 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 capacity.

Data Synthesis into School Reports

Research staff compiled field notes from each observation and audio taped interview conducted during site visits. For each visit to a school, a school report summarizing field notes and observations was written. The school report focused on how professional development addressed three aspects of capacity: teachers’ knowledge, skills and dispositions; professional community (each of four dimensions); and program coherence. We focused mainly on these aspects of capacity because professional development typically does not focus substantially on improving technical resources or principal leadership. But we did make observations about the quality of professional community, program coherence, technical resources and principal leadership. Research staff reviewed each report to determine whether it adequately addressed the research questions and offered sufficient support for claims. The revised reports served as the database for individual and cross-case analyses.[9]

School Ratings

After data had been collected and all school reports written, the three members of the research team read all reports and individually assigned ratings to each school on several variables: the level of school capacity at the first visit, the extent to which professional development strongly addressed each dimension of capacity over time, the extent of principal leadership for professional development aimed at each aspect of capacity, the extent to which the school received technical assistance addressing aspects of capacity from external agencies, the extent to which district and state policy supported professional development, and level of school capacity at the final visit. Ratings were then compared, and in cases of disagreement the ratings were discussed until consensus was reached.[10]  The ratings were used to inform explanations for why some schools used professional development to address capacity more comprehensively than others.

How Professional Development Addressed School Capacity

The first objective of the empirical work was to describe how some schools used professional development to address capacity more comprehensively than others did.  All of the schools appeared to have high potential for addressing all aspects of capacity.  But after two years of data collection, it became clear that the schools varied considerably both in their approaches to professional development and in the extent to which they addressed capacity comprehensively.  Table 2 illustrates the range in researchers’ final ratings of the extent to which the three main aspects of capacity (teachers’ knowledge, skills and dispositions; professional community; and program coherence) were addressed over the two-year course of the study.  Note that two schools, Lewis and Renfrew, addressed capacity more thoroughly than the other five schools.[11]  We will describe these two schools’ approaches to professional development and how they addressed the three main dimensions of capacity.  Then we will describe professional development at Falkirk, the school rated lowest on these criteria.


Table 2

Ratings of Comprehensiveness of Professional Development


(Scores could range from 0-8)



















Lewis Elementary School: Strong Professional Development through an External Reform Program

Lewis Elementary, in an urban district in Texas, enrolled 560 students, most of whom were Hispanic, with ninety-three percent receiving free or reduced price lunch.  Since 1994 professional development concentrated on implementation of Success For All (SFA) programs (see Slavin et al. 1996).  Additional topics that received significant attention during the two years of our study were the teaching of writing, preparation of curricular units on space, oceanography and weather, preparation for the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) tests, and technology.

The Lewis principal, Mr. Aldridge, explained that prior to 1993 the staff had tried a number of different programs, but none seemed effective in boosting achievement of the low-income Hispanic group served by the school.  A committee of ten faculty members spent the 1993-94 year investigating innovative programs, including visits to schools that participated in them.  In spring 1994, they recommended adoption of the SFA program, and the staff decided to adopt it with a vote of 100%.  They began implementing the reading program in 1994, the math program in 1995, and the World Lab program in 1997.

            As a consequence of adopting the SFA programs, all Lewis teachers participated in several professional development experiences with grade level or school colleagues:

·        Initial training of 2-3 days from SFA trainers on each of the three programs, geared to specific grade levels.

·        Feedback from SFA trainers on the quality of implementation at least twice a year. SFA trainers visited the school, observed teachers’ instruction, and met with teachers by program component or grade levels for debriefing.

·        Participation in an annual 3-day SFA national conference to learn more from SFA trainers and from colleagues in participating schools nationwide.  Mr. Aldridge sent about ten teachers per year (at least one from each grade level who reported back to colleagues after the conference) on a rotating basis so that each teacher could attend about once every four years.

·        Ongoing assistance from the full-time school-based reading and math facilitators who visited classrooms, offered demonstrations, arranged for teachers to observe one another, and participated in grade level or reading group meetings to discuss instructional issues.

The school structured sustained time for the SFA training and professional development on other topics.  The district, which required each teacher to engage in 42 hours of professional development per year, provided 4 full days per year that the school used for the objectives it defined in its school improvement plan.  In addition, Lewis arranged for 6-8 half days a year by adding 5 instructional minutes per day to the required daily schedule.  The principal allocated funds to pay substitutes for individuals or small groups of teachers to attend conferences or other special professional development activities.  Finally, each teacher had 45 minutes of planning time per day scheduled in common with grade level colleagues.  All grade level teams used this time to meet at least twice a week. The reading and mathematics facilitators met with each grade level team once a month, and the principal met with team leaders once a month.

Aspects of School Capacity

We now illustrate how this approach to professional development addressed each of the main aspects of capacity targeted in the study.

Teacher Knowledge, Skills and Dispositions

In four visits to the school we found professional development continuously addressed specific teaching strategies in reading, writing, mathematics, World Lab, helping students with the social skills necessary for cooperative learning, and in the last year of our research, technology. After initial SFA training, teachers said they continued to learn to improve their teaching from national conferences, the local facilitators, and school colleagues.  As new teachers joined the staff, their initial training was supplemented by mentoring from the school facilitators.  We observed teachers using SFA curriculum and strategies in all the classes we visited. In addition to teaching specific skills such as letter and sound recognition or writing meaningful sentences, SFA professional development sessions introduced teachers to new subject matter content in mathematics and social studies/science and reinforced high academic expectations for students.  Grade level team meetings and special professional development sessions addressed issues of aligning the math and World Lab curriculum with the state tests and integration of technology into the SFA curriculum.  Most teachers said one or more of these activities had positive impact on their knowledge, skills or dispositions.

            For example, one teacher said the SFA training taught specific teaching skills:

It gives teachers strategies the kids can use themselves to sound out words and develop themselves as better readers. They give you enough strategies so that if one strategy doesn't work with one kid, you've got another one to try.  It helps the kids, but it also helps my confidence as a teacher (1/97).[12]

            Another said that SFA raised expectations for student achievement:

Reading expectations are high, but the math expectations are astonishing.  These kids are expected to know things in math that we probably wouldn't have talked about six years ago…I saw the kids trying, I saw them working in cooperative groups.  I realized, 'hey, maybe they can do this.'  When the scores went up, that's the one indicator that convinced me (1/97).

Professional Community

            Professional development at Lewis put most emphasis on two aspects of professional community: clear shared learning goals for the school and staff collaboration.  The SFA program provided a well-defined, comprehensive curriculum for the teaching of reading, mathematics, and social studies/science, along with clear student outcomes to aim for in each grade. Thus, the staff’s adoption of the program directed the school’s professional development toward widely shared learning goals.  In addition to the common learning agenda that SFA presented, the staff was united on the goal of having at least 80% of the students performing at grade level on the state tests.  When asked to describe the school’s central goals, on both our initial and final visits, virtually all staff, including many teachers new to the school and to SFA, emphasized student success in reading and mathematics through use of the SFA program.

            Professional development helped to strengthen a collaborative work culture in two ways.  First, the principal was committed to whole school development, that is, the entire faculty working together on common goals and programs, and to structuring teachers’ work around collaborative planning in grade level teams.  To facilitate this, he arranged for common team planning time and gave high priority to schoolwide and grade level team professional development. Second, the SFA program itself promoted staff collaboration.  Committed to cooperative group learning for students, much of the SFA training involved staff in cooperative activity to simulate what would be expected of students.  During implementation checks SFA trainers sought and discussed teacher feedback about the program – how to cope with difficulties, possible suggestions for program revisions, and orientation to forthcoming changes – in teams at the school.

            During each of our visits several teachers mentioned that they relied on their team members for constructive feedback. One teacher put it this way, The climate here is that you’re kind of an outcast if you don’t want to be part of the team… At our grade-level meetings, we plan what we’re going to do for the next week and how we’re going to address school issues (5/99).

            At times, teachers’ collaborative activity involved professional inquiry. For example, teacher teams met every eight weeks with the reading facilitator to examine recent reading assessment results, and to decide collectively which students ought to be moved to a different reading group and what strategies seemed effective and ineffective with particular students.

            Teacher influence, the fourth dimension of professional community, involved two main issues at Lewis.  The first was the extent to which faculty had a meaningful voice in school policy on professional development and other important matters, an issue relevant to all the schools in the study. The second was whether the prescribed SFA programs, especially in reading, diminished creativity, choice, and spontaneity to the point that teachers perceived a denial of professional discretion and judgment that reduced their professional commitment.

On the issue of teacher influence in school decision making, the system for faculty input, implemented in the last year of the study, channeled faculty recommendations and concerns from teams to team leader meetings with the principal. Teachers said this system worked well enough to insure sufficient faculty input. One teacher said that the principal’s formal solicitation of faculty concerns through the weekly team meetings had increased the sense of faculty input: I think our concerns are listened to a lot more now.  For example, taking on this new writing program from SFA. Last year, Mr.Aldridge really wanted us to take it on.  But people had some really straightforward concerns so he decided to back off (5/99).

            On the issue of SFA’s possible suppression of faculty creativity and judgment, from our initial visit to the final one, teachers tended to agree that teacher’s choices were limited, but not to the point of reducing their effectiveness or commitment.  As one teacher said, It’s a structured program and we try to maintain the integrity of the program.  In our view, there are many ways to explore adapting curriculum to fit SFA.  The opportunities are definitely there for creativity on the teacher’s part through ‘adventures in writing,’ through creating your own ‘meaningful sentences,’ through ‘Book Club,’ through your presentation of the material (5/99). As a further example, Lewis teachers in grades 3-5 were successful in developing alternative team score sheets in math, with the approval of national SFA.

Program Coherence

            Professional development activities at Lewis were focused and sustained on the clear school mission of increasing student achievement through the SFA programs. SFA itself showed coherence of instructional philosophy, curriculum materials, and teaching and assessment in reading, mathematics, and social studies/science. Faculty agreed that professional development for SFA was tightly aligned to the curriculum, instruction, and assessment in the program and provided continuous follow-up through implementation checks, the activities of the school facilitators, and the annual national conferences.

            During 1997-98 professional development included some initiatives not tightly aligned with the SFA program, but in 1998-99 professional development had a consistent focus on the SFA program and integrating technology with it. Virtually all staff agreed with one teacher who said, We didn’t go off on any other tangent.  It was all directly related to our program. In the past we’ve had sessions on TAAS, on poverty, a shot here or there, and everything wasn’t really related.  But this year I felt everything was related to our program…even technology dealt with things we can use in the program (5/99). It is possible that future efforts to align curriculum and instruction more tightly with new state assessments may pose a threat to program coherence.  Some teachers said that preparation for the state assessment detracted from the more important mission of the school grounded in the SFA program.  But most faculty members perceived reasonable consistency between SFA and the state assessments.

Renfrew Elementary School: Strong Professional Development through a School-Based Approach

            In an urban district in California, Renfrew enrolled an ethnically and economically diverse student body of 675.  The students were 44% Hispanic, 38% white, 14% African American, and 54% were from low-income families.  During the study, professional development focused on clarifying faculty-developed assessment outcomes at each grade level, measuring student performance on these outcomes, and discussing implications of the results for curriculum and teaching.  Special emphasis was devoted to outcomes and teaching for literacy and mathematics, and the staff continuously examined the issue of achievement gaps between students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.  Although the principal changed about halfway through the study, the new principal built upon the staff's prior work. 

In contrast to Lewis, Renfrew crafted its own approach to curriculum, instruction, and assessment, rather than implementing a program developed by an external provider.  Yet Renfrew did rely on substantial external financial support.  In 1992 the school submitted a successful proposal to participate in the state’s school restructuring program (SB1274, see Szabo 1996) that provided from $35,000 to $54,000 per year for professional development for six years.  In 1996, the school began to receive three years of district funding through the Annenberg Challenge, which included significant amounts for professional development.

            Schoolwide professional development occurred through several mechanisms. For at least six years, Renfrew used seven staff development days per year for schoolwide institutes.  The pre-service institute was held before school began (3 days) in which faculty developed “essential questions” for the year (e.g., What am I doing differently to ensure that the inequitable pattern of student achievement no longer continues?).  In the mid-year institute (4 days), teachers examined grade level progress in addressing the essential questions.  Ongoing inquiry related to the essential questions occurred also in bi-weekly grade level and monthly faculty meetings, and in formal inquiry groups of about 15 staff each, which were led by an external coach and met every other week for three hours. By banking instructional time, similar to Lewis, school started an hour and a half late every Friday, time which the staff used for meetings.  Monthly meetings occurred for the whole faculty, for lead teachers with the administration, for math articulation teams (MAT), and for MAT chairs with the administration.  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.

Through these activities, Renfrew staff translated broadly stated performance outcomes that they initially articulated in their state restructuring proposal (e.g., students becoming effective communicators and global citizens) into specific performance outcomes in language arts, mathematics, social studies, and science.  From these performance outcomes they developed assessment instruments and evaluation criteria for each grade level. They tried to improve instructional strategies in literacy through training for most staff members in Reading Recovery (see Clay 1993).  More recently they used cross-grade “math articulation” teams to clarify objectives, curriculum, and teaching for problem solving and algebraic thinking.  And, after three years of inquiry on the issue of how to increase equity in achievement, they recently began staff training in the program, Teacher Expectations for Student Achievement (TESA, see http://

Aspects of School Capacity

We now illustrate how this approach to professional development addressed each of the main aspects of capacity targeted in the study.

Teacher Knowledge, Skills and Dispositions

      Professional development contributed to teachers’ knowledge of assessment, particularly the process of setting student performance outcomes, technical aspects of scoring student work, and the complexities of designing curriculum and teaching to help all students perform at expected levels. 

            One teacher said that the new outcomes and assessments really guide my teaching, and that having to score student papers according to common rubrics had been very educational for us.  She explained, If you were scoring alone, you might give the paper a 3, because you know how hard the kid is working, but if you're scoring with other teachers, you can see the paper is still a 2.  It's much more informative to let the school and family know where that child is at (5/97).

Professional development also enriched teachers’ instructional strategies in literacy and math. As one teacher said, because of the Reading Recovery training and the use of running records, teachers could actually tell very concretely how kids are reading.  We first came to understand that all books have a certain level of difficulty based on the number of words, and the text that we were using at the time.  And we saw that most of our first graders could not read it.  We learned from Reading Recovery that in order for a child to learn how to read, they need to read texts at their level (5/97).

Finally, sustained examination of the gap in achievement between whites and students of color addressed teachers’ knowledge of effects of teaching strategies and their expectations.  One teacher described the impact of an inquiry group discussion of an article by Lisa Delpit: I went back and I started really looking at my class. I would listen to myself and the way I addressed different students and after reading the article, I tried to make sure I was very explicit in my directions. I can see that for some children that really worked (12/98). In a similar vein, another teacher said, When I find any of my kids off task, I try to bring them back in a more positive way…A lot has come out of our discussions about talking to kids with respect, especially kids of color who have been unsuccessful, to make everyday more positive (12/98).

A third teacher said that due to the school's focus on equity issues, she has become more sensitive to students' different cultures and she seeks feedback from colleagues on whether a specific lesson is culturally appropriate.  For example, for non-fiction descriptive writing, she asked students to write about a family celebration, a family tradition, and a recipe. She also did a photography unit concentrating on students' individual neighborhoods and the different cultures.

Professional Community

            Renfrew's professional development addressed each dimension of professional community.  Through the institutes and grade level meetings, faculty put considerable effort into shared learning goals by defining academic outcomes for each grade level.  The institutes and inquiry groups emphasized a shared commitment to reducing the achievement gap between whites and students of color.  And recent efforts of the math articulation teams articulated a schoolwide conception of algebraic thinking to guide the mathematics curriculum.  All teachers expressed a strong commitment to helping all students succeed academically.  But by the time of our last visit to the school, teachers said that the commitment to equity varied between teachers and grade level groups, and that the emphasis on schoolwide standards might interfere in some cases with unique needs of both students and teachers.  While professional development addressed shared learning goals throughout the school, Renfrew teachers seemed somewhat less united on learning goals than teachers at Lewis.

            Professional development consistently emphasized collaboration through grade level teams, cross grade inquiry groups and math articulation teams, and in whole school institutes. Collaboration led to grade level standards and assessments in math and literacy, an extensive database on student achievement on school-based assessments (summarized by grade level and individual classroom, and also by race/ethnicity, language, and economic status), a schoolwide discipline plan, and a school-based definition of algebraic thinking.

            The numerous meetings we observed indicated strong norms of collegiality, trust, and openness. One teacher said the grade level teams helped with the new emphasis on algebraic thinking: In the grade level teams and the MATs, there is a lot of peer support because this is a harder way to teach math (12/98).  A third teacher said the grade level discussions of student progress needed to be supplemented by feedback from the whole staff: You really need that external set of eyes.  No matter how hard you work as a team, you really need to present that to the staff and get people’s feedback.  That’s key.  She explained that the staff pressed her team to create and give assessments in instructional areas that they had not up to that point (2/98).

            Inquiry groups and grade level meetings supported reflective inquiry.  One teacher said that the on-going discussions in her inquiry group about equity were very useful. She said,

Constantly having the opportunity to reflect upon that (equity) and have it always right here, so it doesn’t get lost in the day to day teaching routine…I feel re-energized, even during the hardest, heart-wrenching discussions. I’m really excited about getting into my classroom the next day. Every time I leave inquiry, I feel that I’ve been able to take a step back and I’m able to look at my classroom and my students in different ways (12/98).

            Inquiry in one grade level team focused on the required standardized achievement test. In order to help student performance on the SAT-9, the team had each teacher look at the past year’s results for their class, and identify the areas of the test on which their students scored above and below average.  In team meetings, teachers discussed these areas and helped one another to address the areas of concern. Staff consistently analyzed standardized and performance-based achievement outcomes in mid-year institutes.

            Renfrew established strong norms of teacher influence in decision making. To make formal policy and plans for professional development, the administration consulted with the group of 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. Similarly, in grade level team meetings, teacher leaders consistently asked for feedback from colleagues and tended to make decisions through group consensus.  One teacher said, We come up with the staff development we want…That’s the most empowering part of it, and provides such ownership over our staff development (5/99). The district strongly supported school-based decision making which reinforced the faculty’s sense of influence, but in 1999 teachers expressed some concern that recent district mandates on curriculum standards and assessment might infringe on school autonomy.

Program Coherence

            In our first two visits to Renfrew we noticed that professional development supported a sustained focus on articulation of grade level student outcomes and assessments, improvement of literacy teaching, and continuous examination of the equity issue. By our final visit we concluded that professional development seemed to bring coherence to instructional programs in math and literacy through grade level standards and assessments, but coherence was lacking in terms of common teaching strategies and cross-grade articulation. Some teachers said they were pursuing too many separate initiatives without time to pursue any in sufficient depth or to generate schoolwide implementation.  For example, the school adopted a newly published literacy program for all grades, but only kindergarten and first grade decided to teach the full program.  The faculty established a set of cross-grade math articulation teams to define a full math curriculum, but how these teams would connect with grade level teams was unclear.  In the meantime, the school adopted a cross-grade math program, but it was not fully used by all teachers.  Some veteran teachers had grown weary of the continuous discussion of equity issues without the school’s having reached a common solution to the problem.  In response to this last issue, staff participated in initial training for the TESA program offered by a trained colleague.  The staff responded very favorably and planned to participate in further training and peer observation to track more carefully the quality of their interaction with low-performing students. The work with TESA had the potential to increase coherence in dealing with the equity issue, and the effort to improve cross-grade articulation in the math curriculum, focused on problem-solving and algebraic thinking, could pay off in increased coherence if the school finds sustained time to focus in these areas.

Falkirk Elementary: Fragmented and Changing Professional Development

            Falkirk, in an urban district in South Carolina, enrolled about 500 students pre-kindergarten through grade 5, and 98% were low-income African Americans. At the time of our first visit, professional development at Falkirk centered on three strands: Accelerated Schools (see Hopfenberg, Levin, and Associates 1993), literacy and other topics pursued by groups of teachers, and individual teacher experiences. While Accelerated Schools (AS) provided processes and structures designed to develop shared decision making and a coherent school mission emphasizing student achievement, teachers believed that they were “spinning wheels.” School governance procedures did not offer clear channels for faculty input, decisions were often made without approval from the steering committee and school-as-a-whole, and the AS inquiry process was not widely used to solve problems and inform decisions.  All teachers pursued literacy training, but these experiences varied considerably across faculty members. Some had training in Reading Recovery, and others emphasized Carbo’s reading styles (see Carbo 1997) or the Cunningham four-block model (see Cunningham and Allington 1999). Staff told us that these and other professional development experiences contributed to individual teacher’s knowledge, skills, and dispositions, but there was little evidence that they consistently addressed professional community or program coherence. The administration defended the school’s eclectic approach to literacy instruction as responding to different teachers’ needs.

Over the two years, the school went through a number of major changes, including a new principal, a new lead teacher, and a large number of new teachers. The state also implemented a new testing and accountability system. Perhaps due to these changes, the school failed to give sustained attention to initiatives that had the potential for schoolwide implementation. For example, just prior to our first visit, Falkirk had identified five key learner standards as part of the state system for school improvement and AS cadres at the school were tied to each standard. However, after the state adopted a more specific testing system, the school gave little attention to its learner standards, and by the final year of the study, the Accelerated Schools program was abandoned all together. During one year, about seven staff met together to study the Cunningham model for literacy instruction, but their work was not continued, and there was no serious attempt to implement the model schoolwide. Another group of faculty participated in a graduate course offered through a local university to examine implications of the new state accountability system. As a culmination to the course, participants planned a full day in-service with the rest of the school’s faculty but it did not occur. While the offering of graduate courses at the school site had great potential for professional development, the tendency of the local university to cater to the school’s changing interests and lack of follow-up at the school failed to increase program coherence.

By fall of 1999 the new principal had begun to generate a common and shared focus for the school built around a thematic, arts-integrated curriculum with high expectations for students. Teachers who remained at the school and those hired for the ‘99-00 school year seemed committed to this focus. One teacher felt that her colleagues agreed with the emphasis on integrating the arts into the curriculum, because there was a mass exodus last year.  Many, many, many staff members left.  I believe that the ones who stayed are invested in the philosophy…I think all of the new staff are aware of the direction the school is going in, and they support it (10/99).  As of the last visit, schoolwide professional development received more emphasis.   Another teacher stressed the importance of professional development experiences for the whole staff. She said, We’re all concerned about the same thing. What we’re doing … this year (is contributing to consistency because) we’re all getting the same information and each grade is working on common approaches (10/99). While grade level teams met infrequently early in the study, in fall 1999, they met with the lead teacher at least weekly, and with the new principal monthly. Teachers said they had adequate time to work collaboratively in grade level teams, and that each team defined and taught a common curriculum.

At the final visit, professional development concentrated on three areas – thematic arts-integrated curriculum development, the implementation in all classes of strategies and materials in language arts and science geared toward gifted students, and improving discipline through a character education program. Coherence across these initiatives seemed weak, both thematically and in terms of follow-up. A critical issue for Falkirk will be whether staff, under new leadership, can build on the widespread and shared commitment to the thematic, arts-integrated approach to develop a more coherent, focused approach to professional development.

            Consideration of the contrast between Lewis and Renfrew on the one hand versus Falkirk on the other raises the next question for the study: what factors tend to explain why some schools used professional development to address school capacity more comprehensively than others.

Why Some Schools Addressed Capacity More Comprehensively

As shown in Table 2 and documented above, some schools used professional development to address capacity much more comprehensively than others.  As possible explanations for variability in comprehensive professional development between schools we considered five main factors.

·        Initial level of capacity.  Schools with stronger capacity at the beginning of the study, having more effective individual resources, social resources, and organizational integration would be more likely to direct professional development to all aspects of capacity.

·        School leadership.  Because school leadership, especially the leadership of the principal, can exert such powerful influence on school culture and development, schools with principals who directed professional development toward these aspects of capacity over the course of the study would show more comprehensive use of professional development.

·        Funding for professional development.  We suspected that school expenditures on professional development might be associated with more comprehensive attention to capacity. 

·        Strong technical assistance from external agencies.  To the extent that a school received  external assistance for professional development that was based on rigorous research and development related to one or more aspects of school capacity, we would expect the school’s professional development to address one or more dimensions of capacity more strongly.

·        Strong policy support from the district and state.  Districts and states could conceivably sponsor specific programs of professional development and other policies that assisted, as well as hindered, schools in using professional development to build capacity.  We expected that schools with stronger policy support would be more likely to employ comprehensive professional development.

The methodology section explained how we rated the schools on these dimensions. We found that comprehensive use of professional development over time was strongly related to the school’s initial capacity and to principal leadership that channeled professional development in this direction; positively related to funding; but not clearly related to external technical assistance or to policy support from the district and state.[13]   

Initial Capacity

            Figure 2 shows a strong positive association between ratings of initial school capacity and the strength of professional development in addressing the three main aspects of capacity over time.


Lewis, with the highest initial capacity had the strongest professional development. Renfrew, rated second highest in professional development, received the second highest rating on initial capacity.  Falkirk with the lowest initial capacity rating had the weakest professional development. To explain this finding we considered how each aspect of school capacity might influence the kind of professional development a school seeks.  First, we would expect staff in a school with higher initial levels of teacher knowledge to be more likely to see the need for and be interested in further individual professional learning.  Second, a staff that has experienced how strong professional community can enhance teaching effectiveness is more likely to chose and design professional development that further reinforces professional community.  Similarly, a staff that has experienced the benefits of strong program coherence would want professional development itself to be coherent and to enhance coherence in the instructional program.

            While the findings might be expected, they are also troubling.  They suggest that “the rich get richer,” and that schools that begin with low levels of capacity are much less likely to use professional development to address all aspects of capacity.  We discuss this issue in more detail in the summary and implications section.

Leadership over Time

            Figure 3 shows a powerful positive association between comprehensive professional development and the extent to which the principal exerted leadership to shape professional development along these lines.[14]


The strong positive relationship is consistent with prior research indicating that even while principals may lack full control over their schools, they appear to have impressive influence over the extent to which professional development addresses all aspects of capacity.  Compared to principals in the lowest ranked schools, principals in the highest ranked schools maintained a more consistent focus for schoolwide professional development, rather than leaving most choices about professional development up to individual teachers.  They channeled funding and outside expertise to serve the schoolwide focus and “buffered” teachers from outside mandates or reform initiatives that might otherwise interfere.  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.

Three of the schools, Renfrew, Kintyre, and Falkirk, experienced changes in their principals during the study and all three were hired from outside the school. The new principal at Renfrew continued the school’s prior thrust for professional development.  The new principal at Kintyre did not immediately focus professional development on the school’s prior commitment to Montessori instruction. But eventually she renewed this emphasis which had been interrupted by professional development to align with new district curriculum standards which seemed unconnected to the school's Montessori mission. The new principal at Falkirk completely changed the direction for professional development established by the former principal. During the period of our study this created striking problems of continuity for the staff, but it is conceivable that over the long term these changes might contribute to stronger professional community and program coherence.


            Schools reported the amount they budgeted from all funding sources for professional development for each year, from fall 1993 to our first visit in 1997, and during the academic year of our final visit (spring and fall, 1999).   From these reports we computed an average per teacher per year. The amounts ranged from a high at Renfrew of $1653 to a low of $186 at Falkirk, with a mean of $650.[15]  As shown in Figure 4 there appears to be a positive relationship between funding per teacher and comprehensive professional development.  Lewis and Renfrew, which ranked highest in professional development, also ranked highest in funding. However Carlisle, which ranked third highest in funding, ranked fifth on comprehensive professional development.[16]


            High quality professional development requires funds for teacher release time, fees for outside facilitators and authorities, travel expense and conference registration, purchase of materials and equipment, and, ideally, employment of school-based coordinators to work on a continuing basis with teachers.  Although actual costs will depend much upon the school context, based on the experiences of the schools we studied, we estimate that professional development targeted on literacy in a K-5 elementary school of 520 students and 26 teachers would cost about $33,900 per year or $1300 per teacher.[17]

According to one estimate, the cost of professional development for high performance schools is $60,000 to $75,000 per year (Odden and Busch 1998; also Odden 2000). Our figure is well below this, well below the $6000 per teacher for four years of intensive work on portfolios in Pittsburgh, and well within the annual $1,150 to $3,500 per employee that leading companies have spent on employee education and training (Renyi 1996; see Miller, Lord, and Dorney 1994, for costs of professional development in four districts). Of course, how funds are used can be more important than the actual level, but even with optimal use of funds, we think the challenges faced by urban elementary schools would justify at least this level of funding for professional development. 

External Technical Assistance

            We found no consistent relationship between strong technical assistance from external agencies and comprehensive professional development at the school (Figure 5). We defined strong technical assistance as provision of products and services based on careful research, development, trial and redesign, and the school’s using such assistance on several occasions for at least one year.


Lewis rated the highest on this factor, due to its reliance on the systematically developed SFA program; as explained earlier Lewis also rated high on comprehensive professional development. While Renfrew was rated high on comprehensiveness of professional development, it relied more on its own staff than on external technical assistance to define its program and teaching strategies. Several Renfew teachers, at one time or another, took advantage of strong technical assistance from external programs such as Reading Recovery and other forms of literacy training, but these did not constitute a central focus for the school’s professional development.  At Kintyre, because most teachers had in-depth training in Montessori education, significant exposure to Reading Recovery, and primary teachers had additional assistance through the Kentucky Early Literacy Program and in use of the Marie Clay Observation Survey, it also rated high on external technical assistance.  But Kintyre rated only near the mean on professional development addressing all aspects of capacity because Kintyre placed less emphasis on professional community and program coherence than Lewis and Renfrew.  Note that Pitlochry also participated in SFA and, therefore, had access to strong external technical assistance, but the school did not pursue the training as thoroughly as the Lewis faculty.  At the time of our final visits, implementation checks were irregular, especially in mathematics, and enthusiasm for SFA conference participation was much lower than at Lewis. Pitlochry used professional development to address professional community and program coherence less thoroughly and therefore ranked much lower on comprehensiveness than Lewis.

            We conclude that strong technical assistance from external agencies can be very helpful and in some cases even necessary to institute comprehensive professional development.  For example, we suspect that if Renfrew had used research-based technical assistance in literacy, mathematics, and equity for low-income students of color to reach collective decisions for the school’s instructional program, they would have enhanced program coherence and teachers’ knowledge in these areas more than we observed.  Renfrew’s recent interest in pursuing TESA training suggests that the school may take more advantage of such assistance in the future. At the same time, access to strong technical assistance alone is insufficient for addressing all aspects of capacity. At Kintyre, for example, external assistance focused primarily on teachers’ individual knowledge and skills, without necessarily contributing significantly to professional community and program coherence. And other schools in the study had access to technically strong assistance, but did not follow up with it.  For example, Falkirk dropped Accelerated Schools and Wallace failed to implement widely the training faculty received in an externally developed program to build students’ cooperative social skills.

Policy Support

Ratings for policy support showed no consistent connection to comprehensive professional development (Figure 6). This finding should not be misinterpreted to suggest that policy support makes no difference, because the narrative information on the schools showed that policy did have impact that depended on the local school context.


Kintyre received the highest ratings for policy support, because its district offered significant professional development opportunities in early literacy, resource teachers to help each school on a weekly basis, and training for school teams to develop a focused strategy for professional development.  The state also provided resources to help a school with strategic planning, and the accountability system helped the school to strengthen the reading program.  While Kintyre rated above the mean on comprehensive professional development, during the early part of our study, the school’s leadership did not harness these resources very effectively for professional development to build capacity.

Renfrew, ranked second highest on policy support, benefited from signficant state funding for school restructuring, significant district funding to support inquiry groups, and district policy that supported meaningful school-based management.  With initial high capacity and strong leadership, the school used this kind of support to conduct reasonably comprehensive professional development. 

In contrast, Wallace, which rated lowest on district and state support, rated as high on comprehensive professional development as Kintyre.  Wallace’s principal found external funds and consultants to help with professional development.  He organized grade level teams, led by a curriculum coordinator, to work on articulation of student outcomes and curriculum alignment.  So in spite of relatively low policy support, Wallace used professional development more comprehensively than three other schools that ranked higher in policy support.

Summary and Implications

We proposed that if professional development is to boost schoolwide student achievement, it should address five aspects of school capacity: teachers’ knowledge, skills and dispositions; professional community; program coherence; technical resources; and principal leadership.  While individual teacher learning of subject matter, pedagogy, and expectations remains critical, professional development should be expanded beyond the improvement of individuals to improvement of other organizational resources.  To illuminate how this might happen in urban schools serving low-income students, we searched the United States for elementary schools that appeared to be using professional development for these purposes, and we studied their efforts for two academic years.

Concentrating on how schools addressed the first three elements of capacity, we found considerable variation in the extent to which schools addressed all elements and differences in how they did so.  The two schools that ranked highest in comprehensiveness used different approaches, but both concentrated on improving teaching in literacy and mathematics.  Lewis relied almost entirely on professional development tied to implementation of an externally developed, highly structured program in reading, mathematics and social studies/science.  In contrast, Renfrew organized professional development to articulate school-defined student outcomes in literacy and mathematics, to examine achievement data, and to help teachers examine their pedagogy – all through collaboration in grade level teams, inquiry groups, and whole school meetings.  Schools that used professional development less comprehensively were less likely to use schoolwide professional development with a consistent long-term focus; more likely to use traditional mechanisms such as one-time workshops or college courses chosen at teachers’ discretion without collaboration and systematic infusion into the school program.  The main implications of these findings are a) it is possible for urban elementary schools serving low-income students to organize professional development to address school capacity comprehensively and b) this can be accomplished through diverse approaches.

To explain why some schools used professional development more comprehensively than others, we considered five main factors: initial level of capacity, principal’s leadership for this type of professional development, use of external technical assistance, the extent of district and state policy support, and funding for professional development. We found that comprehensive use of professional development was strongly related to the school’s initial capacity and to principal leadership that channeled professional development in this direction; positively related to funding; but not clearly related to external technical assistance or to policy support from district and state.

            The finding that comprehensive professional development was more likely in schools that began with higher capacity may suggest to some that professional development for lower capacity schools ought to be abandoned, because such schools are less likely to make good use of professional development.  This would be a serious misinterpretation of the study.  First, the finding may be due in part to the limited two-year period during which we studied the schools.  It is possible that schools with high levels of capacity at the beginning of our study actually built that capacity through professional development prior to our first visit.  Conversely, it is possible that schools with lower levels of capacity and less comprehensive professional development at the time of our departure could increase their capacity through more comprehensive professional development in the future.  Second, because of continuing challenges even to high capacity urban schools that serve low income students, comprehensive professional development seems necessary to sustain and enhance that capacity.  

A main implication of the strong association between principal leadership and comprehensive professional development is that professional development for principals should help them to understand the main elements of school capacity and how professional development can enhance, neglect or even diminish aspects of capacity. While some principals in this study exerted more effective leadership than others, none reported participating in strong programs for their own professional development.  For example, many principals seem to assume that a central part of their job is to seek funding to initiate a variety of innovations responsive to the diverse interests of individual teachers.  They may fail to see how this approach to reform, even while introducing multiple forms of new professional development, can lead to a fragmented set of programs that undermines program coherence.

Findings on the relationship of funding for professional development suggest that more funding is more likely to support comprehensive professional development.  But other information from the schools suggests two additional points.  First, not only the amount of funding, but how the school chooses to use it, makes a big difference.  Second, the specific amounts these schools used for professional development probably fall considerably short of what is needed to build capacity in urban schools that serve low- income students.

            Findings on the overall weak relationship between strong external technical assistance and comprehensive professional development suggest two implications.  First, as explained in our discussion of capacity, strong external assistance would be more useful if it were applied schoolwide to aspects of capacity that extend beyond teachers’ individual knowledge and skills.  In all the schools, some teachers claimed that externally offered professional development improved their teaching of literacy, or mathematics, or science, or social studies, or that it improved classroom management.  But only in the case of Lewis did strong technical assistance encompass all aspects of capacity.  Second, several schools participated in externally developed programs based on credible research and development (e.g. SFA, Reading Recovery, Accelerated Schools, Teachers Academy for Math and Science, Cunningham 4-Block Model, Responsive Classroom). But in many instances, this assistance failed to help the school because school leaders did not press for schoolwide implementation and follow-up.  The two lessons here are that technical assistance itself needs to be comprehensive and that schools should take it more seriously.

            In spite of a weak overall relationship between policy support and comprehensive professional development, we noticed instances in which district or state policies and programs both helped and hindered schools in using professional development to build capacity.  As explained earlier, Kintyre and Renfrew benefited from particular kinds of district and state support.  While Lewis ranked near the mean on policy support, the district’s site-based management policies provided good opportunity for the school to exercise its initial high capacity toward comprehensive professional development.  Changes in state assessment standards made in difficult for Falkirk to sustain a consistent focus for professional development, and changes in district standards altered the course of professional development for Carlisle.  Wallace is an example of a site-managed school that might have been able to focus its professional development more coherently if the district had provided more guidance; for example, technical assistance in constructing more coherent school improvement plans.  The lesson here is that policy support does matter, but in order to know what kind of support will most serve comprehensive professional development, one must first understand the school context.  For example, in some schools it might be most productive to initially invest professional development resources on teachers’ knowledge and skills in a particular instructional area, but in another school, perhaps the highest immediate priority would be program coherence or professional community. This suggests that some district and state policies be flexible enough to fit particular school contexts. A more customized approach could result in differential emphases on different dimensions of capacity, depending on local needs at given points in a school’s development.

The conception of professional development proposed here needs further study, especially to examine more systematically the extent to which comprehensive professional development actually enhances school capacity, and the extent to which capacity in turn improves instruction and student achievement.  By offering examples of comprehensive professional development and exploring its connection to initial school capacity, leadership, external technical assistance, policy support, and funding, we hope the study contributes to further research. But even in the absence of stronger empirical findings on the connection between comprehensive professional development, the quality of instruction, and student achievement, the study may have important implications for school leaders and policy makers.  The study’s synthesis of literature from different perspectives to elaborate a conception of school capacity and its findings on how schools used professional development to address different aspects of capacity present a perspective on school reform that could benefit schools, districts, states, and other providers of professional development.  That is, the failure to craft professional development to address school capacity comprehensively may well be a major reason for the disappointing results of so many school improvement initiatives.  If so, it seems that those who fund, regulate, and design programs and policies that affect professional development should try to advance all dimensions of school capacity, and to minimize ways in which professional development and other policies can undermine dimensions of capacity.

Figure 1

Factors Influencing School Capacity and Student Achievement














Table 1: Characteristics of Schools *











Geographic Region










Grades in Each School










Student Enrollment[1]










% Low Income Students[2]










Student Mobility % [3]










# of Full Time Teachers1










% Ethnic/Race Composition

Students (Teachers)1










African American

9 (8)

8 (5.5)

14 (10)

96 (55)

48 (35)

97 (20)

100 (76)

99 (84)

6 (4)


18 (8)

    .5 (0)

.5 (3)

0 (3)

          0 (0)

0 (0)

0 (0)

.4 (0)

0 (0)


58 (25)

77.5 (41)

44 (36.5)

4 (18)

           9 (3)

0 (0)

0 (0)

.4 (0)

0 (0)


15 (58)

14 (54)

38 (50)

0 (24)


2 (80)



90 (96)

% Teachers with Masters  Degree4










Average Per Teacher Annual Prof. Development Funding5











* Information from Johnstone and Melrose is based on school year 1997-1998.  From all other schools, information is from school year 1998-1999.

[1] Based on school reports.

[2] Based on school report of students receiving free or reduced lunch.

[3] Based on school report of students entering, plus students withdrawing from school after fall 1996, divided by total enrollment in fall 1997.

4 Percentages for Lewis, Renfrew, Pitlochry, Falkirk, and Carlisle are based on school reports in 1999.  Percentages for the four other schools are based on teachers’ response to a survey in 1997 in which these schools'  response rates exceeded 78%.

5 Computed as average amount budgeted for professional development, combining district and other funding sources, as reported by the school, for 5 school years beginning fall 93, 94, 95, 96, and 98, divided by number of full time teachers.  For Johnstone and Melrose, only the first four years are included.




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[1] For example, Darling-Hammond’s (1998) review shows that students benefit from teachers with more advanced education, Cohen and Hill (1998) showed student achievement can be attributed to professional development that concentrates on teacher knowledge of specific curriculum reforms, and Kennedy (1998) found that professional development concentrating on subject matter content seemed more effective than that concentrating on more general teaching skills.


[2] We recognize that professional community suggests that individual autonomy and judgment are subordinated to collective interests. Negative outcomes may be incurred from this, such as loss of teacher morale or where disagreement and diversity are perceived as a threat, and minority viewpoints are silenced. A careful consideration of the dynamics of professional community and its costs and benefits is beyond the scope of this article. However, our inclusion of schoolwide professional inquiry as a criterion for professional community is intended in part as a protection against group suppression of individual professional judgment and creativity.  Based on the present study, the extent to which schoolwide inquiry can serve as a safeguard against potential negative outcomes of increased community is discussed in King 2000.


[3] Several observers have argued that unrelated, episodic programs undermine schools' capacity to boost student achievement (e.g. Bryk et al. 1993; Cohen 1995; Hill and Celio 1998; O’Day et al. 1995; Smylie et al. 1998).  There is has not been much empirical research on the effects of program coherence on student achievement, but Newmann et al. (2000) found a strong relationship between program coherence and student achievement in Chicago elementary schools.


[4] The case for substantial investment in professional development is vulnerable because of an absence of research that links specific forms of professional development to changes in teacher learning and practice and to student achievement gains (Joyce and Showers 1995; Richardson and Placier, in press; Smylie 1996). Several problems prevented us from drawing conclusions about achievement trends among the schools.  Achievement tests varied across all the schools; achievement tests changed in six of seven schools during the follow-up period of our study; one school failed to supply follow-up achievement data; and no school was able to supply information that permitted conclusions on individual student achievement change over time.


[5] For example, the emphasis in some schools was to implement programs of curriculum, instruction, and assessment that had been previously development by external agencies.  Examples include the Success For All program in reading and mathematics, Core Knowledge, and curriculum to meet state-specific assessment outcomes.  In contrast, in other schools, professional development aimed more toward unique forms of school development such as the Accelerated Schools Program of strategic planning and inquiry, or school-based development of assessment outcomes. As discussed later, adoption of “schoolwide” professional development did not necessarily indicate

that a school addressed all the key aspects of school capacity.


[6] 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. While the schools seemed to be demographically representative of urban schools, our search intentionally sought out schools that used professional development in exemplary ways according to our criteria.  One indication that we did in fact locate such schools is that, according to survey data, all the schools selected scored consistently higher on measures of school capacity than a comparable sample of schools in Chicago (Smith 1999).


[7] We defined professional development broadly as any formally planned activity intended to advance individual and collective staff knowledge, skills, or expectations in order to improve student learning.  Professional development activities include attending conferences, taking university courses, and, of course, workshops or other activities involving outside authorities. But in our view, professional development activities also consist of common planning and release time for teachers to engage in reflective inquiry, to refine instructional practices, and to develop curriculum or assessment practices in their schools, as well as opportunities to network with teachers from other schools.


[8] 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.


[9] Within each report, to draw conclusions about the extent to which professional development addressed different aspects of capacity, we relied on three general indicators: program content, staff statements about the impact of professional development activities, and the extent of faculty participation in the activities.  For evidence of program content (e.g. what kinds of knowledge, skills and disposition were promoted, and the extent of coherence among programs), we relied on written materials from the programs, direct observation of program activities, and interviews with program representatives and school staff most familiar with the activities.  For evidence of impact, we relied primarily on teachers’ descriptions and attributions (as reported in the interviews) about professional development activities in the past few years that had the most positive (or negative) impact on their teaching and on the school as a whole, and what specific impact they had.  For evidence of the extent of faculty participation, we relied on teacher and administrator reports of the number of faculty participating in the main activities, the frequency of the activities, and amount of time spent.  Direct observation of professional development activities also offered evidence on extent of faculty participation. For example, two of the schools, Lewis and Pitlochry, had adopted the comprehensive reading program of Success For All (SFA).   Program materials, interviews of national SFA staff, and direct observation of SFA professional development activities indicated extensive focus on teachers’ knowledge, skills, and dispositions related to reading instruction.  All interviewed classroom teachers at each school (10 per school) cited the SFA training having major positive impact on their teaching.  Statements from administrators and teachers, and our direct observations confirmed that the full staff at both schools was involved in the SFA program and had about three full days of initial training, with a couple of days of follow-up training each year connected to implementation checks from the national SFA organization, along with continuing assistance from the local school facilitator.   We concluded, therefore, that professional development in these schools addressed to a high degree teachers’ knowledge, skills, and dispositions related to classroom practice.


[10] Prior to discussion of the ratings all three researchers agreed precisely on 63 per cent of the ratings.


[11] Names of schools and personnel are pseudonyms.


[12] Dates refer to months/years of different research visits.


[13]  In Figures 2-6 that show these relationships, researchers’ ratings were converted to standardized scores (mean =0, standard deviation = 1) to facilitate comparison among rating scales with different metrics.


[14] On the one hand, this finding may seem tautological.   Since we rated each school on whether there was strong principal leadership for professional development aimed at building each aspect of capacity during the two years of the study, one might assume that these ratings were equivalent to the ratings for the school’s strongly addressing each aspect of capacity over time.  One might expect a strong relationship, but it is not a foregone conclusion.  It is conceivable that professional development in schools is strongly affected by other influences not tightly aligned with principal leadership.  For example, a school district might press a school to fashion a coherent school improvement plan and to include professional development consistent with all aspects of capacity.  An apathetic principal may try to ignore these pressures, but it is possible that effective top-down district leadership, combined with a faculty sympathetic to district policy could override the principal’s weak commitment to this kind professional development and thereby produce comprehensive professional development over time.  Or, a principal may be highly committed to comprehensive professional development and exert clear specific leadership in that direction, but the principal might encounter serious teacher resistance and obstacles in district policy that render the leadership ineffective, leading to an overall low rating for the school on professional development.


[15] See Table 1.  Some schools reported enormous variations from year to year.  For each school we averaged amounts over five years, but did not obtain explanations for variations in spending between years.  Reports of budgeted funds for professional development are likely to underestimate actual costs, because they usually do not include the costs of time that school administrators and other staff spend conducting school-based in-service, supervision, mentoring or teaching teachers in less formal contexts, including meetings beyond official school hours.  Other studies have discussed a number of difficulties in obtaining accurate information on funding for professional development (Corcorcan 1995; Little 1993; Miller, Lord, and Dorney 1994; Renyi 1996). 


[16] The two schools not included in the follow-up study showed similar anomalies.  Melrose which ranked lowest on professional development addressing all aspects of capacity during the first visit reported the highest expenditures per teacher across the nine schools at that time.  Johnstone which ranked only slightly below Lewis and Renfrew on comprehensive professional development at the first visit reported per teacher expenditures well below the mean for the nine schools in 1997.


[17] The estimate was based on the following components of professional development: (A) Grade level team meetings once a week for 45 minutes during regular teaching hours.  Teachers plan weekly activities for implementing the literacy initiative and discuss their experiences.  (B) Teachers work with a literacy coordinator who visits classrooms as a peer coach, meets with grade level teams, assists with literacy assessment, and maintains a library of resources. (C) Teachers meet in grade level teams or cross grade groups to work on curriculum development, assessment, inquiry into pedagogy, etc. during half - day release time twice a month.  This can be arranged by extending the instructional schedule on several days in order to bank the time used for the release days when students are dismissed early.  These first three strategies involve no extra cost, although a staff position will need to be allocated to fund the literacy coordinator.  The final set of activities involve additional costs.  (D) Teachers meet with outside authorities, visit other schools, work on special team or school projects that require at least a full day of work, and some staff members attend local conferences.  Eight days a year are available for this; four are district provided in-service days that the district reserves for school-based professional development; for the other four days, substitutes are hired to release teachers.    Cost:  substitutes for 26 teachers ($100/day x 4 days) = $10,400; lodging, meals and registration for 10 teachers for 2 days (lodging and meals - $125, registration - $25 per teacher) = $1500; fees, materials  and travel for 4 outside facilitators = $5000. (E) Teachers work on curriculum development and assessment during the summer for five days for which they receive stipends of $100 per day.  Cost: $13,000. (F) One school-wide weekend retreat for all staff for 2 days (Fri eve – Sun noon).  Cost: $4000. The total cost for these activities is $33,900 (about $1300 per teacher).