The sustainability of professional development in literacy

Part 2: School-based factors associated with high student achievement

Publication Details

This report examines the sustainability of professional development following the completion of an intensive course in literacy acquisition by teachers of Year One students and their literacy leaders in seven schools. The research on which it is based had two aims. The first was to examine the ways in which the professional development changed teachers’ expectations of student achievement over the period of the course. (The findings are reported in Part One of this report). The second aim was to examine issues of sustainability once the course had finished and the findings are reported here (Part Two).

Author(s): Helen S. Timperley and Joy Wiseman

Date Published: 2003

Executive Summary

Two issues related to the sustainability of professional development were examined. These included the trends in student achievement over all participating schools over three years, and the school-based factors that were associated with sustainability because it is these that exert the major influence on teacher implementation of new practices (Cohen & Ball, 1999; Darling-Hammond, 1997; Goodlad, 1984; Robertson & Allan, 1999).


The professional development in early literacy teaching was part of the initiative to strengthen education in Mangere and Otara (SEMO) that was launched in these two South Auckland suburbs in 1997. This initiative has been extensively described in Ministry reports (e.g. Annan, 1999) and research evaluations (Robinson, Timperley, & Bullard, 2000; Timperley, Robinson, & Bullard, 1999; Timperley & Lam, 2002) and readers are referred to these reports for further details. The professional development in early literacy acquisition was part of the "Early Childhood Primary Link" aspect of SEMO and was developed and delivered by Dr Gwenneth Phillips of the Child Literacy Foundation. The theoretical underpinnings of the professional development and the resulting significant gains in student achievement are reported in Phillips, McNaughton and MacDonald (2001). The schools that took part in this research all had teachers participating in this professional development during 2000.

Issues in Professional Development and its Sustainability

Continual updating, deepening, and refining of knowledge and skills through professional development is an integral part of any profession. Teaching is no exception. Professional development is viewed as an essential mechanism for teachers to improve their knowledge and expertise to enhance the quality of their students' achievement. This need is most urgent in New Zealand's Decile One schools where many students have traditionally been academically unsuccessful. The ever-changing knowledge base in our society means that a teaching force that uses yesterday's professional knowledge to prepare today's students for tomorrow's society can no longer be tolerated. The associated social costs are too high.

A body of empirical evidence has shown that achieving success for students' learning depends on both the learning of individual school professionals and improvements in the capacity of the whole school organisation to solve problems and create new ways of doing things (Sparks & Hirsh, 1997). This means that schools need to develop and sustain the individual and collective professional learning necessary to promote and enhance student learning by creating professional learning communities (Stoll, 1999). This collective, school-based focus where professional learning is built into teachers' everyday working responsibilities is considered more effective than certified courses, inspirational speeches and isolated workshops (Hargreaves, 1997).

Forms of Professional Development

Professional development is delivered in many different forms that are underpinned by different assumptions about teacher learning. Traditional forms focus on learning content knowledge with the underlying assumption that teachers are knowledge recipients. An approach more consistent with that of professional learning communities assumes that teaching professionals need to have a far more active role than simply being knowledge recipients. In this view, each teacher is expected to be "a scholar, an intellectual, and a knowledge worker oriented toward the interpretation, communication, and construction of such knowledge in the interests of student learning" (Shulman, 1999, p. xiii). From this perspective, professional development programmes are effective if they enhance teaching professionals' capacities to co-construct and co-evaluate new professional knowledge of best practices (e.g. Ball & Cohen, 1999; Burroughs, Schwartz, & Hendricks-Lee, 2000; Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999; Putnam & Borko, 2000) . Thompson and Zeuli (1999) argue that this process is inadequate unless it brings about conceptual changes in teachers' thinking about knowledge, teaching and learning, especially when addressing long-term and apparently intransigent problems, such as the low achievement of children from low-income communities. These authors describe five characteristics for this type of professional development as follows:

  1. It creates a sufficiently high level of cognitive dissonance to disturb the equilibrium between teachers' existing beliefs and practices on the one hand and their experience with subject matter, students' learning, and teaching on the other.
  2. It provides time, contexts, and support for teachers to think – to work at resolving the dissonance through discussion, reading, writing, and other activities.
  3. It ensures that the dissonance-creating and dissonance-resolving activities are connected to the teachers' own students and contexts, or something like them.
  4. It provides a way for teachers to develop a repertoire for practice that is consistent with the new understanding that teachers are building.
  5. It provides continuing help in a cycle of surfacing new issues and problems, deriving new understanding from them, translating these new understandings into performance, which in turn, raises new problems.

This awareness that more than knowledge needs to change through professional development has led to a focus on the context and situation in which the professional learning might best occur. A course, removed from the school environment, may challenge teachers' thinking, but for this challenge to result in sustained changes in teaching and learning, the professional development needs to be either situated in the schools or to have off-site material followed up in this environment. The norms and culture of particular schools have a compelling influence on how teaching and learning take place (Barth, 1990; Fullan & Hargreaves, 1992; Murphy, 1991). A school's cultural environment, however, may debilitate rather than facilitate individual and collective professional learning if it is characterised by any one of the following conditions identified by Goodlad (1984):

  1. Teachers are isolated because they teach behind closed doors and have little time within rigid daily schedules to meet, plan, observe, and talk with each other;
  2. Teachers lack a sense of power and efficacy and feel they are at the bottom of the hierarchy, while the decisions and evaluations affecting them are being made "up there" someplace;
  3. Information about student achievement is seen to be for political, evaluative, or coercive purposes and it neither involves nor instructs the school staff members in reflecting on, evaluating, and improving curriculum and instruction;
  4. Educational innovations are viewed as mere "tinkering" with the instructional programmes because there are so many of them, and their impact is so limited.

Rather than institutionalising change, these types of traditional practices and policies are usually so deeply entrenched that the status quo is maintained despite the best efforts of external professional developers. On the other hand, the individual and collective learning capacity of a school is likely to be enhanced if schools where the teachers pursue clear, shared purposes for student learning engage in collaborative activities to achieve these purposes, and take collective responsibility for student learning (Cohen & Ball, 1999; Darling-Hammond, 1997; Hord, 1997; Kruse, Louis, & Bryk, 1995; Leithwood, Jantzi, & Fernandez, 1995; Robertson & Allan, 1999).

In this study, these types of in-school processes in seven schools were examined to determine if they were related to any differences in student achievement following intensive professional development in early literacy teaching.


The children's achievement gains were assessed from the text level and BURT scores obtained in the schools' Observation Surveys (Clay, 1993a) of all children turning six years. The reliability of these data was established through random checks undertaken as part of an evaluation of the professional development itself, completed by Phillips, McNaughton and MacDonald (2001). The two scores were combined to establish a "reading" score for each school so that multi-variate statistics could be used to determine differences and similarities in the achievement in the different schools. The achievement scores were analysed over three years. Year One was the baseline year prior to the professional development and contained all the scores of children turning six years during that year. Year Two comprised the scores of all the children turning six years old during the six months of the professional development and the following six months. Year Three included the scores of children turning six years during the following year.

In-school processes were studied over a period of 18 months. Two rounds of interviews of literacy leaders and teachers of Year One students were conducted in each school together with observations of meetings and classroom teaching. Following each round of interviews and observations individual school reports detailing the researchers' conclusions were written and discussed with each school.


Over all the schools, the achievement gains reported by Phillips, McNaughton and MacDonald (2001) continued into Year Three. Text level scores improved significantly (t=5.45, p<0.01) from a mean of 6.00 in Year One to a mean of 7.93 in Year Three. BURT gains were less but still significant (t=2.67, p<0.01). Not surprisingly, the gains in the combined reading score were also significant (t=4.04, p<0.01) with an effect size of 0.28.

These overall patterns disguise the difference in the patterns of achievement in each school. On the basis of their reading scores in Year Three, they were divided into three groups. The reading scores in Group One schools (A and B) were significantly lower than in Group Two schools (C, D and E), which, in turn, were significantly lower than Group Three schools (F and G). Achievement in these Group Three schools was similar to national profiles of achievement. In the remainder of this report, we sought to identify the school-related factors associated with these differences.

Contextual factors, such as the schools' decile rating (schools were either 1a, 1b or 1c), the children's skills at school entry, teacher turnover and class size were not systematically related to the differential achievement. Nor were professional attitudinal measures, such as the extent to which the schools' leadership and teachers valued the approach to teaching literacy or their motivation to implement it fully. In six of the seven schools, these measures were very high. In the school in which the attitudinal ratings were low, the teachers had decided after considerable deliberation to adapt rather than adopt the approach to literacy taught in the professional development because they preferred their own individualised programme. What is more surprising than the lack of a relationship between the attitudinal measures and student achievement was that implementation measures of programme integrity similarly failed to discriminate between the groups of schools. These implementation measures included teachers' self-ratings, interviewer's ratings and observations of programme integrity.

The factors that proved to be more closely associated with the differential achievement in the schools was the emphasis on achievement, the analysis of achievement data and its discussion in meetings and the deprivatisation of practice. In the Group Three schools with high student achievement, the teachers met regularly with their literacy leaders to discuss the data on the achievement of their students in relation to a benchmark of national achievement profiles. They spent their meeting time discussing problems evident in the data for specific children and how their teachers might better be able to assist them. These discussions were typically followed up with classroom observations and support to help them put new strategies into practice. In the interviews, the teachers in these schools reported how this process led them to reflect on the effectiveness of their teaching these underachieving students and how they might need to change it. When asked about the possible negative uses of achievement data, these teachers were less concerned about these possibilities than the teachers who did not discuss the achievement information in this way. The processes in these Group Three schools were closely aligned to those described in the literature on professional learning communities that focus on improving student achievement.

In Chapter Six of the report we comment on the implications of these and other findings for what it means to be professional. All literacy leaders and teachers demonstrated high levels of the qualities of what it means to be professional in traditional conceptualisations of the concept. Except in the school that decided to continue with the previous programme, all were highly committed to implementing the approach to teaching literacy, felt successful and most were satisfied with their students' achievement. The teachers in Group One and Two schools also valued their professional autonomy. What was different in the Group Three schools was the fore-grounding of achievement issues. Both the principals and lead teachers talked about entering the professional development contract because they were concerned about the students' achievement and were impressed by the findings that this approach had been shown to improve achievement in Decile One schools. Once they decided to adopt the approach, the literacy leaders in the Year One syndicate were given the responsibility for, and requisite class release time, to ensure consistency in programme implementation across all teachers. The teachers were given little choice about implementation, but did not resent this because they could see the achievement gains in the students. The principals in these schools monitored the achievement closely, with the literacy leaders discussing it publicly with the Year One teachers. Problems were defined in terms of the evidence in the data and solutions were sought to rectify them.

In order to establish similar professional learning communities in more schools, we believe that the achievement message needs to be given at different levels of the education system. The recent introduction of the Education Standards Act (2001) now requires New Zealand primary schools to focus on achievement, set standards for that achievement and measure progress towards it. Central to this exercise becoming one of professional learning rather than compliance, is the need for all schools to focus on the teaching / learning / achievement relationship. There is no reason to doubt that New Zealand primary school teachers have focused on the teaching / learning relationship. To make a significant difference to achievement, they need to evaluate whether the learning has been adequate for the children to achieve at the same level as their peers.

In order to maintain this focus and the processes that support it, school leaders need to address attitudinal, interpersonal and skill issues that typically form barriers to professional learning. In the two Group Three schools, high levels of trust had developed that problems evident in the achievement data would lead to support in how to teach more effectively, not blame for failing to do it right. If achievement is used as the touchstone for judging the effectiveness of programmes, rather than particular teaching styles or methods, then teachers are more likely to become data-based inquirers into the impact of their practice on their students.

Additional implications of this study are that traditional measures of effective professional development, sometimes referred to as "happiness quotients" and participatory requirements, are insufficient to improve achievement. All but one of the participating schools valued the approach, were motivated to implement it and all believed themselves to be successful. In New Zealand, participatory rather than achievement requirements have become institutionalised. Performance appraisal requires a professional development component and the professional standards require participation. Although participation may be desirable in promoting professional learning, it is not sufficient to ensure that the learning impacts on student achievement. If we are to test the relationship between professional development and improved student achievement, larger systems than individual schools need to engage in data-based inquiry because this is a systemic, rather than an individual, school issue.

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