Professional Development Schools: Researching Lessons From the Field
reviewed by Sheryl Boris-Schacter - May 17, 2013
Title: Professional Development Schools: Researching Lessons From the Field
Author(s): Rick Breault & Donna Adair Breault
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 1442208392, Pages: 186, Year: 2012
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Although hinted at but not readily apparent from the title, Professional Development Schools: Researching Lessons from the Field, is not about professional development schools (PDS) per se. Rather, it is a thorough and meticulously detailed discussion of what constitutes useful, self-conscious research based on the authors review of the professional development school literature. The book serves as a case study in which Breault and Breault use a carefully constructed framework for reviewing over three hundred papers to define the attributes of worthy research. This extensive qualitative meta-analysis took ten years and included the published work on the PDSs spanning the twenty-year period, from 1991 to 2011. There are only a few solid conclusions drawn regarding the efficacy of the professional development school model, a fact that makes sense given that the authors argue that most of what claims to be PDS research is not well-conceived or executed.
The authors do, however, have much to say about how to conduct what they call warrantable inquiry. They draw from Dewey and explain warrantability in research as addressing design as well as, in this application, the degree to which the work adds to our understanding of PDSs and their impact on teacher education, professional development, and student outcomes (p. 66). For instance, there is an extensive discussion of the role of bias in PDS literature and the general lack of theoretical frameworks in the reviewed articles. Breault and Breault take the time to suggest some relevant frameworks to be considered should readers care to improve on what is currently available, including adult learning, medical education, and organizational power. From this perspective, I would argue that those seeking a book on best professional development school practice would be somewhat disappointed. However, the detailed descriptions of research methodologies, strengths and shortcomings, make the book a useful resource for those wishing to conduct research in professional development schools or for those seeking a worthwhile supplementary text in a graduate research course.
The book is divided into eight chapters. The first, reasonably, is devoted to defining professional development schools. The remainder of the book contextualizes the PDS literature in the larger dilemmas of conducting educational research by raising such questions as: What are the attributes of worthy research? What does bias look like? Why does so much of the PDS literature document the activities of the partnerships and not the relative value-added of the experience? Which of the stakeholders wield the power in the PDS model? Do PDS participants view themselves as forging fundamental field change? Is there worthy research that links PDS activities to student outcomes? Why do so few PDS papers suggest applicability beyond a single site?
For the most part, Breault and Breault present a critique of the professional development school research conducted to date and make a case for why their work is unique with respect to scope, depth, perspective, and approach. The authors maintain that the rigor of their literature review stands in sharp contrast to the many studies they read that were less robust and more anecdotal in nature. Moreover, any enthusiasm regarding the professional development school models ability to improve teacher education, teacher quality, or student outcomes is tempered by their criticisms of the vast majority of the papers reviewed. However, they did embed some observations of patterns that could inform those thinking about constructing a professional development school relationship or those embarking on an evaluation of an existing model. They include: the voices of elementary school teachers are present but partnerships with secondary schools remain almost invisible in the literature, PDSs contribute to K-12 faculty making larger, more proactive, and more meaningful contributions to teacher education even usurping and marginalizing the university faculty (p. 41), student learning is conspicuously understudied, student teacher experiences are overrepresented, and the role of administrators and parents are mostly neglected.
The authors address some critical issues that have plagued both the model and its study since the Holmes Report of 1990. They present a thoughtful analysis of both methodological and cultural issues that continue to challenge the university faculty both in their relationship to the university and in their work in schools. They assert that most of the research on PDSs is conducted by the faculty engaged in them, leading to insider bias. Additionally, most universities do not place great value on the time professors spend in K-12 settings, thus often leaving PDS participation to less experienced junior faculty. The burden of adding participation in a PDS to ones teaching load is increased by the emotional toll of maintaining close relationships across organizations, the pressure to publish, and the sensitive management of power balances between the university and K-12 educators. These are all fair points worth revisiting and I appreciated the injection of this analysis into the discussion. What I appreciated less was the unnecessary characterization of the resulting publications as superficial research, with abbreviated descriptions of method, and pieces that are hastily written and politically pleasing (p. 60).
Unfortunately, there were other such examples throughout the book of negative comments regarding specific papers and/or researchers. I fully understand the authors wanting to share their thinking about the attributes of strong research methodology. It is both instructive and useful. Yet, I do not think it was warranted to name the studies that they felt were technically flawed. It would have sufficed to list characteristics and pitfalls that made for poor studies in the aggregate and without attribution. This would have made the necessary points regarding useful research and strong design without feeling, oddly, mean-spirited and outside of professional norms. In fact, the book was strongest when the authors listed specific attributes of research that contributed to our understanding of the field, such as ways of improving accountability and generalizability in qualitative work.
Breault and Breault made it clear that their purpose in Professional development schools: Researching lessons from the field was to help educators not only identify quality PDS research but also to design their own research regarding their work in ways that ensure quality (p. 1). I would say that they accomplished both more and less of what was intended. Less in that they felt the need to name researchers whose publications were lacking, and more in that the authors offered unusually extensive instruction in and ways of thinking about the rather complex challenges of executing sound research practices, especially qualitative methodologies. In doing this, they make solid contributions to the field.