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Inquiry at the Crossroads of Policy and Learning: A Study of a District-Wide Literacy Initiative

by Laura D'Amico & Mary Kay Stein - 2002

The literacy improvement efforts of New York Cityís Community School District #2 serve as the locus of a study into the relationship between educational policy and practice. Based on 100 observations of classroom literacy instruction, a review of documentation related to the districtís Balanced Literacy Program, and interviews with teachers, staff developers, and district leaders the investigators found strong parallels between how the district children learn to read and district teachers learn to teach. These parallels are due in part to the ways in which District #2ís professional development system is anchored in the Balanced Literacy Program. They also stem from District #2 leadersí beliefs in authentic and social forms of learning, beliefs that researchers found to have resonance with sociocultural theories of how individuals develop complex knowledge and skills. The result is a coherent system in which district policy regarding student learning is consistent with that of teacher learning.

The literacy improvement efforts of New York City’s Community School District #2 serve as the locus of a study into the relationship between educational policy and practice. Based on 100 observations of classroom literacy instruction, a review of documentation related to the district’s Balanced Literacy Program, and interviews with teachers, staff developers, and district leaders the investigators found strong parallels between how the district children learn to read and district teachers learn to teach. These parallels are due in part to the ways in which District #2’s professional development system is anchored in the Balanced Literacy Program. They also stem from District #2 leaders’ beliefs in authentic and social forms of learning, beliefs that researchers found to have resonance with sociocultural theories of how individuals develop complex knowledge and skills. The result is a coherent system in which district policy regarding student learning is consistent with that of teacher learning.

Over the past few years, there has been a growing interest in the relationship between research in policy and research in teaching and learning (Cohen & Ball, 1990; Resnick & Furman, 1998). As cognitive psychologists and other learning researchers have turned their attention to school subject matters such as mathematics, science, and literacy, they have gained new insights into the nature of learning and expertise. We now know, for example, that learning in complex domains is shaped by prior knowledge (Glaser, 1984); that it involves active, constructive processes on the part of the learner (Resnick, 1989); and that it is integrally interwoven with language and other forms of social interaction (Wertsch, 1985). These insights, in turn, have fed into the design of classroom-based learning environments, many of which have been quite promising (e.g., Brown & Campione, 1994). However, the ability to grow these instructional designs into something more than hothouse or boutique strategies that spread beyond a few classrooms has proven to be elusive.

On the other side, policy researchers have become concerned that reforms such as school-based management and school restructuring have served as little more than “institutional window dressing” (Drury, 1999). Although they may provide the trappings of rationality and organizational efficiency, they have had little or no impact on the educational core—defined as the way in which teachers and students interact in the classrooms around subject matter (Elmore, 1996). Changing structures is not synonymous with changing the beliefs, habits, knowledge, and skills that undergird instructional practice. Moreover, policy-driven reforms, by and large, have not produced significant increases in student performance (Leithwood & Menzies, 1998). Although restructuring may be necessary, it is certainly not sufficient to bring about significant change in instructional practice and pronounced gains in student learning.

It is no wonder, then, that scholars of reform have begun to suggest that the solution lies at the crossroads of these two fields of inquiry. With learning researchers seeking to understand the influence of organizational and policy contexts on classroom instruction and policy researchers seeking more effective models for impacting the educational core, the frustrations of one field have become the Holy Grail of the other.

The High Performance Learning Communities (HPLC) Project was designed to combine expertise in educational policy research with scholarship in learning to study the reform efforts of Community School District #2 in New York City. District #2’s approach to reform is to build district policy based on support of the educational core—teaching and learning of subject matter inside classrooms. Their strategies include maintaining a tight focus on instruction at all levels of the district organization; designing and implementing a focused, system-wide program of teacher professional development; and developing and maintaining professional cultures in which continuous learning is the norm (Elmore & Burney, 1999). Policy researchers resonate with the district’s goal of initiating and sustaining improvements in all classrooms and all schools in the district. Learning researchers resonate with district leaders’ goal of meaningful, deep-seated teacher change grounded in the content areas and knowledge of how students learn.

With District #2 as our object of study, this paper examines the ways in which knowledge from the fields of educational policy and teaching and learning can be effectively combined. Our central claim is that in the current era of high expectations and high-demand curricula those policies that most successfully influence the educational core will be those that begin with microanalyses of what is being taught and learned inside the classroom door and then trace backward to implications for macro-district wide policies. In particular, we examine the instructional program that lies at the heart of District #2’s literacy improvement efforts—the Balanced Literacy Program—and unpack the implications of that program for the design of teacher professional development.


Over the past decade, the need for district policies that focus on professional development has become increasingly clear. As rigorous standards for student learning have been introduced in state after state, it is now widely recognized that many teachers will need to make wholesale changes in deeply held beliefs, knowledge, and habits of practice (Thompson & Zeuli, 1999). Teachers of literacy, for example, cannot successfully develop students’ reading, writing, and comprehension skills in ways called for by the new reforms simply by adding 30 minutes of creative writing time or adopting a new form of phonics drill. Rather they must thoroughly examine their ideas about what it means to know and understand text, the kinds of tasks with which their students should be engaged, and, finally, how their own role in the classroom must change.

Teachers cannot be expected to transform their practices to align with these new ways of thinking based on professional development as we know it. Recent surveys suggest that teachers, on average, receive fewer than 8 hours of professional development per year and that those experiences tend to be uncoordinated and unfocused (U.S. Department of Education, 1999). District staff development typically consists of a menu of training options (workshops, special courses, or in-service days) designed to transmit a specific set of ideas, techniques, or materials to teachers (Little, 1993). Such approaches treat teaching as routine and technical (Little, 1993) and encourage tinkering around the edges of practice, rather than a total overhaul of practice (Huberman, 1993). In addition, they provide teachers with limited access to intellectual resources outside the teaching community and provide few opportunities for meaningful collegial interactions within the teaching community (Little, 1993).

District #2 provides a counterexample to this typical characterization of the role that districts can play as professional educators. Shortly after Anthony Alvarado took over as superintendent in 1987,1 study groups consisting of district leaders, outside consultants, principals, and teachers began to design an improvement strategy in the area of reading and writing. After several years, a well-defined program of literacy instruction, known as the Balanced Literacy Program, had taken form. Unlike many instructional programs that have been designed for large-scale adoptions (e.g., Slavin, Madden, Dolan, & Wasik, 1996), the Balanced Literacy Program does not consist of detailed scripts that direct teachers’ instructional moves. Rather it demands that teachers plan lessons based on systematic study of student needs, think deeply about the choices they make moment-by-moment in the classroom, and reflect on lessons in a purposeful and student-centered manner. District leaders expect all teachers, not just the most motivated, experienced, or well-prepared, to become this kind of practitioner.

The district’s professional development policies and practices form the foundation of their efforts to bring quality implementation of the Balanced Literacy Program into all district classrooms. A variety of forms are offered within the district, including district-sponsored workshops, classroom-based assistance, intervisitations between schools and classrooms, and ongoing interactions among colleagues through study groups, grade-level meetings, and other specially arranged opportunities for teachers to meet and talk with each another. The uniqueness of District #2’s approach, however, lies not in the simple availability of these multiple forms of teacher assistance but rather in the manner in which they are all focused on their literacy initiative. The goal is to help teachers develop knowledge and skills directly applicable to the reading program they and their colleagues are expected to enact daily in the classroom. Together with other district policies that provide extra resources for low-performing schools and that shape the quality of professional personnel, the district’s professional development policies have created a consistent environment for broad-scale instructional improvement.


District #2 leaders began with a theory of how children learn to read. From there, they adapted a model of pedagogical practices—the Balanced Literacy Program—that would support children’s growing competence as readers. The Balanced Literacy Program, in turn, sits at the core of their professional development efforts, comprising what teachers need to learn. The ambitious and student-centered nature of the Balanced Literacy Program also dictates the kind of professional development that was needed for teachers, the how of teacher learning. Unlike instructional programs that consist of prescribed routines that can be taught in one-time workshops or by reading instructional manuals, the kinds of knowledge and skills needed to enact the Balanced Literacy Program call for teacher learning that is long-term, experientially based, and heavily dependent on interactions with others.

In District #2, then, learning requirements for teachers have their roots in district goals for student learning. The content and nature of the desired interactions between teachers and students in the classroom send ripples throughout the system in terms of what needs to be learned, by whom, and how. Over time, these ripples create alignments between how the district arranges learning environments for children and how they arrange learning environments for teachers and other adult professionals. The learning environments for both children and adults are designed to encourage engagement with authentic tasks, interactions with more capable others, and participation in a community of individuals who share common goals and values.

District #2’s approach resonates with contemporary, socially based theories of learning that view the acquisition of complex knowledge and skills as an inherently social activity that involves transforming the ways in which individuals participate in the practices of a community—either from assisted to unassisted performance (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988; Vygotsky, 1978) or from peripheral to fuller forms of participation (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Learning viewed in this way builds on the differences in perspective and expertise that exist among participants. Individuals are viewed as “using their differences to learn” (Bredo & McDermott, 1992) in the course of doing authentic tasks of the community, rather than tasks that have been specially created for pedagogical purposes. In the process, they develop knowledge and skills that have meaning and usefulness in the context in which they are acquired. In this paper, we draw on contemporary learning theory to better understand, describe, and create explanations of student and teacher learning in District #2.

The paper is divided into four parts. First, we describe District #2’s literacy program and the demands that it places on teachers to enact it well. Then we report on how the literacy program is actually being enacted in district classrooms. We then identify the nature of assistance that is provided to teachers and how that assistance is designed to promote teacher learning. We conclude with a discussion of the parallels between how district children learn to read and how district teachers learn to teach and an explication of the congruence of these parallels with theoretical notions of how complex knowledge and skills are learned.


As District #2 leaders, principals, teachers, and outside experts examined what was known about how children learn to read, they were attracted to models of instruction developed by the Early Literacy project at Ohio State University (Fountas & Pinnell, 1995), approaches to reading emanating from New Zealand (New Zealand Ministry of Education, 1996), and by Cambourne’s Conditions of Learning (Cambourne, 1995). The district’s teachers and principals found these approaches compatible with their beliefs regarding the active nature of children’s learning and the role of the teacher in a student-centered classroom. In addition, because District #2 has a significant number of at-risk readers, they found the instructional strategies from Reading Recovery (Clay, 1987; Pinnell, 1989), an early intervention program recognized nationally for its success at improving literacy achievement among at-risk students, relevant as well.2

The Balanced Literacy Program that was ultimately adapted from these sources is based on the belief that teachers must first know individual children deeply as readers; then they must assist them to advance to the next stage of learning, which is defined in terms of developing their repertoire of reading strategies, applying those strategies to master increasingly difficult texts, and becoming more independent readers.3 The program recommends that the amount and kind of support provided to students be continuously adjusted to their evolving individual needs. The end goal of the Balanced Literacy Program is to create independent, motivated readers.


During a typical school day, students interact with texts at varying levels of challenge in a variety of settings: whole class, small group, and independently. These settings translate loosely into reading to, reading with, and reading by the student, respectively, each offering differential amounts of reading support (see Figure 1). Reading to occurs during whole-class read alouds, when the teacher reads a carefully selected piece of children’s literature to the students. The purpose of read alouds is to expose children to oral language, to new vocabulary and concepts, and to a variety of forms of literature. The texts selected for a read aloud are more challenging than the students could handle on their own. During a read aloud, the teacher provides maximal support by reading the text for the students and helping them to interpret it.


As shown in Figure 1, reading with occurs during the shared reading and guided reading segments. Shared reading consists of the teacher reading fairly challenging, large-print text along with the students in chorus. The district views shared reading as a time for the teacher and more capable students to demonstrate the appropriate use of broad, general reading strategies in the context of an enjoyable, whole-class reading experience. These broad, general reading strategies include how to read text for meaning, predicting how text will develop, attending to the layout and structure of text, and mastering fluent oral phrasing. During shared reading, less-capable students are able to read more difficult material than they would be able to alone. Shared reading represents a fairly high amount of teacher support because the teacher actually reads the text along with the students and has planned teaching points to help the students decode and comprehend the text or focus on and practice specific reading strategies.

Guided reading involves teaching a small, carefully selected group of students reading strategies that are tailored to their needs and to the text. The reading strategies for guided reading are more narrow and specific to individual children’s needs, for example, how to use multiple cueing systems (i.e., sound, meaning, and picture cues) to identify unknown words. Guided reading is considered the heart of the Balanced Literacy Program because teachers provide students with direct instruction in specific strategies that are needed to move them to the next level of reading proficiency. During guided reading, the teacher supplies a moderate amount of support to students, who are expected to carry out the actual reading. The teacher’s responsibility is to group children appropriately (based on frequent individual assessments of actual reading) and to provide the groups with strategies that are specifically tailored for them.

Reading by occurs when students read texts independently and silently to themselves. District leaders view independent reading as an authentic form of reading in life—a form of reading that students need to engage in every day if they ultimately are to become lifelong readers. Independent reading is seen as a vital component of their literacy program, a time when students have the luxury of an uninterrupted block of reading time with a book of their choice for which there is no specific teaching goal. Students read books that are within their current proficiency level and are expected to apply strategies that they have learned in shared reading, guided reading, or both. In this format, support is primarily in the form of self-assistance.

The key to effective implementation of the Balanced Literacy Program is offering students increasing degrees of challenge coupled with exactly the right kinds and levels of assistance. This, in turn, depends on teachers’ abilities to accurately assess students’ reading capacities. While children are engaged in independent reading, the teacher performs individual student assessments. These assessments involve listening to a student read aloud, noting his or her struggles and errors (sometimes on a formal assessment form known as a running record4), and discussing the student’s comprehension of the material. The success of guided reading depends on accurate assessment of the difficulties that individual children are experiencing followed by the delivery of direct instruction in the specific strategies needed to support a carefully selected group of similarly challenged students. Similarly, the fruitfulness of independent reading depends on children having ready access to books that are individually gauged to their current level of proficiency.


Although District #2’s literacy ranking among the 32 community school districts of New York City improved from 10th in 1987 to 2nd in 1996, it is difficult to unequivocally attribute this gain to the district’s widespread implementation of the Balanced Literacy Program during that same time period. Although Elmore and Burney (1999) note that the number of immigrant students in the district increased and the student population grew economically poorer during those years, others have suggested that the Alvarado reforms attracted many middle-class families back to the public schools during this same time period. Regardless of possible shifts in the composition of the student population, it is important to note that the late 1980s and early 1990s represented an exceptionally intense period of a variety of district-wide activities, including the replacement of poorly performing principals and the recruitment and hiring of many new teachers. The rise in student achievement most likely reflects the benefits of an upgraded professional staff as well as the district’s steadfast focus on increasing both the quality and quantity of professional development surrounding the Balanced Literacy Program.

More specific analyses of the impact of the district’s efforts on students’ reading achievement, however, can be found in a series of technical reports produced by the High Performance Learning Communities Project (Harwell, D’Amico, Stein, & Gatti, 2000; Resnick & Harwell, 1998; Stein, Harwell, & D’Amico, 1999), the most recent of which provides specific evidence regarding the impact of Balanced Literacy on students’ achievement as measured by standardized tests (D’Amico, Harwell, Stein, & van den Heuvel, 2001). Using multilevel models of student achievement, the authors indicate the relationship between students’ socioeconomic status and their reading achievement is weakened in cases where teachers report that the Balanced Literacy Program is an important guiding framework in their day-to-day professional lives.5 In addition, mean student achievement in reading was found to be highest in those classrooms that the principals judged as most aligned with the Balanced Literacy Program.

It is important to note, however, that the Balanced Literacy Program has its share of critics. Many cite the need for more explicit attention to phonics instruction than is provided by the whole-language philosophy that undergirds the program. Although the district added a Word Study component in the late 1990s to give phonics a more visible and prominent role within the Balanced Literacy Program, many feel that the effort is not systematic enough. Another oft-heard criticism of the Balanced Literacy Program is that it is too demanding for teachers to learn how to implement well. In particular, the program is difficult to get off the ground in environments that cannot attract high-quality teachers and do not provide large amounts of professional development.


Although acknowledging that the amount of teacher learning required to achieve quality implementation is quite daunting, District #2 leaders expect all elementary teachers to teach reading in a manner that is congruent with the goals and purposes of the Balanced Literacy Program. In contrast to most other programs intended for large-scale implementation, Balanced Literacy places a stronger emphasis on conceptual knowledge than procedural knowledge. Although some structure is provided by independent reading, guided reading, shared reading, and read alouds, successful enactment of the program depends most heavily on teachers’ conceptual understanding of the reading process. The procedures that teachers use to teach children to read are not guided by scripts but rather are generated from their understanding of the reading process in general and each individual child’s needs in particular. This means that teachers must learn to integrate theory and practice, to juggle multiple goals, and to develop the disposition of thoughtful, reflective professionals.

According to the director of professional development, despite selective hiring practices, most beginning teachers are not prepared to teach in such demanding ways:

A lot of the teachers who have come into the system don’t seem to have it [proficiency in teaching literacy], at least not to the point which we would like them to have it. That’s why we have such a large professional development program. . . . It’s not that a lot of the teachers that we want to hire aren’t really bright kids who are going to really do a good job eventually, but they were told to go to x, y, z school to do student teaching and x, y, z school teaches this way so they learned that way. But they’re coming in with no background in the way we need to work so that means that you take a chance in hiring, then hope you can change the mindset. You have to do an awful lot of professional development (interview, Bea Johnstone, Director of Professional Development, July, 1998).

In particular, mastering the integrated yet component-based nature of the Balanced Literacy Program can be quite formidable. It presents two levels of challenges for teachers: learning how to implement a particular component well and learning how to integrate all of the components into a seamless, productive learning experience for children. When one of the most experienced staff developers was asked what was at the core of the Balanced Literacy Program, she stated:

The balance. It is the reading to, with, and by children everyday. That’s the core. [Right now] I’m talking to teachers about planning. When you get to look at the spread of their week or just their day, where have you included those three areas? They’ve got to be worked in there in whichever way you think they fit best and suit you best, but are they there? (interview, staff developer, March 1998).

As mentioned earlier, reading to, with, and by translates into the components read aloud, shared and guided reading, and independent reading. Making sure that all children are sufficiently challenged during read alouds, are appropriately supported through shared and guided reading, and, finally, have opportunities to practice and self-assist during independent reading requires tremendous skills of planning, pedagogy, and classroom management. The danger, as with all programs, is that teachers will grab hold of superficial features of the program and fail to master the deeper aspects of the practice.


In this section, we briefly summarize the results of nearly 100 classroom observations, conducted in two phases: the fall of 1997 and the winter and spring of the 1997–98 school year.6 These observations suggest that although teachers may begin with the more obvious, surface-level features of the program, most do not remain there but rather move on to deepen their practice in ways aligned with theories of how children learn to read.


The first round of classroom observations focused on nine primary-grade teachers, three in each of three schools.7 We observed in each teacher’s classroom for three consecutive days, from the opening bell until the end of the Literacy Block or lunchtime (whichever came first), for a total of 27 observations. Observations were videotaped and field notes were summarized using a structured narrative format (see Stein & D’Amico, 1998, for more details).

Across all classrooms and schools, we found very little variability in the physical appearance of the classrooms. All were cheerful, student-centered rooms that were arranged to support a literature-based program of literacy instruction. The well-stocked libraries were clearly labeled and organized. The organization of the furniture, the kind of student work displayed on the walls and on clotheslines strung across the ceiling, and the periodic gathering of children on the large square of carpeting all signaled a District #2 Balanced Literacy classroom.

The average amount of morning time devoted to literacy activities across all observations was 2.1 hours per observation, suggesting that these teachers had not only received but also were acting on the district’s message that their primary mission was to teach literacy. In all of these classrooms, the lion’s share of the morning hours was spent doing literacy activities. Subjects other than literacy were observed on only four occasions before the lunch break,8 and students left the classroom for instruction in specials (i.e., computers, science, and art) during only three of the observed mornings. Mathematics was the only subject area other than literacy always included in the posted full-day schedule, usually in the afternoon for 30 to 40 minutes. There was no doubt that literacy was the instructional focus of these classrooms.

In addition, the literacy activities that were observed followed the general pattern of the Balanced Literacy Program. Most of the main components were observed at some point in each of the teachers’ classrooms. The most consistently implemented components were independent reading and writing, both of which were observed in 93% of the classes. Guided reading was the next most consistently implemented of the reading components (81% or 22 mornings observed). Shared reading was seen in more than half of the observations (59%). Although read alouds were observed in only 52% of the observations, posted classroom schedules indicated that they were often scheduled for after lunch—once our observers had already left.

Although these findings suggest that most teachers on most days were implementing a literacy program that closely followed the structural guidelines of the Balanced Literacy Program, it is important to note that this initial study was not intended to identify the extent to which the intention of the components (or of the overall Balanced Literacy Program) was fulfilled by the observed teachers. The intent of guided reading, for example, is to provide direct instruction in specific reading strategies geared to individual needs. But as stated by a professional developer,

Most people can actually look like they’re doing a Guided Reading. If you walked into all their rooms now, I think you would see them sitting in a certain way, doing a book introduction, posing questions, picking out possible difficulties to alert students to, hearing each student read. I think they’ve got the pattern of what it looks like (interview, staff developer, March, 1998).

However, as this staff developer went on to explain, it is possible to go through the motions of guided reading without providing the intended instructional support.

To better understand such subtleties, we more closely examined the actual teaching and learning interactions that occurred within each of the 27 observations. The purpose of this closer examination was to begin to identify the various ways in which teachers were understanding and implementing the Balanced Literacy Program.

This examination suggested that lessons could vary along two dimensions: the extent to which they fulfilled the underlying goals of the Balanced Literacy Program and the degree to which they followed the structural framework of read alouds, guided reading, shared reading, and independent reading. In some cases, we saw instruction that was aligned with the Balanced Literacy framework and that was also true to the underlying philosophy of the program. These teachers were not simply going through the motions. Their teaching was informed by a deep knowledge of their students as readers. In interviews, they could clearly explain the rationale behind their lessons, and their students were actively engaged with texts that were appropriately geared to their reading level.

We also saw, however, instances in which teachers were attempting to follow the Balanced Literacy Program but were falling short. Their classroom environments and their routines gave the appearance of a District #2 Balanced Literacy classroom, but close examination of their practice and student learning suggested that crucial ingredients were missing. In some cases, it was apparent from their interview responses that the teachers did not appear to fully understand the intent of specific components of the overall program. Without this deep awareness of undergirding ideas, these teachers had difficulty negotiating the many online decisions that they faced daily. In other cases, teachers’ difficulties appeared to stem from limited background knowledge. To implement the Balanced Literacy Program well, teachers need to constantly keep in mind what the student is ready to learn and what is to be learned. Knowing what the student is ready to learn is informed by ongoing, classroom-based student assessments. Knowing what there is to be learned, on the other hand, requires that teachers possess a “map of the domain” that students are responsible for mastering (e.g., authors, genre, phonics, grammar). When teachers do not know the domain well, they miss opportunities to relate emergent student ideas to the broader field of established knowledge and sometimes even impart, or fail to correct, misconceptions, flawed reasoning, or both. Some teachers readily admitted that they lacked crucial pieces of background knowledge; for others, it was apparent by mistakes or omissions in their practice.

Finally, our observations included some teachers who were clearly fulfilling the underlying goals of the Balanced Literacy Program but whose instruction was not aligned with the components of Balanced Literacy. These teachers were very competent teachers, who clearly articulated in both interviews and informal conversations what they were doing and why they were doing it. They knew that they were deviating from the Balanced Literacy Program guidelines, but they had well-supported reasons for doing so. These teachers claimed to be accomplishing the same goals as those set forth by the Balanced Literacy Program, but through a different method—one better suited to their style, their children’s needs, or both. For example, one first-grade teacher did not implement guided reading. She felt that she fulfilled the direct instruction needs of individual children during the extended partner reading sessions with which she began her mornings. During conferences with individual children, she taught specific reading strategies geared to the reading level of the child, suggested books that were at the right level of challenge, and kept detailed notes on their reading performances.

In summary then, our initial examination of classrooms in District #2 revealed that good alignment with the structural guidelines of the Balanced Literacy Program frequently, but not always, coincided with meeting the underlying goals of the program; conversely, instruction that met the underlying goals of the Balanced Literacy Program was sometimes observed in classrooms that did not closely follow the structural guidelines of the program.


In the second round of classroom observations, we specifically focused on both the quality of instruction (i.e., the extent to which underlying program goals were being met) and the degree of alignment with program structure. Four elementary teachers in each of three new schools (12 teachers total) were observed for 3 consecutive days in the winter and again in the spring from the opening bell until the end of the Literacy Block or lunchtime (whichever came first), for a total of 72 observations.9 Once again, observations were videotaped and field notes were summarized using a structured narrative format.

Quality of instruction was represented by a holistic assessment of how well each particular component was enacted. These assessments incorporated judgments of two features: clarity of focus and student engagement. We defined clarity of focus as whether or not the lesson was purposeful based on the teacher’s assessment of student needs and the extent to which the teacher followed through on the stated (or implied) objective. Student engagement was defined as the level of student involvement in the lesson and the degree to which the lesson appeared to meet their needs. Degree of alignment was conceptualized as the extent to which teachers followed the overall Balanced Literacy guidelines with respect to pacing and inclusion of recognizable components.

Crossing the two dimensions of instructional quality and alignment provides prototypes of four kinds of variation (see Table 1). The upper left-hand cell (high quality and high alignment) characterizes exemplary teachers who choose to follow the structural framework of the Balanced Literacy Program. The upper right-hand cell also represents teachers who follow the guidelines of the Balanced Literacy Program, but in this case the teachers are not yet instructing in ways that realize the student learning goals of the program. They may be missing any one of a number of things, including background knowledge, experience, or enough professional development to really understand the intent of each of the components or the overall program. The lower left-hand cell characterizes those teachers whose instruction is of high quality and meets the literacy needs of all children in their class, but who use a vehicle other than the canonical Balanced Literacy Program to achieve this. And, finally, the lower right-hand cell represents teachers whose instruction is neither of high quality nor in alignment with the Balanced Literacy Program. The data collected in the 12 teachers’ classrooms were coded with respect to these dimensions, yielding the distribution shown in Table 1.10

Further examination of these teachers’ years of teaching experience and the extent of their professional development suggests a developmental progression of how teachers learn to implement ambitious forms of literacy instruction within District #2. Most of the teachers falling into the high quality, high-alignment cell had been teaching in the district for at least 4 years and have been active followers and promoters of the Balanced Literacy Program. The one teacher who fell into the high-quality, low-alignment cell was the most experienced teacher of the 12, having taught in District #2 for 10 years. The three teachers who fell into the high-alignment, low quality cell were all within their 1st or 2nd year of teaching, as was the teacher who fell into the low-quality, low-alignment cell.


Due to limitations in our research design, the obtained correspondence between experience and where teachers fell in Table 1 does not prove that teachers move along a progression from superficial to canonical to more differentiated forms of literacy instruction as they gain experience. Interviews with the director of professional development, however, suggest that the district’s professional development program is based on an implicit theory of teacher learning that follows a similar logic: Teachers start by learning the structural frame of the activities that constitute the Balanced Literacy Program—how ever superficially—and then move onto deeper understandings as they become more experienced. The most accomplished teachers have the freedom to experiment with new and different approaches to teaching reading. In the next section, we detail how the district’s professional development efforts have been designed to support full enactment of the Balanced Literacy Program from the start but also include continual support for teachers to deepen and enrich their practice.


The nature of assistance provided to teachers has key similarities to the nature of assistance provided to students through the Balanced Literacy Program and to the modal learning trajectory of teachers described in the previous section. The features of teacher assistance that are elaborated in the following sections have been extracted from a series of interviews with the director of professional development and seven of the district’s professional developers, as well as observations of one or more of each of the major forms of professional development (i.e., district-sponsored workshops, intervisitations, school-based staff developers working in classrooms, professional development lab, study groups, and grade-level groups).


The director of professional development states that a common question asked by staff developers is where to start with novice teachers. What is the first thing that one does with a teacher who is completely inexperienced with respect to the Balanced Literacy Program? Typically, the advice is to begin by focusing on the classroom environment. Teachers are helped to set up specific areas of their classrooms for whole-class (a carpet), small group (small tables and chairs), and independent work (reading nooks). They learn how to obtain books and organize them into a functioning classroom library. They learn how to create rooms that are visually print rich by labeling frequently used classroom tools and daily chores and by displaying student work. Finally, they learn how to encourage the development of learning communities in their classroom by co-constructing norms for social interaction and posting them on large posters throughout the room.

Once the room is ready, teachers are encouraged to begin enacting the entire literacy program (i.e., independent reading, shared reading, guided reading, read alouds), usually with assistance. Although it is recognized that, in the earliest stages, most teachers will only be going through the motions of the program, district leaders believe that enactment of the entire program is necessary for teachers to develop a sense of how the various components fit together and complement one another. As teachers are learning by actually doing the practice of Balanced Literacy, they also attend district-sponsored workshops that elaborate the philosophy, theory, and teaching strategies associated with the program.

Teachers are not introduced to the Balanced Literacy Program component by component or teaching strategy by teaching strategy. They do not, for example, learn to become expert at guided reading and then, with that component under their belt, turn to independent reading. Rather they are encouraged to work their way through all of the components simultaneously, actually using the structure of the program itself as a scaffold to carry them, to help them begin to feel what it is like to practice in this way.

One staff developer who was working in a school with many inexperienced teachers talked about the need for structure as a scaffold for teacher learning. Referring to the Balanced Literacy Program, she stated:

We’ve developed quite a pattern because we thought that the teachers we had really needed that, that we needed to perhaps impose a pattern that we found worked: the idea of Independent Reading, coming together, mini-lesson, Shared Reading, go out, Guided Reading. You know that type of pattern. . . . We’ve found that having a structure really supports teachers. (interview, staff developer, March 1998)

Staff developers claim that this pattern or structure has been very useful for inexperienced teachers. By providing a pacing template for the morning activities, it gives them the security of knowing when they should be doing what. In addition, the structure allows them to keep the entire task of teaching children to read in view at once, which, in turn, allows individual components to gain meaning from the role that they play in the entire whole.

Although district leaders expect even the most novice teacher to follow the Balanced Literacy structure and teaching strategies, they fully anticipate that inexperienced teachers will not get it completely right at first. With time and assistance, however, the teachers’ understandings of each component as well as the impact of various teaching strategies on student learning are expected to deepen and their practice is expected to become increasingly proficient and student centered. After teachers have implemented the entire program for a period of time, they may be encouraged to focus on a particular component to gain a deeper proficiency in enacting it. However, the isolation of a particular component for extra work is done with constant reference to the overall program and where that component fits into it.

If teachers’ initial learning experiences are not simplified by isolating components or teaching strategies of the Balanced Literacy Program, how is learning configured so as to be manageable for teachers? Depending on the teacher’s level of proficiency with the Balanced Literacy Program, different kinds and amounts of assistance are made available. As shown by the diagonal line in Figure 2, teachers who are new to the district, and therefore likely to be much less competent with respect to the Balance Literacy Program, receive more assistance with program implementation than do teachers who are considered competent. As teachers become increasingly skilled, they internalize the assistance that has been provided by others into self-monitoring strategies that enable them to enact the basics of Balanced Literacy independently.


As indicated by the recursive arrow at the bottom of Figure 2, teachers continuously receive new forms of assistance to refine or elaborate particular aspects of their practice or to learn new forms of practice. Thinking about assistance differentials only in terms of quantity of assistance, then, would be misleading. Quality or kind of assistance constitutes an equally important dimension along which assistance differs. The different forms of assistance are shown in the rectangles inside Figure 2.

Teaching To

Teachers who are completely new to the Balanced Literacy Program are expected to attend district-sponsored workshops that outline the underlying philosophy of the program and that teach the instructional strategies associated with the program. Inexperienced teachers also visit more experienced teachers to observe what the program looks like when well enacted. These forms of assistance are designed to demonstrate to the inexperienced teacher what Balanced Literacy is.

Teaching With

As teachers become increasingly proficient, the kind of assistance that dominates their professional development portfolio changes. They may receive assistance from a school-based staff developer who visits their classroom two or three times a week to assist them with particular aspects of their practice. They also may be encouraged to participate in the district’s professional development lab (PDL), which consists of a 3-week residency with a well-regarded Balanced Literacy teacher and follow-up visits. They also receive assistance from colleagues in their building who are more experienced as well as regular observations and assistance from the building principal. This stage of their learning is designed to immerse them in the actual work with assistance tailored to their particular needs.

Teaching By

Once they are considered to be competent teachers of Balanced Literacy, teachers no longer need the same kinds of assistance as noted in previous sections. At this point, they are viewed as having internalized the philosophy of the program and having learned the skills and background knowledge necessary to enact it well. They practice and use these skills by teaching the Balanced Literacy Program each day and by discussing instructional issues with colleagues during grade-level and other school-based meetings.

As mentioned earlier, teachers at this phase might go back (the recursive loop) to deepen specific aspects of their practice. They may also become a leading force in district-wide reconsideration of the Balanced Literacy Program itself. In this regard, the Balanced Literacy Program in not viewed as etched in stone. From time to time, teachers, staff developers, principals, or all three, form study groups to review emerging issues and trends. These study groups have made recommendations that resulted in shifts in the overall specifications of the Balanced Literacy Program, such as the addition of a word study component in 1997.

In summary, District #2’s system of professional development maintains the integrity of the Balanced Literacy model for teachers, rather than dissecting it into digestible learning bits. Teacher learning is made manageable by adjusting the amount and kind of assistance that is offered. Teachers who are new to Balanced Literacy are scaffolded by more assistance and by a more structured environment (e.g., new teachers are expected to adhere to the structural and pacing guidelines of the program more deliberately than are more experienced, accomplished teachers). Teachers who have mastered the Balanced Literacy Program, as determined by district administrators, their principal, their school-based staff developer, and their own self-assessment, go on to new instructional or program design challenges.


A closely related feature to keeping the learning task whole and complex is the extent to which District #2’s professional development is embedded in the actual work of teaching as opposed to consisting of pull-out sessions (i.e., off-site training that may or may not connect to teachers’ day-to-day instructional practice). The majority of teacher professional development in District #2 happens in and around the actual work of teaching. As stated by the director of professional development,

It doesn’t just happen from that [a workshop]. You really have to be in the classroom. I mean you can show a teacher how to do a running record, but do they understand all the implications behind it? Do they really know what they’re looking at, what this tells them about the child? They don’t know that just by teaching them how to do it. That comes with time, it comes with experience and it comes with putting all of the pieces together in the classroom. (interview, Bea Johnstone, Director of Professional Development, 7/1/98)

Rather than residing at the district’s central office, staff developers are school based, so they can work with teachers before and after school hours and during free periods as well as in their classrooms during lessons. In more conventional accounts of professional development, these forms of teacher learning would be considered informal because they were not formally designed pedagogical occasions for imparting a particular idea or skill. In District #2, however, these forms of professional development are viewed as forming the heart of support for improving practice.

Unlike other districts in which the assignment of a professional developer to a teacher’s classroom often signals a failing teacher, in District #2 classroom-based assistance is not viewed as a deficit model. Although some classroom-based staff developers do work with high-need teachers, others work with teachers who are following the normal developmental progression from superficial to more mature forms of practice. Still others work with teachers on deepening a particular aspect of their practice or introducing significant extensions to what is considered to be already high-quality practice.

Although staff developers can often be found observing, co-teaching, or modeling during actual lessons, embedding professional development in the work means more than supporting teachers in the actual task of teaching. Instruction may occur between the hours of 9 and 3, but it is supported by planning and reflection activities that extend well beyond these hours. A theme in the staff developer interviews was the amount of focus that needs to be placed on planning:

In the way that I actually work with teachers, planning is a major component. If you can work with a teacher and plan with a teacher, then they are likely to be much more successful in implementing something. Together, planning, I think is one of the keys to good teaching. (interview, staff developer, March 1998)

Similarly, staff developers often schedule post observation meetings with teachers to analyze what went well and what could go better next time. Conversations surrounding the practice of actual teaching also occur with colleagues on a regular basis as well as with staff developers.

In summary, district teachers are encouraged to view the actual work of teaching as a learning laboratory. Getting better means becoming a more effective classroom teacher. And the best places to learn about teaching are inside one’s own classroom practice and in conversations surrounding that practice.


Learning through interactions with more expert others is another hallmark of the district’s approach to professional development. District leaders readily acknowledge that teachers are at varying levels of competence. They unapologetically distinguish expert from non-expert performance and couple those who are viewed as more expert in particular components of the Balanced Literacy Program with those perceived as less expert, believing that such asymmetries spark learning.

It is important to note that the purpose of interactions with experts is not to produce exact copies of the same model but rather to deepen teachers’ understanding of ways to meet the underlying goals of the Balanced Literacy Program. As stated by one of the most experienced staff developers,

I think every teacher’s different from each other, and I think we’ve got to allow for individual personalities and different characters and different ways and different styles. So I’m quite keen on each teacher adapting the model to suit their own particular styles, as long as the principles of the model remain intact. I don’t want teachers to be exactly copying what other teachers necessarily do. (interview, staff developer, March 1998)

Novice teachers learn from experts in two major ways: (1) by visiting other classrooms to observe expert instruction and (2) by participating in the professional development lab. Each of these is discussed in the following sections.

Visiting Classrooms to Observe Expert Instruction

Observing teachers whose instruction brings to life crucial elements of Balanced Literacy is a key feature of the district’s professional development. In their search for good instructional models, district leaders and staff developers pull from classrooms across the district, treating all 45 schools as their learning laboratory.

District leaders use the term intervisitation to describe within- and cross-school visits between less- and more-expert teachers. They view this practice as another form of scaffolding for teacher learning:

There is scaffolding that takes place for kids; there’s scaffolding that takes place for teachers. You have to know where the teacher is on the continuum and what’s going to help them move to the next step. It does, however, sometimes help for teachers to see what the end goal is, so you may very well send them to a place like [top school] where you have a really high level of teaching. . . . But in the scaffolding of teacher learning you want to send the person to someone who is closer to where they’re at and able to take them to the next level. (interview, Bea Johnstone, Director of Professional Development, 7/1/98)

As suggested by Johnstone, decisions regarding whom a particular teacher will visit and for what reason are made very carefully. Expert observation can serve at least two purposes. First, it can provide a vision of the possible. This is particularly critical for teachers who are struggling to understand literacy as an integrated whole. It is not uncommon for inexperienced teachers to become frustrated with fitting it all in, often because they have become overly focused on the particulars and have forgotten to keep the big picture in view. These teachers need to pause, step back, and observe the masters of Balanced Literacy, teachers whose practice vividly illustrates the interwoveness and seamlessness that characterizes exceptionally skillful enactment of the program.

Second, observing experts that are just beyond the reach of visiting teachers can provide nitty-gritty, nuts-and-bolts ideas regarding the enactment of particular slices of the Balanced Literacy Program. These kinds of intervisitations pair apprenticing teachers with teachers who are fairly close in mastery level but nevertheless do certain things noticeably better. As suggested by the previous quote, allowing teachers to observe someone who is closer in proficiency level to themselves is often needed to actually help teachers go to the next level.

Participating in the Professional Development Lab

Another way in which the district recognizes and uses expertise is the program known as the PDL, which offers the opportunity for visiting teachers to work alongside an expert teacher (called the resident teacher) in her or his classroom each day, all day, for 3 weeks. As such, the opportunities for learning—although in some ways similar to other forms of learning from experts—are more intense and personal.

Interviews with teachers who have experienced PDL point to some of the perceived strengths of this up-close and personal form of assistance. Primary among them is the opportunity to gain an insider’s perspective on a day in the life of an expert literacy instructor. Visiting teachers are expected to arrive in the early morning to engage in planning activities with the resident teacher and to stay late to evaluate and reflect on the day’s lessons. Other debriefings can be squeezed in over lunch or during planning periods.

In addition to imparting knowledge, skills, and the thinking behind Balanced Literacy, PDL serves another important function: Resident teachers serve as role models for visiting teachers. Most important, because the visiting teachers get to know the residents so well, they serve as realistic role models—that is, individuals with whom the visiting teacher can identify. As one teacher who had just completed PDL said (paraphrased):

I can observe [name of resident teacher] leading a cluster-wide staff development and think, “She’s beyond reach. No way will I ever be able to do what she does.” In fact, I did see [resident’s name] leading a workshop and I thought to myself, “She is perfect. I’ll never be like her.” But now that I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside her every day, I’ve learned that she struggles, too. Everything is not easy, not even for her. Sometimes her lessons don’t go well—at least, not as she had planned for them to go. We’ve had to brainstorm together how to redo certain things or how to change our approach in order to reach certain children. Now I believe that I can be like her. (interview, teacher, March, 1998)

By having the opportunity to gain this vantage point on the master at work, this particular visiting teacher has learned that struggle is part of the game. She has learned that her own struggles are not abnormal nor do they signify that she isn’t cut out to be part of this community. Because she has a new vision of herself as “someone who can do this kind of work,” she hopefully will be less likely to dismiss Balanced Literacy as beyond her capabilities when she runs into obstacles.

Learning by doing means making mistakes. What is important is how those mistakes are viewed. District leaders strive to have their teachers view mistakes as opportunities for learning rather than indications of failure. Nevertheless, it is not uncommon for novices to feel the need to do everything perfect from the beginning. As stated by one staff developer,

They want every lesson to be so powerful that when a lesson doesn’t go well, they feel very reticent to try to do that sort of thing again. . . . I think they need to just free themselves up a little bit and have a go, see what happens, know that the kids are getting something out of the lesson that they provided. It may not have been the very best lesson in the world, but to know that they can refine their practice by allowing themselves to make mistakes and growing from that, rather than wanting everything to be perfect and when it isn’t, feeling very disappointed and not knowing how to benefit from that experience. (interview, staff developer, March, 1998)

Consideration of the motivational processes that accompany teacher learning is absent or underdeveloped in most accounts of teacher development (Goldsmith & Schifter, 1993). Yet as indicated by the previous quotations, teachers’ feelings—about their competence, about their ability to be successful, about the meaning of mistakes—can have a strong impact on their learning.

In summary, the recognition and use of expertise is intended to be an integral piece—both cognitively and affectively—of District #2’s system of professional development. Cognitively, teachers are seen as benefiting from observations of the program well enacted by both masters and teachers who are close to their own level of expertise. Affectively, teachers are encouraged to identify with their more expert mentors, in the process learning that even experts struggle to teach literacy well, thereby leading to the teachers’ growing belief that they too can—with time and work—become expert teachers of literacy.


Despite all of the reform rhetoric geared toward the form that professional development should take (e.g., programs that extend beyond a one-time workshop, workshops interspersed with classroom visits), it is not the form per se that directly influences what teachers will learn (Kennedy, 1998). Rather it is the content of professional development and the level and kind of assistance that teachers receive that leads to teacher learning. In the preceding section we attempted to describe District #2’s system of professional development in a way that goes beyond a mere cataloguing of activities and forms and goes directly to the heart of what is learned and how it is learned.

By focusing on the learning processes that are evoked in classrooms and in teacher professional development, we can identify a number of parallels between how learning is configured for children and adults in District #2. These parallels, in turn, have a remarkable degree of alignment with theoretical explanations of how individuals learn complex tasks in a social context.


The district believes that children learn how to read by reading. It is in the assisted performance of actual reading—not the completion of worksheets—that children develop competence as readers. Similarly, teachers are viewed as learning to teach by teaching and by doing the work that surrounds teaching. It is not by reading a manual, attending a workshop, or engaging in simulations that teachers learn to teach. Rather it is in the assisted performance of actually teaching that teachers develop their skills and power as pedagogues.

The idea that one learns in and through practice enjoys a great deal of support in contemporary theories of how individuals learn complex knowledge and skills in social environments. For example, Vygotskians have long argued that small children learn high-level cognitive functions as part and parcel of the everyday interactions of domestic life (Vygotsky, 1978). When adults guide a child’s participation in baking a cake or preparing for a yard sale, they are assisting children’s performances on complex, authentic tasks. Although the child’s direct participation may be limited to color coding the price tags, it has an authentic function. Moreover, children benefit from seeing how their part fits into the larger whole.

Descriptions of adult learning also point to the processes of learning in apprenticeship situations that bear resemblance to the process described previously (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Burton, Brown, & Fischer, 1984). Drawing on earlier studies of apprenticeship (e.g., Jordan, 1989; Marshall, 1972), learning theorists contend that certain features of apprenticeship learning have application to the learning of complex knowledge and skills. Among these features are embeddedness in the actual work, not destroying the authenticity of the task in the process of teaching the task, always keeping in view the broad outlines of the task, and each learning opportunity being tacitly tied to what has come before and what will come after.

Finally, in some learning theories, the day-to-day work practices of the community constitute the optimal site for learning. For example, Lave and Wenger’s (1991) theory of learning through participation in a community of practice completely shifts the focus away from specially arranged pedagogical occasions toward participation in the structure of work practices of a given community. In this learner-centered theory, the work practices of the community structure learning activities, actually becoming the curriculum for the learner.

Viewing learning as participation in the work practices of a community suggests the need to broaden the view of traditional professional development that only workshops, special courses, or seminars count as appropriate venues for teacher learning (Stein, Silver, & Smith, 1998). In District #2 the lens has been widened to include virtually all goal-directed, social interactions in and around teaching.


The district believes that the best way to help children learn to read is to provide appropriately challenging texts and exactly the right kind and amount of assistance. This belief forms the basis of the core of the Balanced Literacy Program: reading by, with, and to children. Similarly, the district argues that the optimal way for teachers to learn is through the appropriate kind and amount of assistance. We have shown how assistance by, with and to teachers occurs through collaborations with staff developers and more expert teachers.

Most school districts arrange learning environments for teachers and students as one size fits all. When tailoring does occur, it is often accomplished solely in terms of task simplification or task enrichment, with little, if any, attention to shifts in the kind and quality of assistance. The literature on learning theory, however, supports the idea of modifying the amount and kind of assistance, rather than the task—especially in the context of learning complex knowledge and skills. Instead of dissecting learning tasks into digestible learning bits, which often have little resemblance to anything authentic, learning researchers recommend maintaining the integrity of the task and instead adjusting the amount and kind of assistance that is offered.

Referred to as scaffolding, such assistance can be rendered in a number of ways. One of the most pervasive, however, is the structuring of situations. Just as parents assist their children’s learning through appropriate choice of puzzles or the adjustment of the size of a gardening spade, “the selection of appropriate tools and materials for an apprentice are all important features of assisting performance” (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988, p. 34). In this regard, the structural and pacing guidelines of the Balanced Literacy Program may be seen as a way that district leaders structure the environment to enable learning for novice teachers.


The district believes that children need models, not to become mechanical copiers of these models but to develop images of what is possible. They adopt the same perspective with respect to teachers:

We provide models for kids so that they get an idea of what it might look like, but we don’t want them all to come up with the exact same piece of work, and the same (is true) with teachers. We don’t want teachers to be exactly copying what other teachers do. (interview, staff developer, March, 1998)

The idea that observing or working with experts is not meant to produce exact replicas of the model is a basic tenet of learning viewed in social interactional terms (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Rogoff, 1994; Vygotsky, 1978). The learner is not viewed as a passive recipient of guidance from the expert but rather as an active interpreter and contributor to the nature of the learning interactions (Bruner, 1973).

Although the idea of modeling has found its way into many public schools in the form of peer tutoring and teacher mentoring, the design of modeling experiences in District #2 is unique. For example, visits to observe other teachers are arranged so as to provide the visiting teachers with information that goes well beyond the observation of practice. Based on district leaders’ and staff developers’ beliefs that teachers need to learn the thinking behind what is going on in the classroom, pre- and post-activities are treated with equal importance to the visit itself. During these times, the visiting teacher obtains a window into the observed teachers’ thought processes regarding planning, decisions made during instruction, and self-reflections after instruction.

In addition, the principal and staff developer carefully select whom a given teacher should observe and for what reason. As discussed earlier, sometimes the goal is to see what the Balanced Literacy Program looks like when masterfully enacted; other times the goal is to witness the nuts-and bolts of a particular component as enacted by a teacher closer in experience level to the visiting teacher. Theories of how individuals learn by participating in a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Rogoff, 1994; Wenger, 1998) stress that, by offering a range of potential mentors, learning communities can offer more than the traditional apprenticeship–master relationship that has served as the basis for many present-day coaching models of professional development. In well-functioning communities, novices are as apt to learn from near-peers as they are to learn from the masters. Because the knowledge that is possessed by master practitioners is often tacit and implicit, it can be difficult for them to access and use it in learning situations. Individuals who are just slightly ahead of the learner, on the other hand, are much closer to the learning process and can often share insights that have long since become inaccessible to the master.


A major reason underlying the district’s commitment to the Balanced Literacy Program is their conviction that such an approach to literacy fuels students’ desires to read independently. By participating in a classroom community in which reading is modeled and valued every day, children become lifelong readers. Similarly, teachers learn to embrace good teaching and to value the process of becoming a good teacher by participating in a community of adult professionals who hold teaching in high esteem.

Many frameworks for understanding motivation and learning impose an artificial boundary between the whole person (i.e., a living, breathing human being with goals, frustrations, and hopes) and the learning of knowledge and skills (Lave & Wenger, 1991). They place a disproportionate emphasis on cerebral activity and reduce the learner to a set of cognitive structures and processes. The whole individual and his or her relations to the world are strikingly absent.

Within a community-of-practice theory of learning, however, teachers’ learning and motivation are seen as tightly tied to their views of becoming a member of a community. By identifying with others who are more full-fledged members of the community, they begin to imagine what it would be like to be a member of the community. And they assess the likelihood that they indeed have the capacities to become more fully participating members. For these reasons, it is important for teachers to gain realistic images of what it means to practice in this way and not simply to learn from distant models. By seeing how the experts think, talk, and make mistakes—in unguarded as well as guarded moments—novices gain the belief that they too, with hard work and perseverance, may become a central, highly regarded member of the community.


Achieving academic excellence for all our nation’s children—especially those attending schools in high-poverty areas—is the most significant challenge facing public education today. All children—not just the most privileged—deserve a high-quality education that is rigorous and that prepares them for the demanding jobs of the 21st century. Are America’s urban districts prepared to take on this challenge?

Most attempts to unite the goals of broad-scale and intellectually deep forms of instructional improvement begin at the top—that is, with policies for changing organizational structures which, in turn, are expected to influence what happens in the classroom. The failure of organizational policies to substantially inspire the educational core in more than a handful of classrooms has been well documented (Elmore, 1996). By beginning with theories of how children learn and traveling backward to their implications for what and how teachers need to learn, District #2 has started this journey from the opposite pole.

Inside the microenvironment of the classroom, district leaders found that worthwhile learning is cognitively complex and demanding. It doesn’t happen through memorization or the repetition of isolated facts. Simple behavioral theories of learning cannot account for what we now know to be complex cognitive processes of higher level thinking and reasoning. When learning theorists focus their attention on how individuals develop higher order thinking and reasoning, they generally point to the need for learning environments that incorporate features such as those referred to throughout this paper: engagement with complex tasks, interactions with more capable others, and the motivation for persistence and hard work that comes from a desire to become a member of a community whose goals and values one identifies with.

In the macroenvironment of district policy formulation and enactment, district leaders took on the responsibility for providing this kind of learning environment for all students. This translated to the need for an extensive, system-wide program of professional development that would develop teachers’ capacity to create high-quality learning environments. Given that the learning task for teachers was every bit as challenging as it was for children, the professional development they created embodied many of the same characteristics: engagement with complex tasks, interactions with more capable others, and the motivation for persistence and hard work that comes from a desire to become a member of a professional community whose goals and values one identifies with.

By foregrounding the processes of learning in this paper, we’ve identified an arena in which fruitful connections between the macro contexts of district policy and the micro context of classroom-based teaching and learning can be forged. The overlay of ideas from contemporary learning theories has not only further elaborated school improvement as a process of learning, but it has also revealed a compelling parallelism between the arrangements for learning at two distinct layers of a public school system. This parallelism has not occurred by chance. Rather it reflects a sustained effort on the part of district policy makers to build a system that does what every public institute of learning must do and do well: educate all children.

Work on this paper was supported by the High Performance Learning Communities Project at the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh under research contract #RC-96-137002 with the Office of Educational Research and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education. All opinions and conclusions in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funding agency. The authors are grateful to the District #2 teachers, principals, staff developers, and district leaders who participated in this study. In particular, Bea Johnstone, who collaborated on an earlier version of this paper, providing critical insights. The authors also thank the many members of the HPLC research team who assisted in the collection and organization of data reported here.


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MARY KAY STEIN holds a joint appointment at the University of Pittsburgh as Associate Professor of Administrative and Policy Studies and Research Scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center. Her research focuses on the organizational, policy, and leadership challenges of developing institutional cultures that support highly demanding forms of teaching and learning for all students. Her recent publications include “Districts as Learning Laboratory,” written with Laura D’Amico, in School Districts and Instructional Renewal (Teachers College Press), and “The Development of Professional Developers: Learning to Assist Teachers in New Settings in New Ways,” with M. S. Smith and E. A. Silver, Harvard Educational Review 69(3).

LAURA D’AMICO is a research associate at Simon Fraser University. Her research focuses on the support systems necessary to implement educational reforms, including assessment infrastructures, learning technologies, and professional development systems for teachers and principals.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 104 Number 7, 2002, p. 1313-1344
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10993, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 10:26:49 PM

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