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Seductive Images and Organizational Realities in Professional Development

by Judith Warren Little - 1984

This article is an exercise in healthy skepticism. Findings on effective staff development programs, reported with some enthusiasm and confidence, have been subjected to a closer look. The enthusiasm survives; the confidence has been tempered.

This article is adapted from “Designs, Contexts and Consequences in the Real World of Staff Development,” a paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, 1984. The work on which this article is based was supported by contract no. 400-79-0049 from the National Institute of Education to the Center for Action Research, Inc., Boulder, Colorado. The views reflected herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institute of Education, and no official endorsement should be inferred. This article draws on interview and observation data collected in three elementary and three secondary schools in a large urban school district. The study was conducted in collaboration with the district’s Office of Staff Development. Schools were selected on a combination of success criteria and involvement in district-sponsored staff development. Taped interviews, informal conversations, and direct observations were conducted with more than one hundred teachers, all administrators and all (assigned) district staff developers.

This article is an exercise in healthy skepticism. Findings on effective staff-development programs, reported with some enthusiasm and confidence,1 have been subjected to a closer look. The enthusiasm survives; the confidence has been tempered.

Studies of effective professional-development programs have proliferated in recent years, spawning a host of compelling images: collaboration, cooperation, partnership, mutual adaptation or accomplishment, collegiality, and interactive development among them.2 Such images are seductive, creating a vision of professional work and professional relations at once intellectually stimulating, educationally rigorous, and professionally rewarding. On closer examination, however, conditions that are powerful enough to introduce new ideas and practices in classrooms and to sustain “collegial” relations among teachers require a degree of organization, energy, skill, and endurance often underestimated in summary reports. A closer look reveals the challenges of organization and leadership and uncovers the strains that accompany (and perhaps yield) the triumphs.3


A comparison of two staff-development programs illustrates the organization, initiative, and skill required to achieve collaborative, rigorous programs of effective professional development. The two programs had certain characteristics in common. Both were designed with care, thought, and imagination by the same district specialists, all of whom had reputations as masterful classroom teachers. Both programs began with a focus on ideas derived from research on effective teaching that were considered to be worth testing in practice. (Basically the programs combined principles of mastery learning and interactive teaching, with an element of proactive classroom management.) Both programs were introduced by well-conceived and well-conducted training sessions in which staff developers themselves employed the practices they expected teachers to use. Both provided teachers with a notebook of reference materials that paralleled the training sessions. Both required participation by faculty groups or teams and both provided time during training for group discussion, planning, and problem solving. Finally, both programs received enthusiastic evaluations from participants.

Three years after the programs were launched, one had produced widespread implementation of new practices, renewed professional commitment among experienced teachers, enduring habits of professional development in participating schools, and changes in the routine organization of school life ranging from time schedules to job postings. The other program continued to get good marks from its participants long after they had ceased to think about the ideas to which they were introduced or to use the recommended classroom practices. As an in-service program, the latter program was better than most in the eyes of teachers. As a meaningful contributor to a professional repertoire, it was virtually inconsequential. The similarities in the two programs are substantial, but the differences are critical and merit close attention (see Figure 1).


Acting on the premise that influential programs of staff development require the interest and participation of a “critical mass” of staff, designers of both programs set a criterion level for school participation: one-third of a secondary school faculty and three-quarters of an elementary faculty. In the less successful program, teachers were asked to participate in training as a group. In the more successful one, teachers and principals were asked to participate in training and implementation as a group; in effect, the school staff made a commitment to work with the district in a test of promising ideas that involved training as one of several activities. Teachers at one elementary school placed considerable weight on their collective commitment to the pilot program in accounting for its success:


I think that it would be a disadvantage not to have the whole school behind the project. . . . I don’t see how a few people . . . in one school can have much impact on the whole school. (Teacher)

Admitting that there were some variations in interest and enthusiasm, the participants describe a situation in which persons have some latitude to recruit others in the name of professional growth and school improvement.

I’m not enough of a dreamer to think you’re going to get a whole faculty behind something without a little coercion, a little polite coercion. And if you don’t do that you don’t ever have any growth in your faculty. (Teacher)

The argument can be made, of course, that professional growth is principally a matter of individual preference and skill, and that school improvement is the cumulative effect of many individual efforts. Certainly that is an argument advanced by many teachers, backed by their own stories of learning to teach through a combination of trial and error, luck and persistence. Teachers in all six schools described their isolated experiments with ideas “picked up” in classes, from reading, from other teachers, or by dint of their own imagination.

Nonetheless, teachers’ accounts and our observations also suggest some limits to that argument. First, teachers have few opportunities to watch each other at work, and tend to form impressions of each other’s competence from students’ comments and from casual glances through classroom doorways. The criterion for “good teaching” is often no more than the sense that things are “going well” in the classroom. If trying a new approach requires a disruption in established routines, if it will thereby create the appearance of floundering and place teachers at risk of being judged negatively by colleagues, teachers may be less likely to make the attempt. The more complex and unfamiliar a practice, and the greater a departure it requires from past practice, the more likely it is that teachers will indeed struggle with it. Teachers in one school reported that “it’s hard to keep a theory in your head” when embroiled in the day-to-day press of classroom life, even if one admires the theory and wants to test it in practice. A group of implementers may offer a combination of technical advice (problem solving), moral support, and tolerance for mistakes.

Second, new practices may require time-consuming study and preparation even before they can be tested in the classroom. A teacher left to rely on individual preference and skill many reasonably choose to avoid a new practice rather than take the chance that a substantial investment of time and thought will not pan out. If the experiences in these schools serve as evidence, practices that have resulted in greater student achievement and classroom order have required precisely that kind of extensive thought and preparation: without denying the attractiveness and occasional utility of “tricks,” “little hints,” and ready-made materials, these teachers trace their most impressive accomplishments to more complex undertakings that stretched the limits of their knowledge and experience. Collective participation on some scale (even four members of a single department or two-person grade level teams) eased the burden. Teachers describe group discussions of ideas, shared work in preparing written materials and designing lessons, and collaborative review of progress.

Finally, some practices that teachers have found to be effective over time may show those effects only when used on a large enough scale to alter the entire pattern of teaching and learning in a building; sporadic, isolated attempts in individual classrooms may seem not to “work” when they simply have not been tested on a scale large enough for their virtues to become evident. Practices of this sort are beyond the power of a single teacher either to sustain or to alter; they draw their influence from collective participation.


Three provisions for collaboration among staff developers, principals, and teachers helped to ensure that a collection of bodies would become a group whose members shared equally in the obligations and the risks, invested equally in the hard work of applying ideas in practice, and were credited equally with the accomplishment.

A Four-stage Negotiation with Pilot Schools

In preparing for a pilot program, district personnel constructed a four-step negotiation with schools to ensure clear agreement that the ideas were promising and plausible (worth implementing), that teachers would implement the ideas collectively over a long enough period to see effects, and that a working partnership would be forged among teachers, principal, and district personnel. The terms of participation in the project reflected certain “working hypotheses” on the part of staff developers about the conditions (time, collective support) required to understand, test, and institutionalize ideas that were both unfamiliar and complex.

In a first step, the program’s designer and coordinator presented the project in broad outline to a meeting of all elementary school principals, with an invitation to declare interest. Principals who were interested on the basis of that first presentation were invited to a second meeting, where the terms of participation were elaborated further. One condition was an agreement by principals to participate in training and eventually to displace the district consultant as instructor and resource person in the building. That provision was designed to improve the prospects that any changes in teaching practice would endure; it nevertheless had the effect of narrowing the field drastically.4

Well, as I remember, when we met with the coordinator four years ago and she talked about this, she mentioned the fact that when the principal gets involved, it isn’t just a matter of sitting through the in-service with the faculty and participating that way. Your involvement had to be a lot deeper and . . . there was lot of training and background that went into it, even, before you began working with the faculty. . . . There were a number of principals that showed an interest until she made that statement and then it kind of cleared the field, really and truly. She was looking for five schools and she almost didn’t get five schools because there were not five people who were willing. Because she was very, very clear about the amount of time it was going to take. As I look back on that first year, it did. (Principal, Westlake Elementary)

A third step required the principal to confirm agreement with at least 75 percent of the faculty before committing the school to participation. Teachers and principal at one elementary school trace their decision to participate to a combination of the principal’s stand on the program and the faculty’s own disposition to explore promising new ideas:

I told the faculty that I’m willing to be involved if you are. I’m willing to spend the time, I’m willing to commit myself. (Principal)

Four years ago, when we were deciding about this, the whole staff sat down and talked about it. It was put to a vote. . . . We voted as a faculty and it’s been great. Not everyone goes along wholeheartedly but everyone would have to admit they’ve learned something. (Teacher)

In a fourth step, entire faculties of the proposed pilot schools met to hear a description by district personnel of what would be expected over the three-year tenure of the program:

We had an opportunity . . . the five schools that were selected had an opportunity to meet one entire afternoon with the coordinator. And she discussed with them in detail the proposal, the amount of time and commitment that it would take. And they had a chance again at that time, at that point, if they wanted to, to withdraw. And there was one school that did withdraw . . . because they didn’t have the support of the faculty. (Principal)

As might be expected, no negotiation procedure, no matter how stringent, is sufficient to anticipate the actual time required, the actual dilemmas faced, the nature and pace of observable progress. Still, the original negotiation forestalled the kind of resistance or indifference that might have emerged had the district left the terms of participation unclear in the hopes of attracting schools more readily.

The persuasiveness of this negotiation rests on shared agreements (clarity) of three sorts: agreement about the promise of the program ideas, agreement on the nature of the roles and relationships required of teachers and principals, and the adequacy of the description to reflect an actual sequence of implementation. For the mastery learning project, the ideas were powerful enough on their face to attract nearly half the elementary school principals. The role envisioned for principals, however, was apparently enough of a departure from the role that was being then enacted by most principals to discourage their participation. Good intentions and “receptivity” apart, teachers and principals may resist program opportunities that represent radical departures from their view of what being a teacher or being a principal permits or requires.

Professional Relations

At stake in staff development are basic rights to the description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation of classroom practice. Teachers’ favorable and unfavorable judgments about staff development revolve precisely around the issue of teachers’ rights to propose or share in such analyses and around their obligation to accept the analyses (and advice) of others. The salient point here is not whether a description is recognizable (i.e., demonstrates familiarity with the real world of classrooms), or an analysis accurate or plausible, or particular advice pleasing to the teacher. Those are separate, if important, matters. The point here is whether the interaction called “staff development” is conducted in ways that are properly reciprocal, calling for shared aims and collaborative effort among fellow professionals.

In this program, teachers and staff developers alike found their views mutually valued, sought, credited, and tested. The issue for teachers and for programs of staff development is how such reciprocity was established as the basis for shared work, and was confirmed in the course of routine interaction. Several contributors seem likely.

First, all parties were explicitly invited to act as knowledgeable contributors. The district consultant was expected to combine classroom experience with “theory” to provide an initial introduction to new ideas, and to advise teachers as they prepared curriculum units and materials. Teachers were expected to contribute knowledge gained from close observation of present practice and from efforts to apply new ideas to actual classroom situations. The principal was expected to contribute knowledge gained from observation of classroom practice and from additional readings of theory and research. Working as a group, they discovered and resolved the problems of instrumentality, congruence, and “cost” that Doyle and Ponder5 and others have associated with teachers’ decisions whether to introduce new principles and practices into the classroom.6 The task was sufficiently complex to make collaboration sensible and fruitful.7

Program implementation became an enterprise in which teachers, principals, and staff developers discovered what it meant to move from general ideas on paper to specific applications in classrooms. Over time, the ideas evolved and took shape in numerous concrete ways in an instance of what Bird (in his article in this issue) characterizes as “mutual accomplishment.”

Thus, collaborative arrangements between staff development and schools offer the opportunity to demonstrate reciprocity among fellow professionals, to develop clearly known and shared aims, and to establish trust by building a history of predictable performance.

Second, time for shared work was allotted in the weekly schedule. The district consultant visited the school at least once a week. Periods of “instruction” were structured to introduce new elements of theory; to permit questions, comments, observations, and problems raised by teachers; and to organize a period of group work to connect theory to practice. Knowing that the principal was devoting yet another morning each week to studying with other principals, teachers willingly spent additional afternoons after school working on materials.

Third, decisions about the focus and scale of curriculum units emerged out of teachers’ analysis of core topics and critical skills at each grade level.

Finally, criteria for classroom observation emerged out of the shared discussion of theory and practice, were agreed upon in advance, and were specified at a level of detail that made all parties comfortable about what might be important to notice. Observers used anecdotal records to capture as faithfully as possible all that was said by teachers and students; these notes served as evidence around which teachers and principal or consultant would organize conference discussions. Support for implementation included an element of what has since come to be termed “coaching.“8


Learning to teach is, according to one teacher, like learning to play a musical instrument. Beyond the wish to make music, it takes time, a grasp of essential patterns, much practice, tolerance for mistakes, and a way of marking progress along the way. In the more successful of the two programs, a major contributor was the organization of time. While the less successful program relied on a “pullout” training session of several days, followed by one or two classroom visits, the more successful program organized before-school sessions every Wednesday morning for more than two years. Each session consisted partly of new material introduced by the resource consultant, the principal, or—in later stages—teachers, followed by group work on curriculum in grade-level teams. Frequency of involvement was high: the sheer number of opportunities that teachers had to work on ideas and their application in classrooms. Extended duration provided for gradual and incremental command over a set of ideas and cumulative discovery of the ways that they could be applied in classrooms:

Whenever a basic idea was presented, people would ask, “Now, how are we going to apply this?” (Teacher)

The first six months, according to teachers, were slow and clumsy on all sides. Teachers were uncertain of how to make sense of what they were hearing; staff developers and principals were learning from and with teachers which advice was sound and which was off the mark. Teachers commented:

You couldn’t do it otherwise. . . . You have to get far enough into it to see the advantage.

Units were horrendous headaches to prepare at first. Everyone was new. . . . It was a little easier in the second year and even easier in the third.

It’s difficult at first because it’s complex.

We spent the first year proving it to ourselves. It took a while . . . not that they moved too fast but that it was all new material.

Give yourself time to see it work. You’ll be frustrated at first because it will seem overwhelming. If you’ll go step by step and give it at least six months, give it a chance and don’t take shortcuts . . . then you’ll be convinced.

Such comments, together with other observations of both programs, call into question approaches Characterized as “minimal intervention,” even when supported by well-designed materials and thoughtfully conducted training sessions.9


The crucial role of building principals was acknowledged by both programs. Principals were approached first for discussions of the underlying ideas, and their cooperation was sought in recruiting interested faculty members. In only one of the two programs, however, were the principals explicitly required to assume a more direct leadership role in regard to the project, and supported in doing so. In the pilot, principals were expected to learn the theory and practice of mastery learning. They attended weekly in-service sessions conducted by the district consultant. These weekly sessions, as described by teachers and principals, served several purposes. First, the principal became increasingly knowledgeable about a specific set of concepts and practices. Because he was knowledgeable, he was a fair and helpful judge of classroom instruction. He was able to recognize progress in teachers’ efforts to implement new ideas, and was a reasonable judge of requests for materials, released time, or other assistance. In the words of one teacher: “The principal has been the mainstay here—he knows the program and can answer teachers’ questions.”

Acting as a resource person to teachers over a three-year period, the principal:

Attended in-service sessions and read relevant materials that equipped him to assist teachers in implementing the recommended ideas and methods.

Conducted in-service sessions for teachers in a fashion that combined theory, research, and practice.

Gave advice on curriculum units and ideas for course materials.

Observed in classrooms often enough to make feedback useful and to recognize and credit teachers’ accomplishments.

Spent time in a weekly workshop conducted by teachers.

From the point of view of one elementary school principal, direct involvement in the program exemplified a shift from a “gatekeeper” stance to a “change-agent” stance; he attributed the change in part to his reading of the results of the Rand Corporation’s “change-agent” study.‘10 In the five years prior to the pilot project, this principal increasingly engaged in actions that could be viewed as assisting or promoting change (rather than merely permitting or approving it). The gradual development of that role is reflected in Figure 2. In secondary schools, school size and curriculum complexity may make this scale of direct involvement difficult; principals are confronted with establishing a structure of leadership in which selected teachers, as department heads or team leaders, can take the initiative in matters of curriculum and instruction.11


On the evidence, some strategies more than others appeared promising over a range of relevant goals (improvement of teachers’ competence, confidence, and commitment; implementation of school-based improvements in instruction or curriculum; balancing the need for stability against the demand for change; and the like). Researchers concluded that staff development is most influential where it: (1) ensures collaboration adequate to produce shared understanding, shared investment, thoughtful development, and the fair, rigorous test of selected ideas; (2) requires collective participation in training and implementation; (3) is focused on crucial problems of curriculum and instruction; (4) is conducted often enough and long enough to ensure progressive gains in knowledge, skill, and confidence; and (5) is congruent with and contributes to professional habits and norms described elsewhere as norms of collegiality and experimentation.12

Together, these program elements constitute a set of design characteristics. These are complex conditions: each contributing factor also poses certain dilemmas for those who design, conduct, and participate in such efforts. Some of the dilemmas associated with program elements have been displayed in Figure 3. Others, associated with the place of such programs in district initiatives, include these:


The successful program required a disproportionate concentration of staff resources on a five-school pilot program. Although the budget for the program was hardly exhorbitant ($40,000 in federal funds during the year of the study, in a total district budget of more than $200 million), it permitted a single resource coordinator to be assigned full-time to the project. During the same time period, each of the remaining eleven members of the district’s staff-development office was charged with organizing minicourses, conducting workshops on a variety of topics, and serving as the assigned resource person for twelve elementary and secondary schools. Their influence was predictably diffuse.








The successful program was funded with federal dollars as support for desegregation; in this, as in programs described by others,13 a shift in federal dollars or priorities will jeopardize the project. (That is, although the practices survive in the pilot schools, there is no basis of continued support and expansion.)


The invitational procedure by which the district’s one hundred elementary schools were narrowed first to fifty interested candidates and finally to five selected sites created conditions powerfully conducive to success. On a pilot basis, such a procedure was substantively warranted. Nonetheless, it also permits (even requires) selecting out 95 percent of the district’s schools. The district risks a form of “creeping exclusivity” by which the bulk of program resources are devoted to the most sophisticated, most energetic faculties. To maintain an invitational procedure over time would thus require that a district develop a program of preparation that would equip interested schools to compete successfully for participation in the program.


The successful program was heavily reliant on the direct involvement of building principals, who participated in principals’ training sessions, helped to conduct in-service sessions with faculty, joined planning sessions with teachers, observed in classrooms, publicized teachers’ accomplishments, organized schedules and other aspects of school work to facilitate teachers’ work with one another, and protected teachers against other demands and distractions. In this manner, the program built an enduring system of support that went well beyond the delivery of good skills training.14 Such a pattern of leadership, however, also calls for practices for which most principals are neither prepared, selected, nor rewarded.15

Teachers as Colleagues

The successful program rested on long-term habits of shared work and shared problem solving among teachers. Such patterns of mutual assistance, together with mechanisms by which teachers can emerge as leaders on matters of curriculum and instruction, are also atypical.16 According to one review, work teams among teachers have proved relatively unstable, particularly in the absence of an explicit “policy of teaming” on the part of building principals.17 The very success of the pilot project described here calls attention to the character of professional work in schools and the degree to which “reflection-in-action”18 might be made an integral part of teaching.

The “Fit” or Integration of Staff Development

A fit of staff development with major lines of program development and authority is argued to be both critical and problematic. In tracing the human and material resources devoted to staff development in three districts, Moore and Hyde found staff development was politically weak and programmatically marginal, in spite of higher-than-predicted allocations of money and time.19 Responsibility for staff development is often widely diffused, low in the bureaucratic hierarchy, and isolated from major initiatives in curriculum and instruction.20 In many urban districts, the main contribution of staff development in recent years may have been “to keep things from getting worse”21 by introducing a measure of stability in times of rapid change. There is no evidence that the projects described here were any more centrally connected to the structures of power and policy, nor any less vulnerable to shifts in budget priorities, than the projects described in other studies.

In effect, we are confronted with a tremendous problem, or challenge, of organization, leadership, and scale. It is simply implausible that a small cadre of staff developers in any district will add measurably to the general fund of teachers’ knowledge, skill, and enthusiasm, or that programs of the sort just described could be mounted by a district on a scale large enough to exert widespread influence. The lessons are of a different order of magnitude; the guidelines generated by these program examples are properly seen as guidelines for the organization and leadership of professional work in the day-to-day work of teaching.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 86 Number 1, 1984, p. 84-102
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 935, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 7:27:28 AM

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