Karen SmithKaren Smith is an Associate Professor of Language and Literacy, and Director of Professional Development in the Division of Curriculum & Instruction at Arizona State University (ASU). Her research is conducted in collaboration with teachers in urban settings and focuses on literacy teaching and learning, and teacher research. She speaks and consults widely on literacy development and teaching as a scholarly activity. She has received numerous awards for her teaching including the 2002 Richard Halle Outstanding Middle School Educator award from the National Council of Teachers of English, the 2003 ASU College of Education Dean’s Excellent Award for Faculty Teaching, and the 2008 John Chorlton Manning Public School Service Award from the International Reading Association.

During the last forty years, our understanding about how all children learn has grown enormously. Research has yielded new insights into how children and adolescents learn and what instructional approaches work best in particular contexts. At the same time, the learning demands for our entire country are higher than they have ever been. As learning demands grow, so does the need for teachers and administrators to stay current with new knowledge and new pedagogical practices.

While we have the professional knowledge base in school reform to respond to these higher demands, most professional development efforts fail to do so. Research in school reform suggests that traditional professional development models (lecture, courses, brief in-service) result in little change in classroom instruction and learning. These traditional models are generally short term and cursory. Joyce and Showers (2002) report that only 5% of traditional professional development programs (workshops with a lecture format, classes, conferences, reading books and journal articles) ever results in classroom implementation. However, they also found that implementation can skyrocket to over 90% when teachers have the opportunity to direct their learning and professional growth. Professional development has traditionally followed the same routes that tend to reinforce current practice rather than change it. To reverse this trend, teachers, like all learners, need to identify questions that have personal/professional relevance, and they need to have the opportunity and support to explore them at a time and in a place when their minds are fresh and where they are treated like professionals.

The teachers and principals at school where I currently facilitate professional development embrace this trend. For example, my colleague, Sarah Hudelson, and I meet with classroom teachers, special education teachers and the principal at a K-8 school every other Wednesday afternoon from 1:00 – 3:00 p.m. where we explore together what balanced literacy means and what balanced literacy looks like in practice in the school’s rich linguistically and culturally diverse setting. While the whole group collectively explores the meaning of balanced literacy, each teacher and the principal enters the conversation with a particular aspect of balanced literacy that he or she wants to explore. For example, the kindergarten teachers are working on creating classroom environments that offer rigorous literacy curriculum but also honor the need for play as a way of knowing for their young learners. Some teachers are interested in creating guided reading groups and they are working through their understandings of this practice by reading professional literature, viewing videos, and trying out guided reading groups with their students. The principal’s inquiry is about supporting struggling readers within a balanced literacy classroom.

A fundamental part of sound professional development is the opportunity for teachers to engage each other during the process of their growth and learning. Shared knowledge strengthens what we know and increases the possibility of current insights taking root so that they have a chance to generate staying power.

In his inspiring book, The Courage to Teach, Parker J. Palmer notes:

If we want to grow in our practice, we have two primary places to go: to the inner ground from which good teaching comes and to the community of fellow teachers from whom we can learn more about ourselves and our craft. The resources we need in order to grow as teachers are abundant within the community of colleagues. Good talk about good teaching is what we need—to enhance both our professional practice and the selfhood from which it comes (pp. 141, 144).

Part of our professional development time with the faculty mentioned above is built around study groups that are made up of five or six participants discussing their personal inquiries together. The groups are structured so that members rotate the responsibility of facilitator and group historian each session. The facilitator’s job is to keep the discussion on topic and make sure everyone gets a chance to participate. The historian logs what happens during the discussion and shares the log with the other teachers and administrators so that knowledge is shared and made available for all to use. This “good talk” has resulted in teachers requesting time to visit each other’s classrooms, teachers presenting new strategies at staff meetings, and teachers presenting at local and state conferences. It moves teachers from being just congenial to being collegial with each other (Barth, 1990), where they assume responsibility for their own learning and the learning of others and their community of colleagues.

School reform efforts should also focus on the school context. Educators like Roland Barth (1990) talk about “improving schools from within” where the relationships in a school are viewed as crucial to change as well as teacher satisfaction. Central to Barth’s concept of a healthy, effective school is the idea of community where principals learn alongside teachers.

The involvement of school principals is a critical feature of any reform movement. If teachers are to take risks and implement curricular changes consistent with their developing knowledge, they must feel confident that the school administration is knowledgeable of and supports these endeavors. Principals cannot be outsiders to professional development experiences. They must participate as equal members and active participants where they, along side teachers, systematically pursue their own inquiries into the phenomena under study. The principals I work with value the professional development time and in most cases this time is not a negotiable part of their schedule.

Changing schools from within is where reform begins. It is not enough however for teachers and principals to keep what is learned within the four walls of their school. As they investigate questions and issues, they should consider publishing what they have learned. Sharing professional knowledge demonstrates to teachers and principals that what they know is critical to the health and progress of the profession and it adds their voice to the knowledge base on teaching and learning—voices long absent from this body of knowledge. When educators do write or speak, it is often because they live in an environment that values, encourages, and rewards the sharing of professional knowledge.

I hope you will take time to make public what your school community is currently exploring, so we can all learn and grow by sharing with each other.


Barth, R. (1990). Improving schools from within: teachers, parents, and principals can make the difference. San Francisco :Jossey-Bass,1990.

Joyce, B. & Showers, B. (2002). Student achievement through staff development, 3rd edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Palmer, Parker (1998). The courage to teach. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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One Response to “Professional Development and School Reform by Karen Smith”

  1. Rebeckah Winans on 12/7/08 8:31 PM US/Eastern

    Professional development for today’s classroom should reflect the sense of urgency that exists in today schools. Rigor in PD should be exponentiated in order to respond to the need and challenges that today’s students present to the teacher working in the room — it cannot just be taking coursework to receive a degree. In reality, teachers are required to meet the need of the ‘average’ student by using a core program, while also implementing ‘tier two’ or supplemental programs that will remediate and/or extend learning to gifted children within the same classroom. In fact, to be an excelling school, all three are required and demanded in reading, math and writing. Such is required while they are implementing and responding to current formative data. PD opportunities must be marching in real time alongside the action of the classroom. Lecture and reading which can be a passive passing of the knowledge will not serve the present teacher, consequently failing today’s students. Instead, PD must be modeling, engaging and demanding immediate application. To do otherwise is passe and provides a failing model that will not cause reform or prepare teachers for today’s classrooms.

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