Staff Development and School Improvement

By Foster B. Gibbs

The relationship between the Saginaw Public Schools and the University of Michigan is one that has had a tremendous impact on teaching and learning in an urban school district, and can serve as a road map for school districts seeking systemic change through successful staff development partnerships. Saginaw is beset by the same urban problems and issues that affect cities throughout the county. According to census data, Saginaw is the seventh poorest city in the United States, with nearly one in three of its 70,000 citizens living below the poverty line. The Saginaw Public Schools have an enrollment of 13,500 students, two­thirds of whom are minority. Nearly 75 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Many of our students come to school without desirable conditions for learning. Many have little or no hope or vision of their future. Yet despite demographics that would suggest otherwise, the district has earned a statewide reputation for quality schools, innovative programs and financial stability. It hasn't happened by accident and we didn't accomplish it alone.

When I was named Superintendent of Schools in Saginaw in 1978, public education was beleaguered. Coleman, Jencks and other university researchers were telling us that schools couldn't make a difference in the lives of poor children, that socio­economic factors controlled their destiny. The situation became magnified in 1983 with the publication of "A Nation At Risk" and dozens of other studies eager to spotlight the so­called "failings of American public education." For teachers in districts like Saginaw, the constant criticism of urban schools cut deeply.

It took the "effective schools" research of Edmonds, Eurick, Lazotte and Brookover and others, to re­focus the nation on the belief that all children can learn, even those from the most economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and that schools can make a difference if they concentrate on the variables that lead to academic success. In Saginaw Schools, the work of Edmonds and others triggered our first ten­year plan for school improvement and we began to seek out staff development and training programs to support our work. At the same time, we were strengthening our school improvement infrastructure, which already included a research, testing and evaluation capability to enhance our data based decision making and a zero base budgeting process that enabled us to direct our financial resources to the highest priority needs of the district.

As we expanded and sharpened the tools of change, we began to see results. Test scores began to increase. Morale began to improve. Our dropout rate began to drop dramatically. We began to see that a staff development program linked to specific school improvement concepts could have a positive impact on student achievement and staff performance. But we also knew that in order to achieve fundamental, long­term, systemic change, it was crucial that our staff development efforts focus on not just arming teachers with the latest theories and techniques but on empowering them as professionals. The traditional approach to staff development could carry us only so far.

The UM Connection

In the mid 1980s, we began to design a staff development program that would support fundamental organizational change. We set out to find individuals who shared our optimism in the future of urban education and who had a "break­the­mold" attitude. At the University of Michigan' s Center for Educational Improvement Through Collaboration (CEIC), we were fortunate to find a group of university people who were looking to forge a similar relationship with public education. Dr. Jay Robinson and Dr. Patti Stock believed that staff development was a two­way street, that public school teachers and university professors could learn from each other. What evolved was a symbiotic relationship: They had the content knowledge; we had the experience of teaching in an urban setting. The University of Michigan team presented themselves to our staff as colleagues, not experts, in the same way we envisioned our teachers working with their students.

Saginaw's association with the University of Michigan began a decade ago with a seminar for teachers and administrators, entitled "Thinking About Thinking in Michigan," through which staff and UM professors had the opportunity to simply discuss issues and share opinions about a variety of topics. Out of this seminar grew the idea of teachers as researchers who could contribute to their profession in ways they had not yet imagined.

The first major partnership between Saginaw Schools and the University of Michigan was a high school language arts collaboration entitled "The Assessment of Writing Project." While improved student writing was the overt focus of this effort, it was apparent from the beginning that a new method of staff development, linked to instructional improvement, was taking shape in the classrooms. Dr. Robinson and Dr. Stock were in our classrooms, teaching and modeling behavior and learning from our teachers and students. They were working with our teachers in the same way we wanted our teachers to work with students as colleagues in learning. The UM team walked the halls of our two high schools, got to know the students, taught classes alone and in tandem with their teaching partners, marveled at some students' abilities, agonized over ways to reach others who struggled academically, and attended staff meetings and school events.

The most visible products of this ten­year association are two anthologies The Bridge, published in 1988, and Footsteps, published in 1991 based on the real­life experiences of students in our two high schools. The most long­lasting product, however, continues to be the rejuvenated and re­focused teachers in our schools who will never go back to the traditional methods of teaching.

Not long after the start of the Writing Project, we approached another University of Michigan professor, Dr. Bill Stapp of the Department of Natural Resources, who had developed an approach to teaching environmental science using a similar hands­on, applied, real­world, team­oriented process. Dr. Stapp also became a part of our schools, working with teachers to design and implement a water quality testing program that would have as its classrooms the Saginaw River and its tributaries. Through this project we realized the importance of expanding our staff development efforts to include business and industry representatives. Teachers, university instructors and industry professionals, with General Motors taking the lead role, began to change the way we deliver science education to our elementary, middle school and high school students, taking them out of their textbooks and into a real life situation that included the quality of the water they depend on for daily living. Students from our most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, and their teachers, were working side­by­side with university instructors and chemists, environmental engineers and water quality specialists as partners in learning. The Saginaw River Project, which involves hundreds of students each year, has become nationally recognized for its innovative approach to teaching and learning. More importantly, our staff has found new ways of teaching science and motivating reluctant learners through a collaborative approach.

What We've Learned

Through our work with the University of Michigan, and subsequently Michigan State University and Saginaw Valley State University, we have developed a set of guiding principles for staff development. They include the following:

Problems to Overcome

The first problem we had to address was at titudinal. There was a natural skepticism on the part of staff that this was simply another new program brought to the district by someone with something to sell. The skepticism began to fade when staff discovered that this partnership with the University of Michigan was different and that it had utility for them as classroom teachers. They found out that these university people were not going to hand them a program and leave but that they were going to be in the classrooms with them, working side­by­side.

A second problem, and one we continue to wrestle with, is making time for training. The current school day structure makes it difficult to provide the training that is needed. We need an eight­hour, on­ site workday without expanded caseloads, in order to accomplish the types of professional development that are required. Until that is achieved, we need to find creative ways to incorporate training programs during the school day without continually pulling teachers out of their classrooms. Until an eight­hour workday becomes a reality, we will be forced to create whatever training opportunities we can for staff, during school, after school and during the summer.

The Future

This new approach to staff development has evolved over the past decade to encompass many areas of the school district. Dr. Stock, who later joined the staff of Michigan State University as head of the Writing Center, continued to be involved in our district through the "Write For Your Life" project, through which students and teachers together explore experience­based writing that focuses on health issues. A number of our teachers have been involved for the past three years in the National Writing Project through Saginaw Valley State University. We have since developed several tri­partnerships with business/industry and higher education that bring diverse human resources into our schools to work directly with teachers and students on an ongoing basis. More and more of our staff renewal efforts are targeted to meet the needs of individual school improvement plans and classroom teachers. Teachers play a major role in designing these activities. Such professional development changes lives and empowers teachers and students. Schools can't accomplish this reform alone. Through multi­level partnerships we can have a positive impact on the lives of inner city youth.

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