Tensions in scaling up effective professional development: Balancing programme integrity and school adaptation
Decades of research have sought to unpack the challenges of balancing programme integrity and school adaptation when taking educational interventions to scale. Professor emeritus Larry Cuban from Stanford University captured this tension perfectly when he famously argued, ‘schools change reforms as much as reforms change schools’ (Cuban, 1998; p. 455). Professional development interventions are bound to be adapted when they are implemented across a large number of schools. Variability is a hallmark of scaling up. However, some modifications can limit or have a detrimental effect on the desired teaching and learning outcomes, while strict adherence can limit uptake and relevance across diverse sites.
In a recent paper, published in Teaching and Teacher Education (Patfield et al., 2022), we explore the tensions between programme integrity and adaptability using case studies of two schools implementing and adapting the successful professional development programme, Quality Teaching Rounds (QTR). QTR was developed in Australia and is currently being implemented in hundreds of schools across the country, as well as overseas. Because it is a pedagogy-focused approach to professional development, it is applicable to all teachers, regardless of the grade/s or subject/s they are teaching or their years of teaching experience.
QTR engages four teachers in a professional learning community where they observe each other teach, followed by deep analysis and collaborative refinement of practice. Usually, a ‘set of Rounds’ occurs over four full days scheduled a week or two apart where each member of the group takes a turn to teach an observed lesson. Rigorous randomised controlled trials have found QTR improves the quality of teaching, teacher morale and student academic achievement (see for example Gore et al., 2021). In both case studies, the core ‘performative’ aspects of QTR were maintained, including completing each recommended step of the QTR process. However, surface-level adaptations caused the programme to look very different in terms of how and why QTR was being implemented. Adaptations included, for example, the filming and distribution of lesson observations within a school, and the shift to a half-day format for each Round. We argue these adaptations eroded underlying ‘ostensive’ principles of the process such as building trust, ensuring confidentiality and showing respect for teachers by providing time for meaningful professional learning. Seemingly slight changes to the enactment of QTR ultimately made the professional development a completely different experience, with significant consequences for teacher learning.
‘Seemingly slight changes to the enactment of Quality Teaching Rounds ultimately made the professional development a completely different experience, with significant consequences for teacher learning.’
Teacher professional development is complex and programmes are much more than their design components or processes. They are also framed by theories of teacher change and underlying mechanisms that articulate how and why teachers are expected to engage in the professional development. Investigating both the ostensive and performative aspects of implementation (Pentland & Feldman, 2005) was critical in understanding the adaptations in our case studies. The ostensive aspect can be thought of as the abstract or general idea of the intervention, manifest in people’s subjective views and understandings, which help make sense of what they are doing and why. For example, in our two case studies, we found that QTR was linked to a climate of accountability at one school, while at the other school, QTR was viewed as a mechanism for enhancing practice. In turn, these views shaped the performative aspects of QTR, which represent the actions taken by people at specific times as they engage in the process. For example, we found that the shift to an intensive half-day format of QTR disrupted teachers’ participation in quality discussions about practice, as they instead simply aimed to complete the professional development.
Our case studies draw attention to the fine line between adaptability and the unintended consequences of adaptation when taking an intervention such as QTR to scale. It is not enough to simply have rote implementation, or fidelity, where surface-level design is maintained (Lewis et al., 2006). Rather, meaningful adoption and the success of scaling efforts requires that educators are aware of both how and why teacher learning occurs. As McDonald et al. (2009, p. 19) note, ‘ignore fidelity and what will you take to scale? Ignore adaptation and your design will crack. This is more than a challenge. It is a dilemma. It can only be managed, never resolved.’
Cuban, L. (1998). How schools change reforms: Redefining reform success and failure. Teachers College Record, 99(3), 453–477. https://doi.org/10.1177/016146819809900301
Gore, J., Miller, A., Fray, L., Harris, J., & Prieto, E. (2021). Improving student achievement through professional development: Results from a randomised controlled trial of Quality Teaching Rounds. Teaching and Teacher Education, 101. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2021.103297
Lewis, C., Perry, R., & Murata, A. (2006). How should research contribute to instructional improvement? The case of lesson study. Educational Researcher, 35(3), 3–14. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189×035003003
McDonald, J., Klein, E., & Riordan, M. (2009). Going to scale with new school designs: Reinventing high school. Teachers College Press.
Patfield, S., Gore, J., & Harris, J. (2022). Scaling up effective professional development: Toward successful adaptation through attention to underlying mechanisms. Teaching and Teacher Education, 116. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2022.103756
Pentland, B. T., & Feldman, M. S. (2005). Organizational routines as a unit of analysis. Industrial and Corporate Change, 14(5), 793–815. https://doi.org/10.1093/icc/dth070