The USA is huge and diverse but a quick glance at Sam Hughes Elementary School in Tuscon, Arizona, can give some idea of how professional development helps teachers, reports Susan Clark

Since the implementation in 2002 of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the major reform which re-authorised the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the emphasis in the United States has been hauled back to basic literacy and maths skills. Since then every state has been is going its own way about achieving it. But while implementation across the states may differ, the new regulations have meant the same thing for every teacher – unsurprisingly, more work.

NCLB (pronounced Nickleby) has heralded a refocus on a predominately outcome-based approach to education, with testing the mainstay of the whole system. This isn’t testing as we know it, which is bad enough, but regular, termly testing combined with ongoing, continuous assessment and benchmarking every 10 weeks. There is hardly a teacher in America who won’t roll their eyes when NCLB is mentioned. And every one of them has faced the uphill struggle of professionally preparing for these tests.

Since 2002, pupils are rated, individual schools are rated and states are rated on how well they are doing. Federal NCBL guidelines require school districts, schools and student groups to improve every year, aiming for a goal of 100% proficiency in math and reading by 2014.

It seems every state is struggling to live up to the president’s expectations, some more than others. Arizona is one of the states struggling, bumping along the bottom of the state league tables. Twenty-three of its school districts have failed the federal standards two years in a row, (around 20%) which means they face the scarily-entitled corrective action. One of those facing the big stick is Tucson Unified School District (TUSD), and under corrective action it could see federal funds withheld, the curriculum rewritten and employees ‘replaced’.

Sam Hughes Elementary School

Sam Hughes Elementary School, based in a residential area of the city, faces these punitive measures even though it has been recognised nationally for its high standards and is classed as an excelling school.

‘We have no idea what it means for us,’ says its principal of seven years, Roseanne DeCesari. ‘We have been reaching the standards but we may face having our whole curriculum changed and more.’

Built in 1927, the school was named after a self-taught Welsh immigrant who established the first public education system in the then Arizona Territory in 1871. Now his school is a fair reflection of the city. Nearly 50% of pupils are classified as white, while 38% are Hispanic or Latino. The rest of the pupils come from a wide range of ethnic groups: American Indian, Black or African American and Asian/Pacific Islander. Ten different languages are spoken at the school. In recognition of the diversity of its schools, Arizona recently demanded all its teachers participate in a Sheltered English Immersion programme for 60 hours over two years. This is on top of the federally contracted 45 hours of PD every teacher must complete over any six-year period.

Sam Hughes has worked the immersion programme into its weekly professional education (PD) sessions, which are held on Wednesday afternoons, when the District closes all its schools an hour early specifically for teacher PD.

Having this time has been good for teachers, and all credit to Arizona for ensuring its teachers have above the minimum PD time within their contracted hours. But with little support from the TUSD, which has pared down its PD department to a handful of people, the onus has fallen on school principals in Tucson to design and deliver PD to all their staff. To help them, every school is given good quality teaching materials related to specific areas of the curriculum and, more importantly, is allocated an instructional coach.

Sam Hughes is lucky, as it has only 14 teachers; at other schools there may be as many as 100 teachers, but still only one instructional coach. The school is also lucky in who they were allocated – Dr Kathleen McDonough, a specialist in special needs education and literacy. Over the past year she has worked closely with Ms DeCesari to identify where support is needed and how to provide it.

Besides working through the English Immersion programme, the teachers are also involved in other PD tied into the School Accountability Plan (SAP). Arizona introduced a new reading scheme to schools three years ago, the Harcourt Adoption programme and teachers have had PD looking at how to deliver it most effectively. The teachers are also working through Skillful Teacher Instructional Strategies, technology integration, led by Ms DeCesari, Dr Donough and the teacher committee, and the Robert J Marzano system – Classroom Instruction That Works.

‘We began by choosing a particular topic chapter from Marzano, and Dr McDonough and I presented a workshop. Then we got the teachers to choose topics, and then some of them presented workshops on those topics,’ says Ms DeCesari.

The teachers also meet weekly with the other same grade level teachers for a 90-minute grade level planning meeting, which is attended by Ms DeCesari and Dr McDonough.

‘This is an opportunity to develop lesson plans and new teaching approaches,’ explains Dr McDonough. She acts as link to external PD as well as driving internal PD, encouraging teachers to take advantage of other courses and training. Often cover for classes is paid, so giving teachers freedom to train, and in return they cascade their knowledge to colleagues at the Wednesday sessions or grade level meetings. For example, the district is offering a maths investigation workshop during the summer holidays, which Dr McDonough hopes, at least one of Sam Hughes teachers will accept. It comes with a carrot of $2,000 for attending, plus time off next year to attend refresher classes. This teacher will then pass on his or her learning to colleagues.

Not so different

Like any headteacher in the UK, as Ms DeCesari talks she is able to pull out from files and drawers copious amounts of paperwork detailing PD in her school. Everything is minutely planned and documented. She also pulls out a large textbook entitled Courageous Conversations about Race, which the state has earmarked for PD for next year. It hangs heavily in her hand, obviously dripping with complexities menacingly too great for a busy principal to deal with. Ms DeCesari laughs, making a quip about retirement, as she re-files the book. America is not so different to the UK.