School Instructional Program Coherence: Benefits and Challenges

January, 2001
Fred M. Newmann, BetsAnn Smith, Elaine Allensworth, and Anthony S. Bryk
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This report is one of a series of special topic reports developed by the Chicago Annenberg Research Project. It discusses an important reason why schools involved in multiple improvement initiatives do not always improve their students' achievements. It introduces the concept of instructional program coherence and presents new evidence that students in Chicago elementary schools with stronger program coherence show higher gains in student achievement. The report suggests ways in which school leaders, school improvement partners, and policy makers can act to bring about the instructional coherence that will reward their school improvement efforts.


This report addresses three general questions about teacher professional development in Chicago. First, what is effective teacher professional development? Second, to what extent do Chicago teachers experience effective professional development and where is there need for improvement? Third, what sources, means of delivery, and organiza-tional supports, particularly at the school level, promote effective professional development? We present a model that defines effective professional development by frequent participa-tion, quality pedagogy, and extended exposure to appropriate content. Analyzing data from 1997 and 1999 citywide teacher surveys, we found that professional development so defined is positively related to classroom instruction and to school-level orientation toward innovation.

We found encouraging evidence that Chicago teacher participation in professional de-velopment increased in 1997 and 1999 and that more teachers are experiencing high qual-ity professional development. Improvement is particularly noteworthy among teachers in Chicago’s lowest-achieving schools and among teachers in small schools. At the same time, we found that professional development experienced by substantial proportions of teachers lacks key pedagogical qualities that make it effective, including time to think about, try out, and evaluate new ideas in their classrooms, follow-up activities, and opportunities to work and learn with teachers from other schools. Moreover, some teachers who need the strongest support from high-quality professional development get less of it. These include high school teachers generally, beginning elementary school teachers, and teachers who work in large schools.

Teachers draw on many sources of professional development but they participate most frequently in school-based activity. We found that when teachers draw on a combination of sources, including teacher networks, external professional groups, and school-based activi-ties, their professional development is overall of higher quality than when they draw prima-rily on only one source. We found greater participation and pedagogical quality than average in professional development experienced by teachers in probation schools and teachers in Annenberg schools, particularly at the elementary school level. Still, professional develop-ment in Chicago remains largely a fragmented and individualistic activity. Finally, we found that the quality of professional development can be promoted by principal leadership, school orientation toward innovation, and the strength of teacher professional community. At the same time, high-quality teacher professional development appears to strengthen these school-level supports in a mutually influential manner.

We conclude that professional development done well can help improve education for Chicago’s students, but effective professional development requires substantial support. Efforts to improve professional development should go beyond simply increasing teacher participation to improving pedagogical quality and promoting extended exposure to useful content. The sources and means by which professional development is delivered to teachers should be carefully assessed. School-level supports, including time, for teacher learning and instructional improvement should also be developed. Finally, attention should be given to how system-level policies and procedures support or constrain effective professional devel-opment and instructional improvement. 

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