Formed in 2019, the DEEP Consortium is a community of 17 independent providers of professional development that came together around a simple, yet lofty, vision: to learn from each other about effective practice and to leverage our collective wisdom and experience to advance the field of Jewish education as a whole. Though our individual missions, objectives and models vary—from introducing technology into classrooms to generating effective teacher collaboration to employing new curricula—we share the common goal of boosting the capacity of day schools to furnish the next generation of Jews with the highest-quality education possible.
We hold fast to the belief that the purpose of professional development is to promote deep and lasting change in schools, and we do so by engaging every school as a partner, ready to join honestly and fully in the collaborative enterprise of setting goals, driving real growth and, ultimately, elevating education for all students. We do not succeed unless the schools we work with succeed.
As such, we continually ask ourselves and the educators with whom we work a question: How do we ensure that fresh curricula or pedagogies or structures are adopted by the whole community and live on, long after we’ve left the building? Based on our decades of work in the field, here are lessons for building sustained impact.
Setting the Stage
The foundational awareness we bring to our work is the “power dynamic” in which we operate. As external providers, we cannot actually institute any modifications in a school’s educational program; we can only guide educators (administrators and faculty) to adopt and implement those modifications. As Debra Drang of Sulam puts it, “We have influence. We do not have control.”
Our initial task is to help educators to grasp the opportunities that exist to enhance their current sets of behaviors and expectations around student learning. Then, we must illuminate how making changes to those behaviors and expectations will improve student learning and growth. Though we each come to schools with different programs and emphases, we face the common challenge (and opportunity) of getting educators to embrace a growth mindset, where all strive to modify practice. Once we are able to inspire that desire for the new and demonstrate to our school partners how we can help them to realize their newly elevated aspirations, real change can begin.
The Pivotal Role of School Leaders
The possibility of implementing a novel program or structure in schools rises or falls with those who hold a position to empower change. When school leaders make transformed practice a priority and describe why such modifications in instruction or infrastructure or policies are necessary for student growth, all the rest follows more easily. But we’ve found that leaders must do more than state clearly their commitment; they must also constantly demonstrate it.
What does the demonstrated commitment of school leadership look like? The specifics vary, of course, but some examples offered by DEEP members include:
• Facilitating sessions to analyze the current educational program and building consensus around how to address areas of growth (Gateways)
• Participating in trainings in new instructional practices alongside teachers (Sulam)
• Attending and contributing to teacher collaboration meetings to discuss student progress (Hidden Sparks)
• Championing the progress and/or impact of implemented changes to the board, parents and donors (Hebrew at the Center)
Of course, the most vital step leaders can take is to hold staff accountable for implementing the newly introduced practices. For example, in formal or informal performance reviews, leaders can set the expectation that these innovations are now a core piece of teachers’ responsibilities. Likewise, in faculty meetings or teacher collaboration sessions, leaders can insert the reporting on the new practice(s) as a standing agenda item. In so doing, school leaders effectively turn our influence into a locus of control.
Though differing in specific aims, DEEP members share an objective to induce educators to refine their practice, a process rooted in shifting what teachers should expect to do in and out of classrooms to optimize student learning. The only way to alter instructional practice is repeatedly to engage in activities that diverge from established habits. It is key to set aside the time needed for practice and reflection to take place. Over time, these different behaviors then become the new set of habits.
The kind of opportunities that DEEP members promote include:
• Establishing communities of practice where teachers can candidly analyze what works and what does not and build consensus around specific practices (Pedagogy of Partnership)
• Developing ongoing coaching (both internal and from our experts) to provide consistent feedback and practice (Jewish Interactive)
• Creating high-dosage training to sufficiently change perspective and provide concrete strategies (Sulam)
• Implementing varied modes of training (in-house workshops, cross-school training, individualized coaching) all rooted in the same methodology and using consistent language (Center for Educational Technology)
As external providers, we depend upon our school partners to ensure that these opportunities for practice happen. And, within the school, only leadership can put these in place and hold staff accountable for participating. In turn, we rarely work with schools through “one and done” engagements; our interventions extend over a substantial period of time.
Reform of school practices is almost always gradual. Because of the elongated process of setting goals and developing consensus around changes needed, because learning new habits takes time and practice, and indeed, because growth in student learning can itself be difficult to measure in the short term, educators should not expect the introduction of novel instructional practices or curricular innovations to generate immediate impact. For that matter, school leaders should not expect that teachers will make rapid adjustments in practice. The success of experimentation with new pedagogy must be measured in years, not weeks or months.
This truth can certainly undercut the likelihood interventions will “stick” if school leaders, board members, parents or staff grow impatient with the pace of change. Resisting the temptation to decide something is not working when results are hard to discern can become exceedingly difficult.
As external partners, then, our task is twofold. First, we must lay out realistic timelines for detecting the impact of changed practices. These may include detailed benchmarks—which typically entail a mix of both concrete data and staff perceptions—whereby school professionals can take stock of where they are in the process. These checkpoints essentially form a roadmap of how much work has been done and, in turn, how much is yet to be done until the new curriculum or pedagogy or process can be considered fully embedded within the educational program of the school.
Second, as seasoned observers of the slow road to progress and successful innovation, we often need to act as cheerleaders. The gradual—not to mention erratic—nature of implementing school innovations can take a psychological toll on school professionals. They may, at times, even feel like Sisyphus pointlessly pushing a boulder up the mountain if they perceive that their work to change practice is not yielding improved results in their students’ learning. It then becomes our job to encourage persistence and assure these educators that change is on the horizon, if they continue to push forward.
Of course, we would not provide such an upbeat assessment if we did not honestly sense such potential for success. Indeed, there are times when schools are not achieving delineated benchmarks, and we must push educators to undertake significant revisions to their work plan. Knowing when to encourage persistence and when to shift course is one of the principal ways in which our expertise and partnership reveals itself.
Sustainability: The Ultimate Goal
What happens to all our efforts to strengthen educational practice in individual schools after we leave? Frankly, this question nags at us perhaps most of all, for while it may seem to school folks that we stand as somewhat detached (at least, emotionally) from their in-school work, we are, in truth, as invested in their success as the school educators themselves. This shared investment is what it means to be a partner.
To help promote the endurance of practices, we have found a number of strategies to be effective:
• Embedding in-school experts to continue the implementation of practices or programs.
• Providing ongoing access to a range of resources that we produce to support educators’ instruction.
• Leaving schools with concrete plans for continuous improvement and next steps.
• Encouraging “graduates” of the program to continue and build on their professional development with our own organizations or others.
In the end, we accept that we cannot guarantee that the effects of our interventions within individual schools will endure. But we move forward with the confidence that if we have been able to work with invested leaders and these leaders have built an accountability structure to maintain (and continue to enhance) an effective set of behaviors, all while preserving the long view along the winding path of reform, then the school’s capacity to educate will grow stronger. In no small measure, our partnership for bringing about deep and lasting change will have been worth the effort.
DEEP stands for Developing Embedded Expertise Programs. Contributors to this article include the Center for Educational Technology, Hebrew at the Center, Hidden Sparks, Jewish Interactive, Pedagogy of Partnership, Sulam, Jewish Education Innovation Challenge and Gateways: Access to Jewish Education.