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The Whole Package: A Systems Approach to Literacy Professional Development

We have a national reading crisis where 37% of our students are reading at a below-basic level in 4th grade, according to the most recent NAEP data. We can all agree this is unacceptable.

However, we can’t agree on how reading should be taught in schools. I have argued (although I shouldn’t have to argue) that research and evidence should guide our decision-making for curriculum and instruction.

Additionally, there is much debate about whether or not future teachers are prepared with proper knowledge on how to teach reading upon graduation. Schools and teachers would say no, and many higher education organizations would say they are preparing future teachers effectively. I trust the feedback from the boots on the ground in schools, but I will save that for another blog.

What are schools to do? The most frequent and trusted response is to train the teachers. We certainly can't blame students, so as reflective practitioners, we find areas for growth and participate in the proper conferences, workshops, and modules. And there is some INCREDIBLE training for teachers that digs deep into the complexities of teaching reading and writing. Many gold standard opportunities give the teachers the content knowledge they need and the practical tools to make this come alive in an ongoing and systematic process that fosters learning. As a result, more students start to read at grade level.

Problem solved. Blog over.

If only it were that simple.

What happens when those teachers move to other districts? Or the budget gets tight? Or administration shuffles? Old habits creep back. Old programs and resources resurface. New teachers are left to guess. And reading scores slowly dip back to their pre-PD levels. That is if the proper systems aren’t in place.

For a school to be successful and for kids to learn, imagine a gear system. Each gear needs to turn to move the subsequent gears. If one stops, they all stop. It is a concert of individual parts working in harmony for progress. In schools, various components make up the “gears” of the system. Sustainable growth happens only when each gear is oiled to support and move each other.

Ok, I don’t know the first thing about machinery (which is likely apparent by now), and this analogy is growing a bit tired. So let’s shift gears (the last one, I promise) and discuss how to nurture the whole system for literacy growth.


Administrators deserve training, too. They were all teachers once, and many incurred the same prep programs that teachers are now reporting left them ill-prepared. They can only lead instructional growth with a respectable knowledge of best practices in instruction, and administrative programs typically do not have a component addressing a deep knowledge of teaching and learning. Whether they participate in the same training as teachers or have a program tailored to administrators, they have to be current with their knowledge to lead their building to instructional growth properly.

Common Goals:

A school or district must speak the same language about growth. A common goal drives everyone’s focus and informs all the work for the year. You might think, “Well, yes, this is what our school improvement plan does.” But does it? Goals are more than 10-page documents with charts and graphs, more than a PDF posted on a website, more than a document shared with the Superintendent for approval, and much more than an agenda item for a Board of Education meeting. Goals are a common understanding among everyone in the organization that drives focus and informs and impacts all of the work you do for a given period. If this goal cannot be named or explained by every stakeholder, then it likely will not make the intended impact.

We wonder, if a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound? We should also wonder if a goal is only words bulleted on a plan; does it make an impact?

Professional Learning:

Once a goal is set, all professional learning should be planned to support this goal. In an effective system, professional learning becomes much more than activities on a PD day. Instead, it leverages every planned instance that staff is together as a learning opportunity. PLCs, staff meetings, data teams, MTSS meetings all become professional learning and connect back to the goal.

Observation and Feedback:

A goal is set, and learning is happening. Now, accountability measures must be in place to be sure we are putting the learning into practice. I know what you are thinking: accountability is a bad word in education. But it shouldn’t be. It is reasonable to check in to be sure we are doing what we said we would do and implementing what we are learning. Keep in mind I am talking about an organization that has made the goals and expectations crystal clear. When teachers know what they are supposed to do, they do it, so accountability becomes an affirmation that you are applying your learning and/or coupled with feedback about how to improve that. Another reminder: I am talking about an organization where administrators deeply understand best practices in instruction and speaking the same language as teachers.

Data analysis:

So all of this is in place, is it working? The only way to know is by looking at data. We can talk about our actions all day, but when the rubber hits the road, the only thing that matters is if teachers use effective practices and if more students are reading at grade level. Data can be many things. It doesn’t always have to be test scores. Common formative assessments are incredibly informative about student learning. Classroom observations can also be a data collection mechanism about practices teachers are using (and can be done anonymously). Walkthroughs with teachers and admin also provide a bigger picture of whether or not growth is happening.

All of this work should be cyclical. At eduFocusPLC we use a proven process to engage in this professional learning systems work. The model below shows how one step leads to the next and the cycle for continuous improvement.

It’s not enough to only train teachers. They are the boots on the ground and crucial to the success of our students, but they cannot thrive in a clunky, scattershot system. Growth will happen with explicit and systematic processes that intentionally work towards common goals.

That reminds me of an effective curriculum. Interesting connection😏

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