Through the Looking Glass (with evaluative thinking!): How professional learning solutions implicitly blame teachers

The power of evaluative thinking.

Dr. Jane Davidson and educational systems change expert Joanne McEachen explain how sometimes the obvious solution is not in fact the right solution at all.

Even if it’s part of what’s needed, there are systemic issues in play that must be addressed as well.

Powerful insights to share with leaders you work with, whatever the sector.


Through the looking glass:

How professional learning solutions implicitly blame teachers.

It’s estimated in 2016 over one trillion of taxpayer and philanthropic dollars will be invested in the US education system of which a large proportion is dedicated to professional learning.

To put this into perspective, $18,000 is invested in professional learning per teacher each year.  A study found that in the 50 largest school districts a total of $8 billion is spent on teacher development every year.

Vast figures in anyone’s language.  But it hasn’t shifted the needle.  It’s not working.


Leaders are purchasing simplistic solutions and then hitting the set and forget button – the waste is astronomical and, more importantly, letting our teachers and kids down.

Leaders often assume change only happens at the chalkface/smartboard. The overwhelming majority of solutions are aimed at teachers and the tools they use in the classroom, or at pull-out programs that take kids out of the classrooms.

The implicit message here is that it is always the teachers’ fault when kids don’t achieve.

This attitude completely fails to recognize that teachers work within a system called a school; schools function within a system called a district; districts exist within a system called a state; the State Department of Education operates within a system called Federal Government and its educational policies.

These are symbiotic relationships, all part of an “edusystem”.

Every entity within the edusystem has a profound effect on the other – these can be either limiting/disabling or enabling/empowering to the people that work within it.

Simply asking or teaching teachers to do things differently doesn’t work when there are powerful forces that perpetuate the status quo and run counter to the new behavior.

Here’s an example. One of the most powerful changes a teacher can make is to personalize learning so that it unlocks the interest and potential of each individual kid. But the pressures against making such a change are enormous. Curriculum pacing guides, high stakes testing, and test practice worksheets all implicitly compel teachers to cover all the required content and “teach to the test”.

To be part of the solution, districts need to ascertain what they are doing to hold schools and principals back from unleashing the passion and talent of their teachers to do what they know is right for the learners sitting right in front of them.

Traditional discussions of hierarchical leadership focus on whether change should be driven top-down or bottom-up. But in today’s edusystem the power to change is in the center, The Districts and the States.  Let’s admit it, there is little that can be done at Federal level.  State, district, and school leaders are close enough to the chalkface that positive change can be felt by your constituencies, the teachers and kids. You have more power at that level than you may realize.

Try turning the telescope around to look at the District rather than complaining about how the State and Federal systems have your hands tied – in military terms a ‘SNAFU’.  The status quo will remain as long as you allow it with no intervention.  Manage across and down; influence the edusystem around you. Take the reins and lead.


Dr. Jane Davidson (right) & Joanne McEachen

Joanne and Jane tweaked

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1 comment to Through the Looking Glass (with evaluative thinking!): How professional learning solutions implicitly blame teachers

  • Terence Beney

    I agree that evaluative thinking (and understanding that there is complex, systemic context in play), should curtail public (over)spending on interventions with limited effect. But for the even broader context, which is that there’s an allocated budget that must be spent on something in response to the perceived crisis in education. An important factor in the decisions to spend on inadequate solutions is that what we know works is not clear; we should be doing better by our policy-makers, providing reliable what works findings that they can reach for confidently and wield to make good decisions with. In 2004 two studies published in the US claimed that not enough was known about what works in education. A dozen years later and the 3ie evidence gap map makes for dismal reading on teacher focussed interventions. We do generate a lot of out out as evaluators and researchers, but it seems we fall short on using our stuff to actually build useable knowledge.