The effectiveness of outside experts in professional development in Jewish schools has been questioned in light of scholarly critique of this approach. This case study examines the sociocultural context of one such long-term project aimed at school improvement through early childhood (EC) curriculum development. The research identifies cultural and organizational factors contributing to the effectiveness of the outside expert's 7-year involvement in the project. Qualitative methods include teacher and administrator interviews, artifacts, and field notes. Findings stress the importance of shared values, collaborative learning, teacher autonomy, and supportive school leadership for success of this professional development model.
Conclusions and Recommendations
This particular study was limited to one curriculum improvement initiative in one school. Therefore, the validity of the findings may be limited to similar contexts. As each Jewish day school is uniquely situated in its own sociocultural community, the circumstances of professional development can be expected to vary from school to school. A further limitation of the study relates to the timing of the interviews, which were executed in the 7th year of the program. A more reliable data collection would have included interviewing the teachers over the entire 7-year period. Given these limitations, we offer some conclusion which may be applicable not only to Jewish day schools, but professional development in other schools as well.
Our findings show that an outside expert can be effective to the extent that he pays attention to the culture of the school with which he works. The school leadership must recognize the outside agent's knowledge of the subject matter as well as the school's philosophy of learning and teaching. Hand in hand, the outside expert must demonstrate his understanding of these elements by his work with the local leadership and the staff. Teacher buy-in becomes possible when the proposed reform is framed within existing structures of shared values. Elements of this buy-in include involving the teachers at an early stage of the program's development, granting the teachers autonomy to implement the program independently in their own classrooms, and empowering them with knowledge of the subject matter on an adult level. An operative framework of shared values is a strength which can be enlisted for curriculum change. In addition, existing networks of collaborative learning can contribute to the change initiative. To the extent that the outside expert builds collaborative learning into the program, the teacher's involvement is enhanced and their identification with the program is increased. Lastly, an extended time frame provides school leaders and teachers the opportunity to learn and develop, as well as to shape the program to the needs of the learners. This condition is beyond the control of the outside expert and thus difficult to achieve. In the context of fast-paced curriculum reform, the demand for quick results characterizes much of the school improvement efforts currently in operation. However, a long-term perspective can be advantageous. As quality schools continue to seek improvement through the involvement of outside experts, the rigorous study of these initiatives can lead to their improved efficacy.