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Topic: "'Critical Mass' necessary for the success of a project"

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Topic started by: John Shannon on 11/21/13

I am trying to research if there is a 'critical mass' of participation necessary to ensure the ongoing success of a project. Some of the factors that we think might comprise the 'critical mass' are the amount of PD for the teachers and the number of teachers participating in the school, district, or subject We all know that the more people involved the greater the chances of the project continuing, but has anyone evaluated this to see if a certain amount of participation must be maintained to ensure the future success of a project?

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This topic has 6 posts, showing all.

Systems Thinking

posted by: Thomas Peters on 11/22/2013 8:46 am

Critical mass is not just about is about involving the "right' people. Our point of reference is Everett Rogers' work on Diffusion of Innovations. Shirley Hord has also written quite a bit about implementing change in school systems...which is the kind of work we've been doing here in SC for 20 years. We've not found any magic in quantity...other than the number of persons involved at any level in the system has to be greater than 1.

Critical Mass

posted by: Mary Govan on 11/22/2013 8:54 am

It is not the amount of PD that matters but the quality of PD. Make sure that you do not include the activities that the participants already aware of and doing them in their classrooms.

The amount of time also important. Take in consideration that the participants are teachers and they spend a lot of time already and are exhausted.

Building relationships helps a lot to get the people to participate.

Include Administrators in the PD so that they will have an idea what to look for when they observe a science teacher and also helps the participants to see the participation of their admininstrator can encourage them to continue to attend.

Critical Mass

posted by: Dave Weaver on 11/22/2013 11:00 am

We have not done research in this matter but have made it a target for several MSP projects that I have been involved with as an evaluator. In these cases the school is the unit of change which means that the project must impact a critical mass of teachers in the school before the project will have a measurable impact on student achievement. We generally target 80% participation of the targeted teachers, but depending upon the size of the school, we have had to reduce that target to as low as 60%.

To acomplish this we recruit schools, rather than individual teachers, I am convinced that this approach is the best for kids because it helps make their overall learning experience more coherent from teacher to teacher and raises the quality of instruction across the board rather than in isolated pockets. However, there are many schools that lack the organizational structure to improve instructional practice schoolwide. Although it is best for the kids, the adults in the school are more into private practice, where they can do their own thing. In schools where private practice of teachers is sanctioned, it is very difficult to engage the critical mass of teachers necessary for school wide imiprovement. In this case projects must first address the school culture or else professional development efforts in that school can only hope to impact a small number of individual teachers which has little or no chance of impacting instruction schoolwide.

Critical Mass - School Capacity and Vision

posted by: Joni Falk on 11/22/2013 11:21 am

Thanks for starting this topic! You ask if there is "a 'critical mass' of participation necessary to ensure the ongoing success of a project." I think it might be helpful to think about critical mass not in terms of numbers of teachers... but rather full buy in from administrators and teachers. The school vision and culture needs to support the changes advocated. And moreover, other reforms that are happening concurrently need to not conflict with the effort.

I think Richard Elmore writes cogently about organizational capacity. I quote from his article (that can be accessed in full on MSPnet see: )

""Returning to the relationship between professional development and organizational capacity, the Cohen, et al. model explains why investment in professional development by low-capacity schools and school systems often has no effect or a negative effect on morale and performance. Professional development affects teachers, that is, its use assumes that giving teachers new skills and knowledge enhances the capacity of teachers to teach more effectively. But, if it consists only of that, it is likely to have a modest-to-negative effect because the teacher usually returns to a classroom and a school in which the conditions of instruction and the conditions of work are exactly the same as when the he or she began the professional development. The students are exactly the same. The content is exactly the same, or only slightly altered by the new materials introduced through the professional development. The teacher begins to teach and discovers that the ideas that seemed plausible during training don't seem to work in the school or classroom context. The "real world," in the language of teachers, overwhelms the new idea, no matter how powerful or well demonstrated in theory. If this professional development cycle is run repeatedly, it produces a negative reinforcement pattern. Teachers become cynical about any new idea when no previous new idea has worked. The low capacity in this situation is the inability of the organization to support the teacher in navigating the complex interactions among the new skills and knowledge he/she has acquired, existing patterns of student engagement, and the modifications to curricula and content that may be necessary to execute the new practices in this particular setting with these particular students.

Under these circumstances, it is a gargantuan task for a teacher to actually improve his or her practice: She would have to assimilate the new knowledge and skill at a relatively high level of understanding (how one does that without actually practicing the skill repeatedly is a mystery, like learning to fly an airplane or play tennis by reading a book or watching a video tape). Immediately, she would have to transfer that knowledge into a setting in which student responses are highly unpredictable, and probably predictably disappointing on the first try.
And she would somehow have to invent the curriculum materials that are necessary to align the new skill to the particular classroom: All this in real time. It seems, on its face, absurd to expect anything other than a pro forma response to this kind of professional development."

Thanks again for starting the conversation!

post updated by the author 11/22/2013

Number of hours of PD?

posted by: Joni Falk on 11/22/2013 11:34 am

I have heard this question many times, and of course it will depend on many factors... the nature of the PD, the preparedness and motivation of the teachers, the context, etc. Several people have addressed this issue in the MSP community and it would be great to hear from many of them. There have been talks by Iris Weiss, Joan Pasley, Dan Heck, Richard Elmore and others that have touched on this question.

While the minimum number of hours have varied in papers that I have read there is broad agreement that sustained professional development works better and is necessary for achieving results. Also that continued access to resources, experts, and collegial support is also necessary.

I provide a quote from a synthesis of the research on PD
written by Thomas R. Guskey, Kwang Suk Yoon
entitled:Impact of MSP Professional Development on the Quality of Instruction in Middle-School Mathematics & Science Classrooms.

The full paper is posted on MSPnet

"Mary Kennedy (1998) showed, in fact, that differences
in the time spent in professional development
activities were unrelated to improvements in student
outcomes. Why? Presumably because doing ineffective
things longer does not make them any better.

In this analysis, time was found to be a crucial factor
to success. While the number of contact hours
ranged widely, from five to over 100 hours depending
on the study, those initiatives that showed positive effects
included 30 or more contact hours. It thus seems
clear that effective professional development requires
considerable time, and that time must be well organized,
carefully structured, purposefully directed, and
focused on content or pedagogy or both."

post updated by the author 11/27/2013

Critical Mass contd.

posted by: Sara Silver on 11/25/2013 8:49 am

Dave, many thoughtful responses to your initial question. To these I'll add another ingredient: follow-up technical assistance (TA). Even with admin buy in, and a cohort of PD participants from the same building, once the classroom door closes, the teacher is likely to be doing his or her thing. Here is where customized TA comes in. There needs to be an agent of support that this teacher can consult with, can model, can co-teach with- someone who is trusted to review the teacher's practive to ensure fidelity of new PD implementation. This kind of TA will increase the likelihood that the critical mass of project participants in a building are in fact carrying out the PD as intended. Often times, the school/district organization doesn't have the resources to create such a position, but there are different models being employed with some success. Finally, this TA provider must have attended the MSP PD.