Building a Structure for Literacy Part III: Crafting Coherency in Professional Development
Jamie Williamson, EdS

In the first two articles of this series, I discussed the importance of pairing a solid core reading program with universal screening and pairing a solid intervention program with screening for dyslexia. This article will explore crafting a coherent framework for professional development. 

Imagine two new graduates of the same teacher preparation program—grounded in the Science of Reading—embarking on their first teaching positions: One joins a school that has recently adopted a model of systematic, explicit instruction in reading but has not developed a professional development (PD) framework to implement it; one lands a job at a school with a long history of utilizing research-based curriculum tied to robust professional development with continuous feedback. 

In the first school, the new teacher observes that each of their colleagues seems to approach instruction in a different way, having developed their own teaching materials and methods of instruction. When questions arise, they are not sure who to ask for clarity or even what the established policy is. There is not a consistent routine for observation of new teachers with subsequent feedback. 

In the second school, the new teacher receives intensive professional development prior to the start of school, works closely with a mentor teacher for their first year, and participates in weekly professional development sessions. When they encounter questions, they can address them immediately with the senior teacher or raise them with the larger group during the week’s session. They also receive continuous feedback based on observation of their work in the classroom. Which of these teachers is more likely to remain in the profession long term? Which is more likely to burn out? 

Sadly, this example is fairly common in education. There are vast differences in how effectively administrators and leaders elucidate a shared vision to those in the classroom, how effectively they provide the tools to implement this vision, and how effectively they support teachers in an ongoing and consistent manner. Further, although preservice teachers may be exposed to coursework on scientifically aligned practices of reading instruction, often they do not experience these practices in the field (Solari et al., 2022). This fragmentation—a lack of bridging theory to practice—creates confusion on the part of educators, doing them a grave disservice. In order to support teachers (and by extension, their students) in the way they deserve, educational leaders have a responsibility to create coherent systems, to communicate policies clearly, to connect their strategic plans with day-to-day work in the classroom, and to attend to any environmental factors that impact implementation. 

This fragmentation— a lack of bridging theory to practice—creates confusion on the part of educators, doing them a grave disservice.

Coherent systems, in the context of professional development, are those in which clarity and commitment exist among stakeholders, such as teachers, administrators, and leaders; opportunities for professional learning logistically and organizationally aim to a common goal, both conceptually (entwining theory with practice) and structurally (aligning learning in the context of an overarching framework). 

Addressing Fragmentation in Teacher Preparation Programs 

Coherence begins with unifying coursework and practice at the teacher training level. “Educator preparation programs have the potential to impact both the early career practices of teachers and their career-long engagement with research and evidence-based practices” (Solari et al., 2022). When university-level teacher programs lack a clear vision for their programmatic elements, the result is a fragmented, disjointed learning experience. In some cases, students face directly conflicting approaches to reading instruction; one professor may routinely cite whole language proponents such as Marie Clay, while another professor embraces a direct instruction model as outlined by Louisa Moats (EdWeek Research Center, 2020). One’s student teaching experience may exacerbate confusion: Even if there is a consistent vision of learning put forth by the student’s university coursework, their preservice environment may represent a dichotomous viewpoint to reading instruction. 

By contrast, when universities integrate courses through a defined scope and sequence that builds upon and supports previous coursework, when they align student teaching placements with the school’s chosen methodologies, and when they actively forge connections between the program’s content and its structure, learners reach clarity (Lindvall & Ryve, 2019). The result is a more powerful learning experience and a roadmap that informs decision making for new graduates, as they will be more likely to seek teaching positions that align with their own educational philosophy. 

Achieving coherence at the teacher preparation level involves acknowledging the interrelated pieces of a degree program as well as the importance of designing experiences in the field that parallel theory taught in the classroom. Hammerness (2006) documented the efforts of the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP) to become more coherent during a four-year period (1999-2003). At the outset, they identified several areas of focus: 

  • Establishing a shared, common view: eliminating “contradictory practices and mixed messages” (Fetterman et al., 1999) 
  • Matching school placements to the teaching vision embodied by the program, or selecting placements based on direct firsthand knowledge of the participating school’s and teacher’s practices 
  • Addressing identified gaps in the curriculum, such as student assessment or specific methods for diverse learners 
  • Adjusting the curriculum sequence to reflect the developmental progression of teaching knowledge and skills 
  • Integrating coursework, supervision, and field placements 
  • Directly connecting theory and practice, particularly in foundations courses, with theoretical constructs addressed explicitly and frequently, anchored in activities that help students learn to apply them to their classroom practice 

Hammerness, 2006 

The result of this four-year effort revealed clear progress toward structural and conceptual coherence, both internally and externally to the program. 

The core program faculty developed a vision around which the program could be redesigned, and the vision was clearly and consistently in evidence across key program documents and in interviews with them ... Furthermore, interviews with clinical faculty (such as cooperating teachers and supervisors), who corroborated aspects of the vision and an understanding of program goals, suggested some external conceptual coherence in the program (Hammerness, 2006). 

These changes were also borne out in the practices of program graduates. Observers identified core aspects of the STEP vision in graduates’ practices, despite these individuals having taken different courses. Regardless of their course progression, students encountered consistent messaging around teaching and learning, which enabled them to synthesize the same ideas with practice within their teaching environments. 

Essentially, “programs that have a cohesive focus on what preservice teachers should know and provide opportunities for practice with scaffolded supports and feedback, graduate teachers who feel better prepared, and are more likely to continue teaching (Brownell et al., 2005; Grossman et al., 2009)” (Solari et al., 2022). 

Coherent Professional Development in the School Setting 

Ideally, a teacher receives multiple opportunities to practice in the controlled setting of a teacher training program that prepare them for the cognitive flexibility required in the classroom. Obtaining the depth of content knowledge to facilitate truly effective problem solving in the learning environment is typically outside the scope of a university-level program alone, as “teacher preparation programs are often limited in terms of their length and flexibility” (Solari et al., 2022); I would argue that sustained, robust professional development in the school setting is fundamental to bridge that gap. 

Working Toward a Shared Vision 

Just as it’s critical for students in teacher preparation programs to see their learning as connected and related to a common set of ideas, it’s equally important for teachers to possess a shared vision around professional development with school leadership. Leaders and administrators can evaluate the presence of a shared vision by asking themselves, do all our teachers see themselves in the work? 

The Mississippi Department of Education has shepherded a period of massive growth in literacy outcomes for the state, placing them first in the nation for NAEP gains (NAEP, 2019). Throughout the process, a key facet of achieving buy-in from stakeholders—teachers, administrators, parents, and community members—has been transparency about the target outcomes and consistency in messaging around how to achieve these goals. Whether it’s sharing conceptual understanding of what the science of reading is to families and community members or drilling down into the data when speaking with educators, the message is consistent. In a recent LEAD on READ podcast, State Literacy Director Kristen Wynn explained, “People have to see where they fit into the work” (Scorrano, 2020-present). 

Weaving Together Professional Development Experiences 

Professional development experiences, when not designed for coherence, have the potential to be siloed from one another, missing the key connecting elements that tie the work back to an overarching framework and collective goals. For example, say an elementary teacher participates in the following professional development sessions within a single month: facilitating small-group reading lessons, addressing executive functioning challenges for older students, relationship building with students, and viewing a district-wide presentation on antiracist teaching practices. There is potential for these experiences to feel isolated from one another, or even inconsistent, if there is not an active effort on the part of planners to frame them as interrelated. 

Professional development experiences, when not designed for coherence, have the potential to be siloed from one another, missing the key connecting elements that tie the work back to an overarching framework and collective goals.

Effective professional development, at its core, aims to both (a) improve teacher practices and (b) positively affect student learning outcomes. In order to achieve this, leaders can design a coherent framework by referring to seven critical features, which represent a level of agreement in the field that many regard as consensus (e.g., Desimone, 2009; Penuel et al., 2007; Russell et al., 2009). 

Darling-Hammond (2017) outlined these seven features of effective PD: 

A content focus: Teaching strategies linked to specific curriculum content facilitate teacher learning in the context of the classroom. There is an intentional focus on discipline-specific curriculum development and pedagogies in content areas. 

Active learning: Teachers engage in designing and testing teaching strategies, utilizing the same style of learning as designed for students. Professional learning is highly contextualized and embedded in practice. 

Collective participation: Teachers are more invested in PD experiences when leaders create space for collaboration and sharing of ideas within classroom-specific contexts. 

Modeling of effective practices: Highlighting best practices through curricular models and modeling of instruction help teachers realize a clear vision to apply to their work in the classroom. Models can include lesson and unit plans, observations of senior teachers, and case studies. 

Ongoing coaching: Support through coaching should be focused on observation of a teacher’s practices, as well as feedback directly related to teachers’ individual needs and areas for growth. 

Reflection: “High-quality professional learning frequently provides built-in time for teachers to think about, receive input on, and make changes to their practice by facilitating reflection and soliciting feedback” (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017). 

Sustained duration: Teachers require “adequate time to learn, practice, implement, and reflect upon new strategies that facilitate changes in their practice” (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017). 

At Windward, these seven features are interwoven with all professional development experiences, both at the beginning and throughout each faculty member’s tenure. A primary element is a rigorous mentorship structure: All teachers new to the School, for example, begin as teachers-in-residence. Prior to assuming primary teaching responsibilities, they must successfully complete a one- to two-year training period. Each new faculty member is assigned to a mentor teacher, who explains curriculum and instructional strategies, models effective classroom management techniques, provides guidance, and offers explicit feedback on the teacher-in-residence's professional growth. The culmination of the first year is the Summer Intensive Program (SIP), which is in-depth, collaborative work on different areas of curriculum and lesson planning. 

Mentor teachers, dedicated staff developers, and members of the administrative team also observe teachers-in-residence, both formally and informally, on an established schedule. Reflection by the teachers-in-residence on these observations help to identify areas for growth and refine teaching techniques. 

Weekly professional development sessions for all faculty can include teaching strategies, new research findings, teacher-generated topics, and presentations by experts in a chosen field. Teachers-in-residence receive targeted, weekly PD in addition to these sessions. Throughout the year, teachers attend regular, sustained curriculum staff development meetings and are expected to take an active role in these professional discussions. 

Attending to Environmental Factors Impacting Implementation 

Professional learning is only as effective as the system in which it operates. When examining policy design for professional development through a lens of coherence, leaders must “recognize the interdependence of various aspects of their school...—its culture, systems and structures, resources, stakeholder relationships, and environment—and to understand how they reinforce one another to support the implementation of an improvement strategy” (Public Education Leadership Project, Harvard University, 2023). Key questions administrators and school leaders may consider are 

  • Which systems in place support implementation? 
  • Which systems present areas of challenge? 
  • Are there forces in the educational environment that will affect implementation? 

In the example introducing this article, the first teacher found themselves in a school environment with recent, sweeping changes to curriculum; however, there was not a clearly defined process of de-implementation for the previous programs (For an in-depth discussion of de-implementation, see Danielle Scorrano’s article, "De-implementation in Education: Removing, Reshaping, and Reprioritizing for Reform."). Left to interpret new guidelines independently and apply them to their classrooms, many teachers in this setting likely created an amalgam of potentially conflicting methods, returned to their previous instructional practices out of sheer frustration, or both. The second teacher, working within a coherent professional development framework, experienced clarity around expectations, in addition to support, feedback, and a clear path for professional growth. 

Harvard University, 2023 

Harvard University developed a Public Education Leadership Project (PELP) Coherence Framework (2023) as a tool for reaching and reinforcing coherence, which outlines key elements: 

Instructional core: There are three interdependent elements to the instructional core: teachers’ expertise, student engagement, and challenging program content. 

Theory of Change: What is the organization’s approach to connecting its mission or high-level goals to its strategy to achieve these goals? 

Strategy: This refers to the set of actions taken to improve student performance by strengthening the instructional core. 

Stakeholders: People both internally and externally to the organization, including staff, unions, families, community members, and governing bodies 

Culture: This includes the mission, values, and norms that define and drive behavior in the organization. 

Structure: How is the work defined in terms of organization, responsibility, accountability, and decision making? Structures can be formal (an established framework) and informal (norms for how work is typically approached). 

Systems: These are the processes and procedures by which work gets done. For example, systems may be in place related to career advancement, student placement, resource allocation, and so on. Established procedures are critical when addressing important, multi-step tasks. 

Resources: Resources include not only financial allocations but also people, technology, and use of data to inform decision making. 

Environment: Consider any external factors that may impact the overarching strategy and tactics for accomplishing the organization’s objectives. 

Building a structure for literacy not only requires a foundation constructed of a solid core reading program, universal reading screening, a solid intervention program, and screening for dyslexia; it also requires its cornerstones, effective professional development designed for coherence. When these building blocks are placed securely, the effect on teacher learning—and by extension, student learning— can be transformative.

For Further Learning


Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M.E., Gardner, M. (2017). Effective Teacher Professional Development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. Read this report

Hammerness, K. (2006). From Coherence in Theory to Coherence in Practice. Teachers College Record, 108 (7), 1241-1265. Read this report.

Lindvall, J. & Ryve, A. (2019). Coherence and the positioning of teachers in professional development programs. A systematic review. Educational Research Review, 27, 140-154. Read this report.

Solari et al. (2022). Aligning Special Education Teacher Training With Reading Science: Challenges and Recommendations. Hammill Institute on Disabilities. Intervention in School and Clinic, 1-11. Read this report.


A Roadmap to Success: Mississippi's Journey to Improve Literacy Outcomes. 2021 Fall Community Lecture.


LEAD on READ, Episode 40: Kristen Wynn and Literacy Leadership in Mississippi (2022). Research Education ADvocacy (READ) podcast.