By Debra Christopher, MSM | June 30, 2015
Director, Professional Learning Systems, ETR
OK, I admit it. I’ve been around for awhile. I taught health education in the classroom for four years early in my career. Then I made a shift, and for the past 25 years I’ve worked to support adult learners who deliver health education programs to youth.
The essence of my mission: create change (in adult instructional savvy) to create change (in youth behavior).
In three decades of working in this field, I’ve seen a plethora of quality evidence-based and evidence-informed health education programs emerge. And I’ve experienced the pendulum of financial support for delivering these programs swing back and forth, back and forth. When funding is available, we are quick to push these programs out to the classroom in order to gain “coverage.”
Too often, we do this without a sound strategy. We don’t develop appropriate standards for preparing and then supporting the educators who deliver the health education programs to young people—the implementers. The consequence? Youth don’t receive appropriate levels of skill-based instruction.
Additionally, in these situations we typically don’t have the means or the support to gather implementation data. We aren’t able to monitor the results of our work in order to inform our practice, improve instructional support and report on our successes.
When funders, legislators and other decision-makers don’t see meaningful results, our abilities are questioned. The funding is pulled or reduced significantly. Then we start all over again . . . back and forth, back and forth.
In our current state, I am both concerned and hopeful. Concerned that we might continue this cycle. Hopeful—as I witness a growing movement in our field that recognizes the critical importance of implementation support—that we will not.
In the field of health education, whether we’re in funding feast or funding famine, we seem to tolerate a lack of focus on and commitment to support for the implementers. We give a lot of attention to assessing and promoting evidence-based or evidence-informed curricula for youth—and that is as it should be. However, we’re not demanding the same rigor to identify best practices supporting those who teach!
As a result, we’re not providing adequate preparation or ongoing support for the people who deliver these important curricula. Based on the sound science-base and proven best practices now available to inform our work, this just does not make sense.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars of grant and contract funds (federal and private) have been spent ineffectively over the last 20-30 years on what I call “drive-thru” training. This is training developed and delivered as a one-time event, without clear intent. These types of trainings lack adequate participant input, targeted cognitive engagement, meaningful application and, most importantly, follow-up support.
It’s true that drive-thru training is a quicker, cheaper and easier response to addressing training requests. One can claim a certain type of “success” simply by expeditiously moving large numbers of educators through a standardized event. Unfortunately, that system doesn’t take into account the time learners need to actually adopt the attitudes and master the skills required for successful implementation.
Instead, it’s far more likely that the drive-thru will use up valuable time and resources but result in little or no change. At its worst, it can do harm. Implementers who are poorly prepared to teach sensitive topics and critical skills may create unsafe learning environments for young people, provoke controversy, or misinform, confuse or bore students. Any of these outcomes could inhibit the sustainability of the program.
Let me be clear about something here. Training organizations and consultant trainers do not intentionally serve up the drive-thru. Rather, they’re acquiescing to well-intentioned demands or requirements from funders or participating organizations. They’ve been asked to meet objectives in minimal time (often unreasonably minimal, given the expectations).
This has reached the point where some Professional Development (PD) providers feel compelled to agree that conducting a half-day training on a 16-lesson skills-based curriculum prepares participants to implement effectively! There are those who would argue that “some training is better than none,” but we have no evidence that this is the case.
This simplified approach places us on a collision course to lose what funding support we do have, as down the road, there will be no basis or evidence that our trainings resulted in change. And once again, the pendulum swings, funding is cut, youth go unserved and we start all over again.
Like anything worth doing, a successful change process requires strategy, advocacy, persistence and grit! It is not for the weak or impatient. I have been blessed to work with many talented, committed, “all-in” educators/trainers who are brilliant stewards of the PD resources they acquire. There is no greater joy than to see them practice their art (and science) and then hear that their systems and strategies are producing skilled implementers! But achieving that end requires ongoing connection to and support for teachers.
As I tell my Training-of-Trainer participants, as good as it may feel, merely completing a training event is not the finish line. The true learning (change) takes place during implementation—those points where the implementers are delivering the programs directly to youth.
So, how do we create sustainable change? For those who provide professional development with the goal of influencing change, here is a checklist of qualities for a full service learning process destined to have impact:
For my comrades who represent funding or training organizations, or who develop evidence-based curricula—we must rally together to avoid the less-than-useful “quick fix.” Below is a wish list of actions to consider that support quality implementation.
Kudos to the Office of Adolescent Health (OAH) for recently convening a panel of PD providers to explore these issues. (I was honored to be a part of this dynamic and energetic group.) In a true collaborative spirit, the OAH team invited other funders as well, including CDC DASH and the Family & Youth Services Bureau.
Not surprisingly, we PD providers who attended are in agreement about the necessity of quality PD and ongoing support for implementers. The group collectively identified solutions to drive-thru training approaches and our imperative to commit sufficient resources to the PD process. OAH has taken a bold and significant step by bringing us together and posing important questions. They listened intently and are now committed to moving the conversation forward.
It is my hope that in the near future, the quality of support for implementers is elevated to the same level of importance as the programs targeting youth. That means we’ll all be steering clear of the drive-thru approach. It may not be a smooth or easy ride, but it is our chance to pave the way to success. This is the way we skillfully build and then cross the bridge from program, to implementer, to youth.
Debra Christopher, MSM, is Director of Professional Learning Services at ETR. Contact her with questions and ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org