Promoting School Improvement at the Classroom Level in South Carolina

In Georgetown County School District, SEDL staff are using the Professional Teaching and Learning Cycle to foster a culture of collaboration and continuous learning to improve teaching.

Photo of a student and a teacher.

In South Carolina's Georgetown County School District, a culture shift is underway. Teachers who often worked alone are coming together to discuss student performance, identify strategies for improving instruction, develop standards-based lessons, and learn from one another. Helping drive this shift is SEDL's Professional Teaching and Learning Cycle (PTLC), an ongoing, job-embedded professional development process for improving teaching and learning.

In 2009, SEDL began a 2-year project with the Georgetown County School District to support the implementation of the PTLC. The project has become a major district improvement focus. Initially involving three middle schools, it has since expanded to include three high schools and one elementary school. Edward Tobia, a project director in SEDL's Improving School Performance group, is leading the team, which includes staff with expertise in literacy, special education, school improvement, professional development, and research and evaluation.

"The PTLC goes far beyond typical staff development," says Tobia. "It fosters a culture of continuous learning through a set of processes that change how teachers and administrators work together and think about their jobs."

Diagram of the PTLC process. An outercircl shows that the leadership roles: Build Capacity, Communicate Clear Expectations, and Monitor and Review surround an inner circle of PTLC activities: Study, Select, Plan, Implement, Analyze, and Adjust.
SEDL developed the PTLC in partnership with the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The process reflects the research on best practices in professional development and school improvement.


The PTLC focuses on improvement at the classroom level and is a key component of SEDL's Working Systemically approach for school reform. Consisting of six steps, the PTLC helps educators align curriculum, instruction, and assessment to their state standards through collaboration, collective learning, and shared practice. Teachers work in teams to discuss and analyze student performance and other data. The teams then use the discussions to guide them as they plan and implement lessons aligned to the standards. After carrying out the lessons, teacher teams meet again to share their successes and challenges, analyze student work, diagnose student needs, and adjust their lessons accordingly.

During this process, SEDL staff serve as facilitators, helping teachers use data, build their content knowledge, incorporate research-based instructional strategies, and improve the quality and coherence of instruction across classrooms and grades. At the same time, SEDL works with school and district leaders to help them support the PTLC process. As the graphic shows, leaders do this by clearly communicating their expectations, building staff capacity to meet those expectations, and developing a system to monitor and review the results. "The PTLC process is effective because it simultaneously addresses teacher quality, leadership responsibilities, and school improvement," says Tobia.

Systemic Change in Georgetown County

SEDL kicked off its work with Georgetown County by holding a 4-day summer institute. School leadership teams—each consisting of a principal, assistant principal, and instructional coach— learned the fundamentals of the PTLC and how to guide teachers through the process. "For the first time ever the district had leadership teams from every school come together and commit to a single improvement strategy," explains Tobia.

Photo of a student and a teacher. To focus improvement efforts, district and school leaders pinpointed literacy as the core content area to target. In particular, they wanted to improve students' ability to read and use informational texts. SEDL staff worked with the leadership teams to identify relevant state standards, research-based instructional strategies, and assessment techniques. The SEDL team then began helping teachers to develop and carry out common lessons, and to hold follow-up meetings to review and refine their practices.

Work also began on project evaluation, which SEDL is providing as well. Program associate Erin McCann worked with Georgetown County to develop the evaluation plan. McCann will process and analyze data from a variety of sources: meeting forms, discussion logs, focus group feedback, survey questionnaires, classroom walkthroughs, and student grades and standardized test data. She will provide district and school leaders with formative evaluations on teacher and student progress at regular intervals as well as a summative evaluation at the end of the project.

A Community of Professional Learners

Although SEDL's work in Georgetown County is still in its early stages, the PTLC process is beginning to take hold. Patti Hammel, the district's executive director for Student Performance and Federal Programs, is excited about the shift she is seeing. "We're following a prescriptive plan for professional learning teams in which principals, teachers, and coaches collaborate to lead school efforts," Hammel says.

Georgetown County teachers, who did some common planning before, now are working together far more extensively to discuss instruction, review student work, and share their practices, knowledge, and expertise. "For a long time, we went into our rooms and we went into private practice," Hammel notes. "We never shared what we knew. Now we're allowing teachers to look at it all and talk about strategies they're going to use together. If I'm a new teacher or a teacher who has difficulty with particular content, this gives me an open door with my colleagues so I can get some ideas."

"We're following a prescriptive plan for professional learning teams in which principals, teachers, and coaches collaborate to lead school efforts."

Patti Hammel, executive director for Student Performances and Federal Programs

Research supports the PTLC's emphasis on collaboration through professional learning communities. "If teachers can reflect on their own practices and then come together to share and learn, they begin seeing some immediate benefits," explains Tobia. "Getting over that hurdle of opening up to other teachers, when they haven't done that in the past, is one of the things our structure helps provide."

SEDL's goal is to give Georgetown County's educators the knowledge and skills to take over after the project ends. Although leaders and staff may change, the PTLC process of continuous improvement—reviewing student work and data, planning lessons together, evaluating and refining classroom practices—should remain in place. Says Hammel, "It's our belief that after 2 years, it'll be automatic. It will be the way we do business."