The Role of Professional Development in Supporting DBI Implementation

The Role of Professional Development in Supporting DBI Implementation

By Emma Shanahan, Ph.D.

Educators may face barriers to collecting and using progress monitoring data as part of the DBI process. High-quality professional development can help educators develop the knowledge and skills to use progress monitoring data effectively. In this Voices from the Field post, Emma Shanahan reflects on her experiences with progress monitoring and data-based decision making as a teacher and shares findings from her recent research on DBI professional development.

How did your experience with DBI start?

My journey with DBI started when I was a special education teacher in an under-resourced school in Memphis, Tennessee. I loved graphing my students’ progress monitoring data to understand student responsiveness, but I did not buy into the process of making instructional decisions based on my students’ graphs that my school psychologist recommended. At my school, it seemed like there were so many external variables outside my control that impacted my ability to intensify instruction when needed. For example, I provided special education services to students in kindergarten through fifth grade and often had to deliver reading interventions to groups of seven or more students who had varying reading needs.

This classroom experience led to a Ph.D. program in special education at the University of Minnesota where I worked with my advisor, Dr. Kristen McMaster, on a study examining the effects of intensive professional development on elementary teachers’ knowledge, skills, beliefs, and fidelity related to DBI for writing, and their students’ writing outcomes. The results of the pilot study for this larger program are available in the article, Supporting teachers’ use of data-based instruction to improve students’ early writing skills.

What have been the main takeaways from your research so far?

During my Ph.D. program, I applied my experience as a teacher to research that focused on finding ways to support teachers’ use of DBI. First, I wondered about the characteristics of teachers who were able to implement DBI successfully. In one study, I found that teachers’ knowledge and skills related to DBI predicted their students’ progress during DBI. Other teacher-level factors, such as self-efficacy (i.e., confidence in their ability to improve student outcomes), did not. This finding suggests that professional development should offer teachers active learning opportunities, which can be a great way to gain and apply new knowledge and skills. For example, teachers can identify appropriate instructional changes based on an example student case study.

In a meta-analysis that is currently under peer review, I also found that effective professional development may need to be ongoing, with a content focus on graph interpretation and planning and implementing instructional changes. This professional development should include tangible resources to intensify instruction, such as alternate instructional plans and materials. Finally, professional development should be collaborative. For example, instead of telling teachers what changes to make to a student’s instruction, professional development providers should work with teachers to identify problems with instruction and create individualized solutions.

Is professional development enough to overcome barriers to implementing DBI?

Because of my experience with school-level barriers as a teacher, I was concerned about the extent to which even high-quality professional development could be effective in helping teachers implement DBI. In another study currently under peer review, my co-authors and I interviewed teachers who had previously received extensive, collaborative DBI professional development. Some of these teachers had stopped implementing DBI and we wanted to find out why. We found that teachers who were no longer implementing DBI experienced disruptions to intervention scheduling, large student intervention groups that prevented instructional individualization, and limited planning time. Although these teachers were enthusiastic about implementing instructional interventions and collecting progress monitoring data, they did not think that making instructional decisions based on data was realistic given the barriers they were facing.

These findings suggest that even though teachers received high-quality professional development, they still struggled to implement DBI in the face of school-level barriers. While there are many challenges to address to make sure that instruction for students with significant academic difficulties is individualized and effective, a first step that school leaders can take to support DBI is to allow teachers to have shared planning time for collaborative problem-solving. One teacher might think they have run out of ideas to intensify a student's instruction, while another might be aware of other evidence-based possibilities.

What advice do you have for teachers who are skeptical about DBI?

If I could go back in time and talk to my teacher self about DBI, I would say that her skepticism is not unfounded. There are systemic issues in education that trickle down to the classroom and make instructional intensification challenging. Without effective, ongoing professional development, teachers may struggle to implement DBI. I urge teachers to seek out opportunities for DBI professional development for themselves and other teachers at their school to build their knowledge and skills. Then, by taking inventory of what’s feasible within school constraints, gathering evidence-based resources like those provided by NCII, and joining forces with other teachers who are implementing DBI, the benefits of DBI for students can be realized.

About the author

Emma Shanahan
Emma Shanahan, Ph.D.
/ Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at the University of Texas at Austin

Emma Shanahan, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at the University of Texas at Austin. She received her Ph.D. in Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Her research focuses on supporting teachers’ use of intensive reading and writing interventions for elementary students with literacy difficulties.