Teacher training vs. time in the classroom: How Del Mar walks the tightrope

By Marsha Sutton

Part One of a three-part series:

Three years ago, under then assistant superintendent Holly McClurg, the Del Mar Union School District adopted an intense regimen of professional development, mostly focused on a training program called Cognitively Guided Instruction.

Shortly thereafter, the criticism started, as parents and teachers began to register objections.

After McClurg was named DMUSD superintendent in mid-2012, professional development for teachers continued and some say became even more demanding. Criticism mounted.

Parents became more frustrated about their children spending too many days with substitute teachers. Some teachers were also unhappy about having to miss school and bemoaned the lost time with their students in the classroom.

Professional development is clearly a major focus for McClurg, and she offers no apologies, saying nothing is more important in education than providing ongoing training to teachers so they can deliver the best possible instruction to their students.

She also said that claims about the number of days teachers are absent from their classrooms for staff development – some have said 20 to 30 days – is wildly exaggerated.

Cognitively Guided Instruction is a teacher training program that integrates into instructional practices the latest research-based studies of how children think. It involves listening to children and understanding how they approach problem-solving, and incorporating those ideas into instruction. CGI acknowledges that there is no single right way to solve problems and allows for multiple methods to achieve positive results.

Then along came Common Core, which upends many of the approaches to teaching and learning that have been standard in classrooms across America. Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been adopted in California and begin this coming fall.

CGI training, most agree, is aligned well with Common Core principles, and Del Mar is now providing professional development for both. Many local educators consider Del Mar well ahead of the curve for CCSS preparation because of the district’s early focus on CGI training.

To help school districts prepare for the dramatic shift this fall, the state has allocated about $200 per pupil to districts to be used to implement CCSS.

In a recent conversation with McClurg and Solana Beach School District superintendent Nancy Lynch, we discussed how each district allocates its CCSS funding.

Of the $876,800 received from the state, the DMUSD is spending $662,000, or about 75.5 percent, on teacher training, while Lynch said her district is spending about 45 percent on teacher training ($269,000 out of $597,800). CCSS money can also be spent on instructional materials and technology.

Shelley Petersen, DMUSD’s assistant superintendent for instructional services, said teachers are out two to five days per year for professional development.

However, when teachers are also missing from the classroom because they are sick, their kids are sick, or they have other district obligations such as ChromeBooks training or committee meetings, teachers can be absent many more days during the school year, said Del Mar California Teachers Association co-president Gina Vargus.

Because professional development hasn’t been in the forefront until recently, the perception to parents is that it can look like all the absences are due to training, she said.

But parents aren’t the only ones complaining. At the DMUSD’s Dec. 18 school board meeting, DMCTA co-president Tiffany Kinney reported, according to the minutes, that teachers continue to “express concern regarding the number of instructional days out of [the] classroom for staff development …”

Both Kinney and Vargus said, though, that the training is invaluable. The weak link is how, and when, that training is provided.

All teachers, they said, want to be in their classrooms with their kids as much as possible, so the DMCTA and administrators are discussing other options that don’t take teachers out of the classroom as much.

Finding that balance between competing needs – for staff development and for teachers to be with their students – is the challenge.

Drive for excellence

CGI training is organized into three-year cohorts – teachers are in their first, second or third year, while others have finished.

“If a teacher is in their first or second year of CGI, they are typically scheduled for five days of CGI training throughout the year,” Petersen said. “Some other teachers have had nine to 10 days of CGI training over the last two years and have two to three days of CGI training during this school year as well.”

The district divides the training into two groups: one designed for kindergarten, first- and second-grade teachers, and the other for teachers of grades third through sixth – although third-grade teachers are sometimes included in the K-2 sessions, and sixth-grade teachers sometimes receive training specific only to their grade level, to focus on transitional issues for students moving from sixth to seventh grade.

Del Mar is a kindergarten through sixth-grade district. After sixth grade, public school students move into the San Dieguito Union High School District, for grades 7-12.

Petersen said even though Common Core is mandated, it’s a clear improvement over current standards, and she called the CGI training powerful and “the best model ever.”

The training was also offered over the summer, and teachers were paid to attend. Petersen said about 70 teachers and one principal took five days of CGI training last summer and have just two follow-up days during this school year.

Vargus, who participated in the summer program last year, said it’s a good option because it allows teachers to have more days in their classrooms during the school year. The DMCTA encourages teachers to do their training in the summer, to minimize school-year absences.

Distressing news

Some teachers who finished the three years of training are now lead teachers, teaching other teachers. So those teachers, even though they finished their training, are again out of the classroom for training purposes.

This came as distressing news to some parents already frustrated with the amount of time their children’s teachers have been absent for the past three years.

Del Mar Hills parent Becky Deller said she understands the need for staff training, but would like to see the district consider other options that don’t take teachers away from their students as much, such as the Wednesday afternoons that teachers are allowed to leave school at 12:30 p.m.

“I’ve never stated dissatisfaction with professional development, just how the district implements it,” Deller said. “I feel strongly they aren’t considering the best interests of the students.”

Many teachers themselves would agree, although most teachers who have complained refuse to allow their names to be used.

School board members received an anonymous, lengthy email from a teacher or teachers in the district last October objecting to: the amount of time absent from the classroom, trying to accomplish too much too soon, inadequate Common Core instructional materials, untested assessments, and a union that doesn’t support the teachers on this issue.

Despite the grumbling, Petersen said three years ago when she was principal at Ashley Falls School, she asked her teachers if they wanted the training, and the staff chose to do it.

She said a lot is being asked of teachers. “It takes time and focus,” she said, calling it challenging work. But she insisted teachers are not resistant.

Vargus and Kinney said the training is critical, but acknowledged that for some teachers it’s uncomfortable and there has been some uneasiness with the intensity of the training regimen.

Kinney, a fourth-grade teacher at Del Mar Heights School, said, “The benefits of the staff development that we’re getting to help us transition through the Common Core is training that we need, [and] the delivery method for the last few years has been by pulling us out. So that is problematic in that in order to get the training, I am pulled from my classroom, which means I have a guest teacher in my room.”

“The district office is really looking at different delivery models,” said Vargus, a kindergarten teacher at Del Mar Heights. “How can we do this most effectively so teachers can get the training that’s needed yet we don’t have to rely so much on substitutes?”

Vargus said the frustration teachers have stems from their drive for excellence.

“That’s the nature of who we are as Del Mar teachers,” she said. “We want to be super-competent. And you just don’t jump in and be super-competent right away. You have to allow for a learning curve.”

End of Part One of a three-part series. Next week: DMCTA leaders talk about the program.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at