“We must do more with the talent we have,” said NSDC Executive Director Stephanie Hirsh. “Nothing is more important than teacher quality,” EdSec Arne Duncan said. “We must close the yawning achieving gap in this country,” said Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond. With the statements of all three, we were off to the races on the issue of teacher quality and professional development this morning.
The setting was a briefing hosted by the National Staff Development Council, unveiling their most recent research (led by Darling-Hammond and her School Redesign Network) on the state of teacher development. The takeaway was simple. The current state of teacher professional development is severely lacking, particularly as federal and state requirements and expectations continue to grow. Earth-shattering, no. But the findings serve as a strong insight into what may be coming down the pike.
If anything, the past era in federal education policy has been one about research. The need for data. The definition of good data (and of bad). And the most stringent of means by which to go about collecting it. The new era seems to be one of successfully applying that research so it gets to the rank-and-file policymaker and practitioner. What do we do with data once we have it? How do we use it to effectively close the achievement gap? How do we use it to improve student and teacher performance? How do we use it to grow, to improve, and to generally do better?
Yes, the research data was mostly qualitative. Yes, we still have a lot of unanswered questions about the correlations between strong teacher PD and student achievement. But NSDC provided some interesting points to get this new discussion on teacher development started, and they were points heard by the EdSec, by CCSSO chief Gene Wilhoit, and by the many who are looking for details into how to train, retain, and support good teachers in every classroom.
* “Drive-by” or “dump-and-run” professional development doesn’t cut it, at least not in this time of accountability. Meaningful PD must be ongoing, content-based, and embedded as part of the learning day.
* According to the data we do have, the right PD can improve student achievement.
* That said, we need to improve the linkages between teaching and student learning.
* We need experimental research into teacher professional development, particularly in subjects other than math and science.
* Our students are slipping in international measures, in part, because of our professional development opportunities. Our competitors — particularly those in Southeast Asia — are just investing more time, effort, money, and thought into high-quality PD that has a direct impact on student learning and performance. They are taking advantage of our water-treading for the past decade.
* We need to increase both the quantity and the quality of PD offered to teachers, particularly those who are entering the profession.
* At the end of the day, improved professional development (particularly in-service) is key to achieving our educational goals.
Information is nice, using it effectively is even better. As CCSSO’s Wilhoit pointed out, the challenge we face is how do we move from good ideas to better practice? Particularly as it relates to state policy, how do we take these data points and build a better teacher development and support network, a network offering the ongoing PD, measuring its effectiveness, and ensuring that all teachers are getting the support and professional learning opportunities they need to do their jobs well?
Some good ideas were offered by the experts this morning, including:
* We need to create levers and investments in Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education act to support the features of effective professional development
* We need to invest in rigorous studies of professional learning in relation to student achievement.
* We need to participate in OECD studies of teaching, teacher development, and student learning.
As always, Eduflack has a few other ideas to add to the mix:
* When it comes to PD, all means all. All teachers (and principals for that matter) need ongoing, content-based, job-embedded professional learning opportunities. No exceptions.
* We need to align learning goals (as measured by state assessments) with teaching goals. Every teacher should not only know what is expected of their classes on the state tests, but they should be given the tools and training to deliver.
* Every teacher in the United States should receive specific, content-based PD in reading instruction. Reading is an issue that affects every teacher, whether you are ELA, math, social studies, or science. With more than a third of fourth graders still reading below grade level, every teacher needs the knowledgebase to provide the interventions needed to get students reading and engage them in the written word outside of English class.
* We need to incentivize best teaching, through general performance pay provisions and federal efforts such as the Teacher Incentive Fund. As part of such efforts, we need to document, share, and learn from best practice. Those schools that are exceeding AYP expectations (particularly those rewarded for it) should be mentoring those schools that are struggling at it. Such a learning loop should be required as part of any incentive program.
* And while we are collaborating, we need to use what we know about social networking and online communities to build virtual networks for teachers to share and learn. How do rural teachers gain best practices from other rural teachers? What can urban teachers in Detroit learn from their brethren in Atlanta or Los Angeles? How do we capture best practices so that we can literally see it (via video) happen in classes like ours with kids like ours? As the teaching profession grows younger and more technologically savvy, such online communities are going to be core to professional learning and development. Such social networking is the only way we can deliver high-quality, impactful PD at scale to all teachers, urban, suburban, and rural (particularly with our incoming federal investment in school technology).
* We need to focus high-quality PD on those who need it most, particularly schools in urban areas and teachers of ELLs and special education students. They are the teachers who have fallen through the cracks the most severely, and they are the ones who can most benefit from it today.
* Such PD activities are a shared responsibility. The feds set the priorities and lay out some of the funding to make it happen. The states take those priorities and develop specific programs that align with federal expectations yet specifically meet state standards. Then the districts become the implementers supreme, delivering the right programs to the all teachers, while feeding content and outcomes back to other districts, the state, and the feds to create an ongoing feedback and improvement loop for PD.
No, this isn’t rocket science. We all know that a well-trained, well-supported, empowered teacher will be more effective than a have not. We know that ongoing, content-based PD can have a direct impact on teacher quality and student achievement. We know teaching can’t improve through a drive-by workshop at the start of the school year or a half-day seminar offered twice a year following a half day of teaching. We know we can do it, we know some are doing it, we just need to figure out how to package it and deliver it to all.
When it comes to PD, so much time is focused on the pre-service side of the coin, ensuring that every teacher entering the classroom is highly qualified and certified to teach the subject matter. Two important traits, yes. But the hard word begins after the certificate is awarded and the classrooms are assigned. NCLB talked about and offered funding for PD (heck, up to 25% of the billions spent on Reading First was intended for content-based professional development), but little was done to ensure the funds were spent right, the programs delivered correctly, and the outcomes documented effectively. High marks for intent, low marks for follow through.
EdSec Duncan, along with his colleagues on Maryland Avenue and the crew down on Pennsylvania Avenue, has made it crystal clear that teachers are the gateway to school improvement (and to our general economic and social strength). “We must dramatically increase our investment in teachers, and do it systemically,” Duncan said today. Amen. We also must make sure that investment is delivering real return on investment. That means doing the scientific research to demonstrate the real linkages between PD and student achievement. That means content-based PD that is delivered in the appropriate context to meet the needs of today’s teachers. And that means empowering teachers so they are leading in their classroom.
A new era is here indeed. We just need to ensure we maximize the opportunities, transform good ideas into great policies, and ensure we are having a real, measurable impact.