Education Opinion

Professional Development Transformed

By Marc Tucker — January 14, 2016 8 min read
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Today, NCEE’s Center on International Education Benchmarking will release two new reports on teachers’ professional development at a meeting at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Building in Washington, D.C. to be attended by several hundred people and streamed live to many more around the world. The papers will be discussed by some of the nation’s leading researchers, policy makers and practitioners.

Teachers’ professional development in the United States is an enormous industry that experts estimate to be on the order of $4 to $18 billion per year, of which considerably more than half is consumed by workshops presented in conferences and in school districts, if you include the cost of substitute teachers.

This despite the fact that “work shopping” teachers to improve their skills has gotten very bad reviews from the research community, which has decried its ineffectiveness for many years. This is hardly surprising, given that the workshops violate every principle of adult learning, their topics and presenters are typically chosen by administrators for teachers who would not attend them if left to their own devices, but do so because they are being paid for the time they spend at them. For most teachers, professional development is something a teacher does that takes her away from teaching and provides little or no help in dealing with the challenges she faces.

We were curious about what teachers’ professional development looks like in countries that are doing a better job of educating their young people.

We asked Ben Jensen, the CEO of Learning First in Melbourne, Australia, to research the teacher professional development systems in Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai and British Columbia and we asked Minxuan Zhang, Professor of Education Policy at Shanghai Normal University in Shanghai to tell us in detail how the Shanghai system of teacher professional development works. Jensen is a former OECD senior analyst who went back to Australia and produced for that country a penetrating analysis of the strategies used by many Asian countries to develop many of the most successful education systems in the world. Minxuan Zhang was the Deputy Director of the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission (their school board), in charge of planning during the years in which that system was rapidly becoming one of the world’s top systems.

The picture they paint is fascinating. Professional development looks very different in all these places than it typically does in the United States. It is the main driver of school improvement. Far from something that takes the teacher out of her school and away from her students, it is woven into the very fabric of the teacher’s work in every way. Professional development is not synonymous with workshops. In the United States, teachers appear to develop increasing expertise during their first three years on the job and then stop. But in the systems Jensen researched, they never stop learning--from other teachers, from their reading, from the research they do, from the data they get on the results of their work.

That is because their workplace has been restructured so that almost everything they do in the course of a normal workday is intended to contribute to their learning. First, in all of these systems, teachers spend less time facing students than American teachers do and more time working collaboratively to improve student performance. Teachers work in teams organized by the subjects they teach, by the grade or grade span they teach in and the research and development projects they choose to work on together.

Second, when teachers are working together, they are not just hanging out in discussion groups. They have specific goals, whether it is to develop a much more effective way to teach a particular topic in mathematics or to figure out why a whole group of students in the fourth grade are falling behind and fix the problem.

Whatever the project they take on is, they have a general method for dealing with these problems. It starts with collecting data on the problem, then systematically identifying the best research in the world that bears on that problem and seeing what it says, then using that research to formulate a response to the problem, then putting together a research plan that will enable them to collect data on the difference that their intervention makes, then implementing their intervention, then collecting the data and analyzing it, then revising their intervention in the light of the data and doing that repeatedly until they get the results they are after. When they are done, they not only implement their intervention, but they write it up and, in some of these countries, publish it in journals that other teachers in other schools, sometimes throughout their whole country, can read and profit from.

What I have just described is a continuous improvement cycle. It is a very powerful engine for school improvement. Indeed it is a model of school improvement that puts classroom teachers, not university researchers or central office bureaucrats, in charge of improving schools. It is a professional model of school improvement.

This model for continuous improvement of student performance is also, as Jensen points out, a model for continuous learning, an engine for professional development. It both produces incentives for school professionals to learn and, at the same time, supports that learning in myriad ways. In this model, teachers are constantly consulting the best research in order to diagnose the problems they are facing and to find solutions to those problems. They are in each other’s classrooms all the time, observing teachers who are piloting their group’s interventions, learning from the best teachers and critiquing each other’s teaching. More experienced teachers are mentoring less experienced teachers. Teachers learn when they are leading and they learn when they are collaborating with others.

Jensen reports that, in these systems, principals are evaluated by their supervisors on their skill at organizing these high performance professional environments and at providing opportunities for teachers to grow and learn. They are expected to identify exceptionally skilled teachers who can be given leadership roles on the teams whose operation I just described. These teachers are tasked with helping to develop the skills of their colleagues and helping them to implement the effective practices that the whole process identifies and promotes. They are expected to become champions of those effective practices in and beyond their own school.

This whole system operates on steroids in Shanghai and Singapore. The steroids come in the form of well-developed career ladder systems. In those systems a teacher’s career opportunities are defined by a multi-step ladder. Teachers get more responsibility, authority, status and compensation as they move up the ladder. The master teachers at the top of the ladder earn as much or more as school principals. The novice teachers at the bottom of the ladder essentially apprentice to teachers in the upper ranges of the ladder. In Singapore, the decisions about who moves up the ladder take into account reviews of your performance by your colleagues above and below you on the ladder, as well as many other indicators. In the lower tiers of the ladder, what matters most is your teaching ability. But, to move up the ladder, you have to make strong contributions as a member of the teams you are assigned to, show that you have what it takes to lead others effectively, demonstrate strong mentoring skills and become a good researcher. Experience counts, but demonstrated expertise counts the most.

Minxuan Zhang describes the Shanghai system as resting on a triangle of systems. The educator career ladder structure provides very strong incentives for teachers to keep learning and to develop the necessary skills. The performance review system, designed to evaluate the teacher’s performance against the criteria for advancement up the career ladder, is the second point of the triangle. The third is the opportunities the system provides to gain the knowledge and skills needed to go up the ladder.

I concluded from these reports and our own research that Singapore and Shanghai are doing effective versions of everything that British Columbia and Hong Kong are doing, but the converse is not true. The career ladder systems in the latter two jurisdictions are not as well developed as they are in Singapore and Shanghai. While Americans should look hard at all four jurisdictions, because there is something to be learned from each one of them, Americans, I think, will make the most progress if they figure out how to adapt the Singapore and Shanghai models to our own context and needs. Initial teacher quality is higher in British Columbia and Hong Kong than in the United States and professional norms are stronger in their schools. These two factors go a long way toward making up in those two jurisdictions for the lack of strong incentives to continually improve one’s expertise provided by the career ladder systems in Singapore and Shanghai.

But you should decide that for yourself. To help you do that, we’ve set up our meeting as a webinar. Click here for the live stream. You can watch it in real time, if you like, and can join in on the conversation on Twitter by following NCEE at @CtrEdEcon and using #BeyondPD and #TeacherLearning. If you can’t watch as the meeting is taking place, the papers and the full video of the day’s proceedings will be available on the NCEE website, which you can access by clicking here.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.