The Science of Teacher Development

—Ian Kim
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The ongoing focus on school reform has led to broad consensus on at least one point: Improving training and support for teachers is key to improving student learning. Indeed, many districts are investing heavily in professional development and emphasizing collaboration among educators. But do these strategies provide enough of the right kind of support for new teachers, especially in high-demand areas such as science, technology, and math?

Lost in the encouraging news about increased investment in professional development is a sobering fact: The opportunities for teachers to engage in sustained professional learning and collaboration have actually declined in the last decade. A recent nationwide study on professional learning opportunities for teachers confirms what we’ve known all along—that professional development takes time, focus, and commitment to be effective. The study, “Professional Development in the United States: Trends and Challenges,” Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader released in August of this year by the National Staff Development Council, or NSDC (now Learning Forward), and the Stanford Center on Opportunity Policy in Education, or SCOPE, notes that teachers continue to rate increasing professional development in the content of their subject matter as their top priority for further training. It also found that teachers receive less than eight hours of training a year on any given topic. However, for professional development to have an impact on student learning, an analysis of a broad range of studies suggests that between 49 and 100 hours of intensive training in key areas is needed. “States and districts need to introduce more effective and systematic approaches to supporting, developing, and mobilizing educators,” says Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond, the study’s principal investigator.

Improving teaching requires the kind of deep focus on content knowledge and innovations in delivery to all students that can only come when teachers are given opportunities to learn from experts and one another, and to pursue teaching as a scientific process in which new approaches are shared, tested, and continually refined across a far-flung professional community. This should be true not just for science and math teachers, but for all teachers.

We need to move away from the current system of professional development of teachers, which is focused more on triage than on helping improve the overall clinical practice of teaching within a school. We need to make sure that teachers are masters of content, and that they’re supported as they continually expand their instructional skills through a methodical sequence of professional learning activities designed to help them connect students to rigorous content. Teachers need a supportive framework and culture that values peer review and intellectual renewal where new thinking, risk taking, and professional growth are encouraged.

The challenge is not to create intense and in-depth educator learning for its own sake, but to create thriving classrooms for learners. Too often, lackluster mathematics and science teaching is the biggest factor in keeping young people from pursuing further study in these fields.

Professional Development: Sorting Through the Jumble to Achieve Success

Providing extensive support to incoming teachers—and continued support well into their careers—is nothing less than an investment in improving high school science and math education for all students. The Knowles Science Teaching Foundation offers such intensive professional development. Admittedly, our fellowship program is not inexpensive—all told, each fellow receives tuition help and support valued at $150,000 over five years. A program like ours is not scalable across all content areas, but given our success in retaining highly skilled science and mathematics teachers—88 percent of the teachers who have been awarded fellowships since the program’s inception in 2002 are still teaching—we believe there are fundamental elements of our experience that policymakers and districts can leverage to better hire and support incoming teachers during their critical first years. Here’s our advice:

Hire well. Districts need to be more intentional about the teachers they hire. While subject-area knowledge is critical, our experience suggests that leadership qualities, as well as the commitment and ability to teach, are also crucially important criteria in evaluating prospective teachers.

Assign STEM teachers based on their knowledge of the science, technology, engineering, and math subject areas. In an era of specialization, it’s critical to avoid diluting talent. Research has shown that good teachers with a strong understanding of specific subjects can have a transformative effect on individual students, while teachers who do not have such understanding turn students away from math and science. The depth, breadth, and organization of knowledge required to teach STEM subjects effectively makes it especially critical to staff those classes with teachers who have a strong knowledge of specific disciplines—in other words, a teacher with a master’s degree in physics should not be assigned to teach earth sciences. Given our nation’s vital interest in encouraging a much larger proportion of students to pursue advanced study and careers in STEM fields, we need teachers who know and love their subjects and are excited about sharing them.

Invest in intensive professional development for new teachers. The NSDC-Stanford study suggests that more incoming teachers have access to induction programs, experienced mentors, or other supports than ever before. But those supports have become less intensive and collaborative over time, according to the study. We believe that teachers must learn to apply the same intensive inquiry to their own practice that they expect in their students’ work. For example, over the five years of the fellowship, our fellows engage in a collaborative lesson-study process with their peers that closely mirrors the scientific methods they teach—beginning with an extended study of what it means to really understand an idea, developing and teaching a lesson, gathering evidence of its impact through student work samples or video of lessons, and then assessing and redesigning the lesson as needed.

Encourage many forms of collaboration. Professional learning communities are proliferating in districts across the country, but collaboration shouldn’t be exclusively by subject area or grade level—or even by school. Our fellows tell us that the most powerful collaboration they’re involved in is the opportunity to collaborate with peers across the country. Katherine Shirey, a physics teacher at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va., meets regularly with fellows from Baltimore to Fredericksburg, Va., and partners remotely with a fellow in Seattle on her lesson study. “My community extends from here to Alaska,” she says. “They are more important than my professors in grad school and my teacher-mentor program, which were significant, but now past. They’ve developed with me over time.”

Improving teaching requires the kind of deep focus on content knowledge and innovations in delivery to all students that can only come when teachers are given opportunities to learn from experts and one another.

Emphasize leadership growth in professional development. Teacher-leaders aren’t born—they are nurtured. The fifth year of our fellowship training focuses exclusively on leadership skills, which we see as building on the previous four years of professional development. “I want to be an educator who is a leader in my school and community,” says Shirey. “When teachers not only want to stay in the classroom but become leaders, that’s inspirational to me.” In fact, three of Shirey’s peers in the Washington, D.C., area are now department chairs.

These strategies can have a clear impact on teacher quality. But together, they also have an even stronger impact on a beginning teacher. With this intensive support, the opportunity to collaborate, and the ability to share their own practice, these novice teachers feel like professionals, and are more likely to stay in the classroom.

Our nation needs a generation of graduates who are prepared for advanced study and careers in science-based fields, but we can’t expect our students to be passionate and knowledgeable about science unless their teachers are.

Vol. 30, Issue 13, Pages 27, 36

Published in Print: December 1, 2010, as The Science of Teacher Development
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