Matt is finishing his third year as a 6th grade teacher in an urban K-8 school. He feels he has made good progress with his students despite their histories of poor performance. The school itself has typical challenges and stretched resources, leaving few dollars for teacher development. His induction mentor was great at showing him the basics, but Matt feels there is so much more he could do if he knew additional methods to build on his students’ assets and meet them where they are. Matt’s dilemma is not uncommon to many new educators.
Much attention has been focused of late on teacher-preparation programs and the ability of higher education institutions to prepare teachers for the challenges of today’s classrooms. While teacher-preparation standards have risen in most states, and more institutions provide clinically based programs, the task of teaching, especially teaching well to every student, takes both advanced support and practice. But once induction support is over, it is a rare school that continues to provide in-class coaching support, which is unfortunate for those educators wanting to grow their craft in order to be effective for every one of their students. Pressures for increased student outcomes are rising sharply, much faster than supports for teacher development. Spurred by the federal Race to the Top competition, student achievement is now a major consideration in the performance evaluations of a growing number of teachers, even as they face greater variance among their students.
Certainly, there are examples of districts that offer long-term, focused staff development that can significantly alter instructional practice, but the few that do are mostly driven by outside grant dollars that have their own timelines, often disconnected from the pace of teacher learning. Even rarer are professional-development efforts that invest in classroom coaching support, though research shows a direct correlation between coaching and the quality of instructional outcomes. Nevermind that coaching dollars are expensive, hard to get, and easily cut when times get tough.
Post-licensure higher education offerings—with or without advanced degrees or endorsements attached—are another option. But the record here is mixed, and the choices are still more often made on the basis of credential rewards than in-class instructional improvement. Many options clearly respond to what research points to as important (such as deeper content knowledge), but the burden of taking that new knowledge and putting it to work in a classroom falls entirely on the teacher-learner.
What if higher education were to reinvent post-licensure programs to close this gap in development? What should be the major components of a developmentally supportive program? The research on effective teaching is beginning to provide us with some answers suggesting that such programs would need to include four key areas of knowledge-skill development and a way to support the actual classroom.
• Content mastery. Today’s teachers, especially K-6 teachers, need to have a deeper understanding of a variety of content areas to improve their practice. Research shows that additional content knowledge in math and literacy makes a significant difference in the classroom, but subject-matter understanding in science and English/language arts—with the new focus on higher-order thinking skills through nonfiction literature and arts integration—has become essential.
Pressures for increased student outcomes are rising sharply, much faster than supports for teacher development."
• The ability to assess each student against a learning target or standard that provides actionable feedback. While student assessment is increasingly emphasized in teacher-preparation programs, the ability to differentiate instruction requires fluency and effectiveness in assessing diverse individuals. It is hard, detailed work and best learned by repeated practice with an effective coach.
• The ability to create a culture of achievement that honors and builds on the diverse backgrounds of one’s students. This requires combining high expectations with strong supports and empathy for how individual students understand their learning environment. Higher expectations without understanding can push out students, while understanding without the high standards can undercut their capacities.
• A repertoire of instructional moves that are both subject-based and generic. Building on the skill sets mentioned above, the selection of instructional approaches should be focused around creating a specific learning progression that moves the student from where she or he is to proficiency. As a result, the classroom is unlikely to be organized around whole-group instruction; rather, it should be built around the cluster of variances students bring to any academic task.
The focus of this knowledge and skill-building needs to be with the students who matter most to Matt: his own. This flips the challenge often associated with taking courses while teaching: Rather than trying to escape the intensity of teaching in order to find time to think in an evening seminar classroom, the entire purpose of the learning in the seminar room ought to be to support the development of Matt’s daily work.
For Matt to get this kind of program of study, a higher education institution would have to think in dramatically new and innovative ways: for example, using new video technologies that allow higher education faculty members to stand shoulder to shoulder with their candidates inside real classrooms. Teachers could capture their instructional practice, edit an excerpt, and share it with supportive peers and faculty. Faculty members could then see a candidate’s ability to put new knowledge into action and have direct evidence of what their candidates both know and do. This immediacy would allow for joint accountability of both teacher and mentor. The development of clear competency targets would permit practitioners to focus their energies and assure improved instructional practice. From the beginning of a program, candidates could assess their own strengths, learn how to build on them, and fill in the gaps. Collecting student work would need to be a routine of practice, both guiding and disciplining what happens inside the classroom. Both faculty and candidates would be engaged in a cycle of acting, collecting data, and reflecting and improving such that concrete evidence of student learning develops. Uniting these elements is possible in order to create a new and invigorating approach to post-novice teacher development.
There are a lot of Matts out there, and their numbers are growing as more teachers find their evaluations tied to student outcomes. Reaching and teaching every student is hard work. How long do these teachers have to do it on their own?
A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2012 edition of Education Week as Closing the Teacher-Development Gap