Professional Development Opinion

Learning about the State Role in Teacher Improvement

By Urban Education Contributor — June 29, 2017 3 min read
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This week we are hearing from the Tennessee Education Research Alliance (TERA @TNEdResAlliance). Today’s post is the practitioner perspective on Monday’s post: What do Educators Want to get Out of Professional Learning?

This post is by Nate Schwartz, Chief Research and Strategy Officer for the Tennessee Department of Education (@TNedu).

Policymakers often point to studies showing that teachers on average gain little in effectiveness after their fifth year on the job (see here and here, for example). But more recent research has shown that these averages hide substantial variation, with some teachers demonstrating substantial gains in effectiveness year after year and some schools creating conditions where this sort of improvement becomes standard across the workforce.

What would it take to create a system that makes teacher long-term instructional improvement the norm across not just a single school or district but across an entire state?

As we demand more and more out of our school systems, both in terms of excellence and equity, this question becomes ever more pressing for the departments of education in every state across the country.

In Tennessee, we view it as a central strategic goal of our department to support systems of continuous improvement across all classrooms and schools. But we also recognize the current reality — one where large-scale studies of professional development programs have tended to find no effects when it comes to student achievement.

Hence, we are looking to our partnership with the Tennessee Education Research Alliance (TERA) at Vanderbilt University to provide the push we need as a state to transform professional learning systems by serving as an engine for research and innovation in this sphere.

We see several reasons for optimism.

For the last six years, the Tennessee Educator Survey that we administer in partnership with TERA has tracked teacher perceptions of the statewide evaluation system. In the first year of roll-out, only 38 percent of teachers reported that the evaluation system had led to improvements in their teaching. By spring of 2016, 71 percent of teachers reported improvements due to evaluation.

Building on the possibilities for teacher evaluation to become a learning process rather than only a rating tool, our state piloted a program in 2013-14 called the Instructional Partnership Initiative that pairs teachers in a school into collaborative partnerships based on strengths and weaknesses identified during evaluation. A randomized control trial of the initial pilot found that the weaker teachers in the partnership made gains about equal to moving from the 25th percentile to the 50th percentile of teacher effectiveness. With funding from the Institute of Education Sciences, TERA — working with a team of researchers from Vanderbilt, Brown, and Harvard — is currently engaged in an evaluation of the broader statewide roll-out of the initiative.

More broadly, we see districts across the state experimenting with a host of new methods for creating collaborative learning opportunities for teachers. For example, one set of districts in the northeastern part of our state have come together to create the Tennessee Early Literacy Network, where school teams engage in rapid improvement cycles to try to improve literacy instructional practice. Most of our districts can point to examples of innovative practices that appear to be driving improvements.

Making sense of these efforts — and determining what is actually working — requires a new sort of organization that can consolidate learning across a host of pilot programs and research studies. Too often, even when state departments engage in high-quality research, the results that come back feel overly narrow, providing evaluative feedback on a specific program but offering little that would help a state define a broader strategy in an area like professional learning.

We look to the Tennessee Education Research Alliance to serve as the centralizing force across studies, helping to ensure that we can learn across projects and create the kinds of applied knowledge base that actually improve practice. In coming years, we expect TERA to release a series of reports that look across studies taking place in Tennessee on professional learning and draw out lessons for state and local agencies. If successful, we will see something quite different than the usual list of program evaluations and policy briefs — instead, we will see the development of a framework for supporting professional learning that allows us to think critically about the state versus district role in this space, and we will gain insight into the elements of a strategy that leads to consistent improvement for teachers at every stage in their careers.

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