Professional Development Commentary

Teacher Learning: Sine Qua Non of School Innovation

By Stephanie Hirsh — February 17, 2010 7 min read

It’s hard not to get swept up in all the excitement over educational innovation, given the amounts of money and attention the Obama administration has committed to the cause. And yet, I find myself troubled by a core part of the current reform agenda.

Lately, it seems, policymakers have seriously underestimated the strength of the nation’s teaching force. This has caused them to emphasize recruiting, retaining, and replacing teachers, and to overlook what decades of research has shown to be the far better long-term strategy for increasing student achievement: improving learning conditions for all teachers.

You wouldn’t know it from current discussions about teacher effectiveness, but the talent and expertise needed to raise student achievement already exist in many, if not most, schools. Unfortunately, too few of them have a culture that encourages teachers and administrators to work together on a regular basis, to consult each other more often on matters of teaching and learning, to share responsibilities for instructional improvement, and to implement professional-learning opportunities that address both their needs and their students’.

Having the right conditions for professional learning promotes trust and respect among educators, the essential ingredients for an honest dialogue about what is working and what needs to change. Absent these conditions, the most effective teachers and successful schools will continue to operate as “islands of excellence,” rather than as places all educators can turn to as a way of learning how to improve their own results.

It is not enough to bring new talent into the classroom or reward high performers. Innovation that leads to continuing cycles of improvement will begin on a large scale only when teachers learn together and work collaboratively, using readily available data and pooling their collective expertise to address problems.

How do the schools and districts that commit themselves to continuous improvement and shared responsibility operate? First, their superintendents and principals establish both district- and school-level learning agendas, mapping out procedures for enacting them. In addition to having schoolwide learning teams, principals ensure that every teacher is a member of at least one other grade, subject, or interdisciplinary team, so that they are always prepared to tackle the next challenge that inhibits their students’ individual learning progress and collective achievement results.

Superintendents, meanwhile, make sure that central-office staff members, as well as school principals, are participating in learning teams. The goal is to cultivate by sharing and collaboration the knowledge and leadership skills they will need to improve academic performance.

To make all of this happen, educators must address the issues identified as the most significant barriers to efforts aimed at professional growth. Schools need, for example, support for carving out the time required for professional learning and collaborative work. Policymakers must make this a priority, by giving schools and districts the resources, options, and flexibility for meeting this need.

Such options might include lengthening the school day and reallocating the extra minutes gained; creating regular early-dismissal or late-start days; hiring more teachers, substitutes, and other staff members to provide instructional-support services while teachers learn together; reorganizing school schedules to create common-learning and collaboration time for teachers; and organizing noninstructional time to provide additional opportunities for shared teacher learning.

But finding time will not, on its own, ensure the attainment of improvements we know are possible. Principals and teacher leaders will also need the knowledge and skill sets that promote continuous improvement of practice. They must be able to analyze data on student performance to diagnose student and teacher learning needs, to determine what professional-learning goals will be most likely to improve teacher and student performance, to select the appropriate professional-learning strategies for enhancing professional practice, to access classroom-level support to ensure successful implementation of new practices, to assess the impact of their efforts, and, finally, to reflect on what needs to happen next.

These are not skills taught in most teacher-preparation programs. And districts—in some cases, with the help of technical-assistance providers—will have to take the lead in preparing principals and teachers to guide the buy-in and understanding necessary for successful implementation.

Equally important, federal Title II programs will need new ground rules to ensure that support from technical-assistance agencies and universities no longer promotes whatever is the newest and best “adult pullout program,” but instead focuses on bolstering knowledge and skills across schools and classrooms. Federal statutes also must include a new definition of professional development, one that emphasizes the effectiveness of teachers, principals, and administrators and fosters collective responsibility for improving instruction and student learning. Educators must be explicitly encouraged to engage in a continuous cycle of instructional improvement that employs the critical analyses of data (including formative, interim, summative, rapid-time-reporting, and classroom assessments). This new definition also must promote structured learning among educators organized in teams, and support job-embedded coaches or other forms of external expertise to encourage transfer of new knowledge and skills to the classroom.

The evidence supporting this approach to scaled-up, schoolwide professional learning is growing stronger. In a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, C. Kirabo Jackson and Elias Bruegmann conclude that there is a significant and positive spillover effect with effective teachers, resulting in improved teaching and greater student learning overall, in all classes. The study provides additional evidence that teachers within schools learn from one another. Similarly, other rigorous studies have shown that when teachers engage in professional development that is intensive, ongoing, highly collaborative, focused on the teaching and learning of specific academic content, and linked to other school initiatives, there is a strong correlation to student achievement gains.

When such programs are sustained over time, providing teachers with 50 or more hours of support per year, student test scores rise by an average of 21 percentile points. In a study of 25 of the world’s school systems, including 10 of the top performers, Sir Michael Barber and colleagues from McKinsey & Co. found that three factors mattered most in improving student outcomes: getting the right people to become teachers; developing them into effective instructors; and ensuring that the system is able to deliver the best possible instruction for every child. In a recent speech, Barber advocated systems supporting collective responsibility and securing the time for collaboration and learning for all educators.

For a decade, my organization, the National Staff Development Council, has reported on school systems and schools that produce significant gains for students and how they do it. We have yet to find one that has made these gains without making its own investment in professional learning and learning conditions. According to the Washington-based Education Trust, two of the top four techniques responsible for helping schools make progress with the most disadvantaged students are ensuring that teachers routinely collaborate and using discussion of real student work to keep their discussions focused on learning.

It is time that we take these findings seriously and start applying them. We can no longer accept that some students will work with a teacher who is struggling, while others will have an experienced teacher moving them along successfully. We must engage the struggling teachers as colleagues and encourage their collaboration with others in the same subject or grade level, so that the best knowledge and skills will be continually transferred among classrooms. And we must replicate this process so that it also occurs among principals and across schools.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wants to make access to a quality education the civil rights issue of the decade. Because it is a moral imperative that every student experience great teaching every day, it must be a policy imperative that we ground teaching in collaborative learning and teamwork, and support the notion of collective responsibility for students’ success.

A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2010 edition of Education Week


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