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Professional Development Opinion

What do Educators Want to Get Out of Professional Learning?

By Urban Education Contributor — June 26, 2017 4 min read
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This week we are hearing from the Tennessee Education Research Alliance (TERA @TNEdResAlliance). Today’s post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner’s perspective on the partnership work.

This post is by TERA’s executive director, Erin O’Hara, and research associate J. Edward Guthrie.

The Tennessee Education Research Alliance (TERA) is a relatively young research-practice partnership between Vanderbilt University and the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE). Although we build on an earlier policy research group at Vanderbilt, the alliance in its current form debuted less than a year ago with an expanded scope and a more ambitious mission to work more closely with researchers as well as practitioners and policymakers at TDOE. As the merger between a top-flight institution of education research and a state education agency with the will and capacity to place a premium on empirically-driven improvement, the TERA partnership has access to one of the nation’s richest education datasets and the potential to lead on some of K-12 education’s most pressing policy fronts.

One such front is educators’ professional learning, where the gear-teeth of research-practice continuous improvement cycles have struggled to find traction. Despite research that consistently reaffirms the importance of teacher quality and the malleability of teacher quality over time, the specific mechanisms by which teachers learn and improve, as well as the conditions in which such learning and improvement can be fostered or accelerated, remain elusive. Because the TDOE believes a better understanding of how to support professional learning will be necessary to meet its goals for student college and career readiness, one of the first priorities of the researchers and state leaders behind the TERA partnership has been to shatter this black box.

As we launched our initial research agenda, we sought the counsel of organizations with similar missions but far more experience. One of the most helpful pieces of advice came to us from Elaine Allensworth, executive director of the UChicago Consortium on School Research, which in its more than 25 years has set the gold standard for research-practice partnerships in education. When planning a new line of research, Elaine said, the Chicago Consortium begins by talking to lots of people in the field and asking them two questions: What are your goals, and what challenges are you experiencing?

Accordingly, we decided that before we could plan a set of studies on professional learning, we needed to understand how practitioners think about their goals for professional learning and what barriers they see getting in the way of success.

To that end, earlier this year we put some three dozen educators, policymakers, and academics in the same room for two days of focused conversation. Keeping in mind TERA’s primary focus on informing the work of state-level education leaders, the charge given to those convened was to formulate a set of questions to guide the planning of research that builds the capacity of the state department of education to support effective professional learning across Tennessee.

Prior to the convening, participants responded to an open-ended survey and read a review of existing research on professional learning in a brief TERA recently published. Then for two days they worked in groups of 6 to 8 - each with a healthy mix of practitioners and researchers - to brainstorm, prioritize, and elaborate. The push to turn practical imperatives into questions for researchers made for vigorous and productive discussions.

The results of that collaboration will soon be released in another TERA publication. The major research topics prioritized were: the amount of and best use of time for professional learning, conditions for effective feedback, variations in access to effective professional learning, teacher reflection and self-assessment, and coherent instructional systems.

How the groups defined those topics was quite informative. Effective professional learning, in their view, encompassed multiple sources of information (formal and informal), it had technical, cultural, and political dimensions, and it had to adapt to different contexts with different capacities. Feedback wasn’t viewed solely as formal evaluation; it included multiple sources of information whose effectiveness could be moderated by multiple factors (professional climate, leadership skills, time, etc.)

More work is needed to operationalize the ideas expressed into actual research questions. Nonetheless, our collaboration workshop and the ideas that resulted from it represent an important starting place for us in ensuring that we generate usable knowledge that responds to the needs of the field.

In addition to clarifying the vision and direction of TERA’s research agenda on professional learning, the success of the convening will serve as a model for future efforts to partner with researchers, practitioners and policymakers to ensure that research produces useful and relevant findings to improve the quality of education for young Tennesseans.

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The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice 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.


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