Professional Development

Staff Development Tied to Literacy Gains for Students

By Vaishali Honawar — February 11, 2008 3 min read
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An audit of professional-development literacy programs in a Florida district has found that students of teachers trained in those programs showed significant gains in reading-test scores.

For each six-hour day teachers in the 130,000-student Duval County district, which includes Jacksonville, took part in the program offered by the Schultz Center for Teaching and Leadership, student scores on state tests rose by half a point.

Given that, if teachers completed a Literacy 101 program offered by the center that includes 84 hours, or 14 days, of instruction, one could expect to see, on average, students in that teacher’s class scoring 7 points higher than the students of a teacher who did not undergo the same training.

What’s more, teachers at all experience levels benefited from the professional development, researchers said.

The audit, commissioned by the Jacksonville-based Schultz Center, is the first of a multiyear study of professional-development programs the nonprofit center offers Duval County teachers, in literacy, mathematics, and science. It is also the latest in a small but growing body of evidence that suggests high-quality teacher professional development can lead to gains in student learning.

Lack of Understanding

William J. Slotnik, the executive director of the Community Training and Assistance Center, the Boston-based education research group that conducted the audit, said one of the biggest problems in the field is a lack of understanding about the difference well-structured professional development makes to classroom achievement.

“Professional development is not a soft input as some suggest. … When done to a high level of quality, there is a high relationship between the hours of professional development and student growth in reading,” he said.

Duval County spent about 3.5 percent of its operational budget on professional development—$34 million during the 2006-07 school year. “We sense this is consistent with a number of large districts and higher than many,” Mr. Slotnik said.

Researchers based their findings on surveys, interviews, and focus groups of teachers, principals, and other district staff members. They also observed 12 teachers in 11 schools over several months. Finally, they correlated the time teachers spent in professional-development literacy courses offered by the Shultz Center and the growth in achievement of the teachers’ students in grades 4-8.

‘Specific Needs’

A handful of other studies have, in the past, correlated professional development with student gains in learning, when the programs are of sufficiently high quality.

For instance, a 2000 study by the Educational Testing Service linked higher student test scores in math with teachers’ professional-development training in higher-order thinking skills.

The Schultz Center was set up in 2002 with state grants and private funds to provide training for educators in Baker, Clay, Duval, Nassau, and St. John’s counties. Programs are based partly on a model that supports giving formative assessments, using student work to plan instruction, developing supportive classroom routines, and using the classroom environment to support and reinforce literacy.

“What the Schultz center specializes in is just-in-time training,” said Larry Daniel, the dean of the college of education at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. “They realize very specific needs that teachers have, in Duval or otherwise, and attempt to design workshops, online experiences, and other ways to deliver content so folks can get a high-quality professional-development experience.”

Susan Wilkinson, the president of the Schultz Center, said that the center would pay close heed to the report’s recommendations, including coordinating with the district to build better databases and provide follow-up support for teachers, as well as devising an appropriate blend of teaching subject-matter content and effective teaching strategies.

“It appears we have been heavy on strategies and not included enough of the content,” she said about the audit’s findings.

A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2008 edition of Education Week as Staff Development Tied to Literacy Gains for Students

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