As technology is integrated into teacher professional development in new and different ways, researchers are working to answer a key question: What approaches featuring digital tools work best?
A research project on professional development in the 103,000-student Memphis school system in Tennessee is working toward some answers.
The initiative is evaluating two different technology-related methods of professional development to see which may have the more significant impact on student achievement.
In one group, teachers are videotaping themselves in class and then working with coaches by telephone and email to boost their skills. In the other group, teachers are tapping into an online community that features discussion boards and resources for improvement. Evaluators will use a student survey and achievement data to determine the impact of each form of professional development.
The project, taking place during this school year, is important because there’s a serious lack of data about online and other technology-related professional development, said Stephanie Hirsh, the executive director of Learning Forward, an Oxford, Ohio-based nonprofit focused on educator learning. Learning Forward is not involved in the Memphis study.
“Fundamentally, we need to do more research around the impact of these different, new learning opportunities for teachers,” Ms. Hirsh said.
The research has received $2.7 million in funding from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also helps support Education Week‘s coverage of business and innovation.
As part of the research project, teachers in one group, which include elementary, middle, and high school educators, videotape their lessons for about 30 minutes at least eight times during the school year and send those recordings to a coach. The mentor evaluates a teacher’s skills based on principles set out by a coaching model called MyTeachingPartner, which emphasizes approaches to help teachers improve interactions with students.
Those principles are based on the “seven C’s": care, control, clarify, challenge, captivate, confer, and consolidate. Coaches highlight the C’s in which the teachers are performing well and point out areas for improvement, then work with teachers to change practices, said Monica W. Jordan, the coordinator of reflective practice and instructional support for the Memphis schools.
Robert C. Pianta, the dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, who helped develop MyTeachingPartner, is training the coaches working with the Memphis teachers. The coaches are being provided by Cambridge Education, a Westwood, Mass.-based nonprofit education consulting company.
Mr. Pianta said some teachers were worried at first that they might feel disconnected from a mentor they don’t see face-to-face, but those worries have largely dissipated.
In the second-professional development scenario, teachers were presented with access to an online environment that features instructional materials, videos, articles, and links to information, which all line up with the categories laid out by the seven C’s. The online environment also provides opportunities for interaction through discussion boards for sharing best practices, lesson plans and new ideas.
“There’s content there, but teachers can also build the content they want to see,” Ms. Jordan said.
The initiative has its roots in the Tripod Project for School Improvement, a survey that questions students about their experiences as viewed through the seven C’s. The survey has been found to be highly reliable in predicting student achievement, according to a report by the Gates Foundation.
Tracking the Results
Ms. Jordan said there are few results from the initiative so far, but she said teachers who are actively participating in the intensive video training have called it “the most transformational form of professional development they’ve ever received.”
Brittany Clark, an English teacher at Middle College High School in Memphis, said the coaching “made me more reflective and attuned to certain things.”
For example, the coaching highlighted a need for multiple checks of student understanding. Now, Ms. Clark said, she’s incorporating several methods of determining whether students are catching on, from using clicker devices to a thumbs-up or thumbs-down system.
Though 120 Memphis teachers were initially involved in the video-coaching project, only about 41 teachers became active participants, Ms. Jordan said. About 650 teachers were eligible to take part in the online environment, but only 250 so far have joined it, Ms. Jordan said.
“We’re learning just as much about the people who chose not to take advantage of it as the people who did,” she said. “The promise we made is that we were going to try to find ways that made sense for all the different kinds of teachers we have, and the ways they like to learn.”
Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as Memphis Evaluating Tech.-Related PD to See What Works