Staff Development for Teachers Deemed Fragmented

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 10, 2009 6 min read
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Although American teachers spend more working hours in classrooms than do instructors in some of the top-performing European and Asian countries, U.S. students have scored in the middle of the pack on a number of prominent international exams in recent years.

That paradox appears to stem at least in part from a failing of the United States’ systems for supporting professional learning, concludes a new report released here last week. American teachers, it finds, are not given as many opportunities for on-the-job training as their international peers, and their effectiveness appears to suffer as a result.

The time U.S. teachers actually spend in professional training largely continues to take place in isolation, rather than in school-based settings that draw on teachers’ collective knowledge and skills, the report says.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addresses the audience during a press conference to announce the release of the National Staff Development Council report on professional development in Washington on Feb. 4.

Despite some recent improvements in professional-training opportunities, “we’re way behind other countries that are high-achieving in terms of the time and intensive opportunity for deep learning they provide,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University professor who co-wrote the report with four colleagues at that university’s School Redesign Network. “We still see teachers engage in really short one- and two-day workshops rather than ongoing, sustained support that we now have evidence changes practices and increases student achievement.”

A new push to reorient staff development nationwide could come from the new U.S. secretary of education, Arne Duncan, who praised the report at its unveiling in Washington. In his remarks, Mr. Duncan named improving the quality of teaching “one of [the new federal education administration’s] top two priorities, along with raising standards.”

Ms. Darling-Hammond, who was one of President Barack Obama’s top education advisers during his run for the White House, said one way to do so would be to introduce “more clarity and purposefulness” into the spending criteria for the No Child Left Behind Act’s $3 billion Title II teacher-quality state grant program. (“Grants in NCLB to Aid Teaching Under Scrutiny,” Dec. 3, 2008.)

Reviewing the Research

Linda Darling-Hammond addresses the audience during a press conference to announce the release of the National Staff Development Council report on professional development in Washington on Feb. 4.

The report establishes an overall picture of the nation’s professional development by linking a review of the research literature on staff training with data from a nationally representative survey of teachers. It also incorporates information on the staff-development practices of countries such as Finland, Japan, Singapore, and Sweden, whose students excel on international tests, such as the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA.

Ms. Darling-Hammond and her colleagues extensively reviewed the research literature on professional development. The review included a synthesis of results from those studies employing the most scientifically rigorous research methodologies.

That synthesis found that training programs of a certain duration—30 to 100 hours of time over six months to a year—positively influenced student achievement, while those with fewer than 14 hours had little effect.

The report’s authors also drew on qualitative research to outline common features of professional development that appear to be associated with changes in teacher practices. Such features include a sustained curriculum that is connected to teachers’ classroom practice, focuses on specific content, aligns with school improvement goals, and fosters collaboration among a school’s staff.

Lessons From Abroad

Professional-development practices in some of the top-performing industrialized countries frequently align to such a research base, while those in the United States largely contradict it.

Many of the countries that perform well on international achievement tests allow teachers relatively more time to meet together to share ways of improving their teaching than the United States does, and teachers spend fewer hours actually in the classroom, the report says. U.S. teachers spend about 80 percent of their working time engaged in instruction, while for most industrialized countries, the figure is only 60 percent.

In Japan, for instance, teachers engage during work hours in a practice called “lesson study,” in which colleagues observe one teacher’s lesson and then analyze it for strengths and weaknesses. (“In ‘Lesson Study’ Sessions, Teachers Polish Their Craft,” Feb. 11, 2004.)

But in the United States, professional learning typically takes place in isolated settings, rather than being integrated into teachers’ day-to-day activities or with peers. Data from the federal Schools and Staffing Survey, a nationally representative survey of 130,000 teachers, revealed that in 2003-04, 92 percent of teachers reported participating in workshops over the past year, while only 22 percent made visits to other schools to observe good teaching in action, the report states.

Teachers’ lesson planning in the United States also averages between three and five hours a week and is typically scheduled independently, rather than coordinated with other teachers’ schedules. But in most European and Asian countries, teachers spend 15 to 20 hours a week on those activities and generally perform them in collaboration with their peers, the report says.

“In the U.S., professional development is predominantly an individual enterprise focused on serving individuals rather than focusing on what students need,” said Stephanie Hirsh, the executive director of the Dallas-based National Staff Development Council, a nonprofit membership body that seeks improvement to professional-development systems and the report’s sponsor.

Although no causal evidence exists to link other countries’ professional-development techniques directly to their scores on international tests, the alignment of those countries’ practices to the research “suggest[s] that there may be some connection between the opportunities for teacher development and the quality of teaching and learning that result,” the report says.

Experts who study teacher development abroad echoed many of the report’s findings.

“If we want professional teachers, we need to treat them like professionals. That means ensuring that they are accountable for results, but giving them the professional autonomy to teach well,” Susan K. Sclafani, an official in former President George W. Bush’s administration who has studied teacher development in Singapore, wrote in an e-mail.

“That means that they work together on addressing ‘difficult cases,’ children who do not learn easily to high levels,” she continued.

Beginning Improvements

Some emerging practices in the United States show signs of leading toward a vision of sustained profession learning that is more in tune with international practices.

For example, in the 2003-04 sass study, 63 percent of teachers said they took part in peer observation and 46 percent in mentoring or coaching, in which selected coaches observe teachers’ lessons, provide feedback, and model instructional practices. And nearly 71 percent of teachers with fewer than five years of experience reported being assigned a master or mentor teacher.

Research on the effects of coaching programs remains nascent, but the report deems the practice worthy of additional attention.

A tough look at overhauling the nation’s professional-development systems is also likely to raise controversial questions about other teacher-quality structures.

Ms. Sclafani, who is now the director of state services for the National Center on Education and the Economy, a Washington-based nonprofit group that promotes a tighter link between education and workforce development, noted that several of the top-performing countries have stricter front-end selection criteria for teachers, larger class sizes, and longer hours to facilitate on-site professional learning. The United States, in contrast, typically has lax entry standards and smaller classes, and the majority of teachers receive no more than 16 hours of training in their subject per year.

Questions about such differences should be on the table as stakeholders reconsider the nation’s systems for deploying professional development, Ms. Sclafani indicated.

“If we want to be a high-performing nation, we need to change our system and our practices,” she said. “Our children are no different.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Staff Development for Teachers Deemed Fragmented


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