Special Report

Experts Search for Best Content to Train Teachers

By Bess Keller — November 10, 2010 10 min read
A member of the University of Virginia’s MyTeachingPartner team, Sharon Deal works one-on-one with teachers to guide their practice.
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In the video clip, the middle school teacher stops in midstep to fix her eyes on two students in the second row who have just exchanged mock jabs. In exactly the same tone that she has just used to tell the class she is passing out papers, the pony-tailed teacher pronounces the word “boys,” and the two combatants straighten up and fade into conformity.

The episode takes about four seconds. The goofing-off is nearly invisible to the untrained eye. But in the course of a few years, the teacher could save precious hours with such acuity.

“You did not lose any instructional time,” her teaching coach wrote approvingly after viewing the video of the lesson. “Good work.”

The program that includes that teacher and her coach, Sharon Deal, who taught for more than 25 years before joining the University of Virginia’s MyTeachingPartner, represents a new wave of teacher professional development. However many other shortcomings have kept professional development from boosting teaching quality, proponents of the approach argue, the lack of specific and concrete content may be the most serious.

Professional Development:
Sorting Through the Jumble to Achieve Success
Professional Development for Teachers at Crossroads
Proof Lacking on Success of Staff Development
Mass. District Strives for Teacher ‘Learning System’
Mich. District Adds Accountability to Staff Training
Staff-Development Providers Eye New Opportunities
Full Cost of Professional Development Hidden
Questions Arise Over Teacher-Credential Expenses
Experts Search for Best Content to Train Teachers
Texas District Targets Teachers for ELL Training
Web Extras
Interactive: Teacher Voices View video profiles of teachers discussing professional development.
Digital Edition View the interactive PDF version of this report.
Teacher PD Sourcebook Directory

What should teachers be learning? One answer stressed in the past decade is the how and why of student assessment. Another favorite topic is lesson planning. There’s general agreement that those skills are important, and yet both research and intuition suggest they are not enough. Nor will a merely broad-brush picture of effective teaching do the job.

For instance, many educators, researchers, and professional-development providers call for a positive climate in the classroom. While identifying such an aim is useful, teachers need to know the patterns of specific behavior, often interactions with students, that build and maintain a positive climate over time, according to Robert C. Pianta, the dean of the education school at U.Va. and the head of the research team behind MyTeachingPartner.

For some 15 years, Mr. Pianta has been delving into the quality of teacher interactions with students and testing those for effects on increased student learning. The MyTeachingPartner professional-development program is one result. It uses the Pianta framework to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses in teachers’ ability to, as one example, engage students.

Interested in those same interactions as a practitioner, Doug Lemov turned for enlightenment to master teachers he knows from his experience as an administrator for Uncommon Schools, a network of charter schools in New Jersey and New York. Mr. Lemov traveled to classrooms with a videographer to capture and classify the specific ways that accomplished teachers engage students, keep them on task, and get them through the rough spots of thinking hard. The result is the book Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College, published this year.

He says he learned that technique is often the missing link in superior teaching. “The thing that gets in the way of implementing strategies is technique,” Mr. Lemov said. “When our principals want to make our teachers better, they spend a lot of time working on technique.”

Foundation Interest

Cheap and easy-to-use video technology is responsible for some of the burgeoning interest in teaching methods writ small, but video is not the only possible tool for either the research or the professional-development side of this work. Deborah Loewenberg Ball, one of the pioneers of looking in close detail at a teacher’s classroom performance and now the dean of the University of Michigan education school, uses a special classroom where educators and others observe a teacher and struggling math students from bleachers on the sidelines.

Multimedia: Teacher Voices


These mini-profiles—including video interviews—are meant to provide insight, but not to serve as representative examples of the districts in which they teach or programs in question. Their diverse experiences highlight the challenges districts face in providing high-quality training matched to each teacher’s needs.

View Teacher Profiles >>>

Ms. Ball, a former elementary teacher, focuses on math instruction, as does her former student Heather C. Hill, now a co-director of the National Center for Teacher Effectiveness at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Ms. Hill is one of five “observational” researchers who are part of the Measures of Effective Teaching project financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The others are Mr. Pianta, Pamela L. Grossman and Raymond Pecheone at Stanford University’s education school, and Charlotte Danielson, a consultant based in Princeton, N.J.

Gates officials hope the $45 million project involving 4,000 teachers will show how instructional performance can best be measured, evaluated, and improved. In addition to observation, Gates is putting money into three other approaches: “value added,” in which learning gains are linked to teachers by sophisticated manipulations of student test scores; tests of teachers’ knowledge; and student reporting on teacher effectiveness. (The Seattle-based foundation also provides grant support to Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week.)

But classroom observation has an edge on at least teacher tests and student evaluations because it translates so readily into “curriculum” for professional development. That’s especially true when video allows teachers to watch masters of their craft and themselves over and over again.

But have researchers been able to tag the true levers of student learning? The Gates-supported observational scholars say yes, pointing to studies that show teachers who routinely practice at higher levels as identified by the observational-assessment systems have students who do better on achievement tests.

Concrete Feedback

In the case of the Pianta group, the comparisons extend over years and have involved about 5,000 classrooms, though the work on secondary-level teaching is just yielding its first results. One of Mr. Pianta’s findings drawn from several thousand pre-K-3 classrooms across the county is that teachers on average provide good emotional support and keep students organized for work fairly well, but do little to promote learning beyond the rote level. Many observers have suspected exactly that.

More recently, Mr. Pianta and his team have begun investigating whether the professional-development program based on their system pays off in student learning. Early results are positive because, the researchers conjecture, the system provides a framework for highly structured and specific feedback that is focused on behaviors with proven links to student learning. More general approaches to videotaped lessons, such as “reflection,” Mr. Pianta has written, don’t work.

Classroom observers tend to turn one of two ways in their work.

Mr. Lemov, Mr. Pianta, and others take the position that many of the core elements of effective teaching transcend the subjects taught. Ms. Ball, Ms. Hill, and the Stanford researchers use a more subject-specific approach.

Ms. Grossman, an education professor at Stanford, has devised a classroom observational system for language arts, for instance. It includes both skills that cut across subjects and those that wouldn’t be found in every subject, such as guiding discussions in which students frequently refer to evidence from the text under study.

Not that proponents of the two approaches necessarily see themselves in disagreement.

“I really do think there are parts of practice that are more general—relationship-building, ways to relate to different age groups, use of time—but other aspects of teacher practice are inherently subject-specific,” said Ms. Grossman, a former English teacher. So observers using her system give high marks to teachers who build students’ understanding of different types of writing or show them how to move from sounded-out spelling to the conventional kind.

Pedagogy vs. Content

In the jargon of education, the first approach is more focused on “pedagogical knowledge” and the second on “pedagogical content knowledge.” The latter represents the particular knowledge educators need to make a subject understandable to students.

Mathematics educators have put the strongest emphasis on content knowledge. Math builds on itself more than other subjects do, the thinking goes, so students are more likely to end up stranded if teachers can’t help them grasp a concept or catch up with it later.

Any math professional development that “is not designed to transmit mathematical understanding” is bound to fall short of what teachers and students need, said Julie Greenberg, the senior policy director at the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based research and advocacy group.

Andrew Chen, the president of EduTron, a for-profit group that has provided professional development for more than 1,000 Massachusetts mathematics teachers, agrees. In the United States, given inadequate student and teacher performance in math, content knowledge must take priority, he said.

So Mr. Chen, a physicist, doesn’t observe lessons, he gives them. Teachers become students, pushed out of their comfort zones by “serious” math problems a few grades beyond where they teach.

Pedagogical content knowledge “is very relevant, but it doesn’t address the deeper issue of weak content knowledge,” Mr. Chen said, adding that it is harder to address sheer mathematical content than pedagogical content.

At the pedagogical-knowledge end of the spectrum, MyTeachingPartner at the University of Virginia follows the dictum that to some degree “good teaching is good teaching.” The program looks for patterns of observable behaviors that show teachers providing emotional support, organizing classroom interactions for efficiency and productivity, and promoting deep learning—the three “domains” of the system.

Now in the second round of piloting its system for secondary classrooms, MyTeachingPartner has recruited about 100 teachers in a Virginia school district. The volunteers videotape a classroom lesson and post it on a secure website. A master teacher like Sharon Deal reviews the video and clips out several segments as starting points for discussion of teaching technique. She draws the teacher’s attention in writing to classroom moments done well and, later, as trust builds, not so well. The teacher and the coach discuss the clips by phone or Internet chat, and the teacher responds in writing. Then the cycle begins again with the two deciding what next to work on, continuing for the length of a school year.

The basis for all that is an exhaustive catalog of putatively effective teacher behaviors, especially interactions between teachers and students, running the gamut from using a warm, calm voice to producing varied examples.

Practice Makes Perfect

Ms. Grossman welcomes the different ways of parsing what teachers do and say in the classroom. Research should provide more and better clues about how fine-grained the picture of an effective teacher should be and how much it needs to include subject-specific detail, according to the Stanford professor.

“No one has the answer to the right grain size yet, nor subject specificity,” Ms. Grossman said. “With the variety of these different tools, we’ll be able to study it.” And by studying it, the researchers will improve professional development based on it, she believes.

Still, she is concerned about a cornerstone of changing teacher behavior. In addition to needing ways to represent the best teaching approaches and deconstruct them so they can be better understood, teachers have to practice. “They need lots of opportunities to try something out and get feedback, and preferably not in a high-stakes environment,” Ms. Grossman said.

Classroom-management guru Lee Canter has perfected coaching in real time, for instance, with the coach giving feedback as the teacher works in the classroom. Mr. Lemov’s work with teachers routinely includes role-playing, with the staff acting the parts of students and teacher. One teacher might play a child with his head down on the desk, while other teachers take turns handling the situation until there’s a teacher “who nails it,” Mr. Lemov said.

“If you are a high-ranking tennis player on the eve of a big match, it’s not so helpful for a coach to tell you, ‘You can win this thing if you charge the net,’” he said. Instead, “a great coach would have had you practice your backhand and forehand over and over in the weeks before.”

Coverage of leadership, human-capital development, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Content Seen Lacking Specificity


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