For nearly a decade, efforts to raise student-achievement levels have been mostly about driving standards through the schoolhouse door. Accountability has meant putting pressure on educators to raise performance. But ensuring that educators have the necessary skills, knowledge, and tools to help all students achieve has not been approached with the same urgency. A concentration on minimal standards for teacher quality and the continual underinvestment in proven approaches to help educators do their jobs more effectively have made it almost impossible for teachers and principals to bring all students to proficiency, as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Today, about two-thirds of schools and school districts are invested in a system of professional learning that hinders, rather than promotes, great teaching for every student, every day. Common policy and practice focus on individual professional learning, rather than team-based and schoolwide learning; on increasing the number of staff-development days, rather than restructuring the workday; and on isolated professional-development plans, rather than those that are embedded in school and district improvement plans. This approach ensures that only some teachers and their students benefit, not all teachers and all students.
Moreover, too much of the debate about improving teaching is focused on improving preparation, rather than improving practice. Yet more than two-thirds of the current teaching force entered the classroom before the introduction of more-rigorous standards. Only on-the-job staff training for both new and veteran teachers will deliver significant dividends in student learning.
A growing body of evidence suggests that the right kind of investments in effective, school-based learning for teachers can have an enormous impact, and may well be the difference between lackluster achievement in the United States and the higher performance seen in foreign countries that have invested strategically in teacher collaborative learning. Countries that outperform the United States on international education comparisons, such as Finland, Japan, and Singapore, devote significant time to professional development and teacher collaboration, and their students reap the benefits.
Here in the United States, a 2005 research review by the Center for Public Education says: “Professional development at high-performing schools differs distinctively from the norm. It is directly linked to changing instructional practice in order to improve student achievement. It is often team-based and schoolwide, and it reflects a continual process of improvement.”
A 2007 American Institutes for Research study of successful schools that “beat the odds” in student achievement sheds more light on this issue. The study showed that teachers in such schools, when compared with those in low-performing schools, were, to a greater degree, deliberately engaged in collaboration, were supported by instructional coaches, received regular classroom visits by principals, and benefited from peer observations and coaching, as well as mentoring.
The data support what a small number of districts and states are learning when they begin to view professional development as an investment, and teacher knowledge as a crucial resource that must be nurtured every day.
Effective professional learning is like a time-release capsule; its contents cannot be absorbed in a single day or week, but must be infused into the system over time to yield desired results in student achievement. In an effective professional-learning system, teachers meet on a regular schedule in teams formed because of common grade-level or content-area assignments and the collective responsibility members hold for their students’ success. Learning teams follow a cycle of continuous improvement that begins with examining student data to determine the areas of greatest student need, pinpointing areas where adult learning is necessary, engaging in study to address these needs, developing powerful lessons and assessments, applying new strategies in the classroom, reflecting on their impact, and repeating the cycle as necessary.
The Norfolk, Va., school district, for example, offers teachers substantial professional development during the school year and summer. Teachers are placed in grade-level teams that meet at least twice a week to review data, plan instruction, and share ideas and concerns. Instructional specialists work with teachers and principals in their schools and classrooms. These efforts have made a difference: Norfolk students demonstrate higher levels of achievement than those in demographically similar districts in the state, and the achievement gap between black and white students is narrowing, which earned the district the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2005.
Too much of the debate about improving teaching is focused on improving preparation, rather than improving practice.
In Boston, every school now has at least a half-time coach who helps teachers, meeting in grade-level teams or by subject, refine their practice by studying, observing, and analyzing effective classroom instruction. Boston’s dedication to professional learning also has paid off. Student achievement has risen steadily since 2002, and the district has shown significant progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress Trial Urban District Assessment, or TUDA. On the 2007 administration of TUDA, for example, Boston students demonstrated the highest improvement in 4th and 8th grade math when compared with those of 10 other large city school districts. Boston also earned the Broad Prize, in 2006.
The central office is critical to the success in these systems and others. Central-office administrators set the expectations for district performance, then ensure that schools have access to student data, provide assistance and resources to principals and school-based staff developers, and coordinate efforts among schools. Educators at these schools also draw assistance and expertise from external sources.
States support the success of schools by creating accountability-and-support structures that help school systems nurture teacher growth and student success. In Education Week‘s Quality Counts 2008 analysis, more than 40 states report that they have adopted standards for staff development. At least 25 of them are aligned with the National Staff Development Council’s standards, which call for preparing administrative and teacher leaders to fulfill their responsibilities for ensuring high-quality professional learning, and also require evaluation of this investment as a measure of educator performance and student learning.
States also are taking serious steps toward ensuring that all standards drive more-effective professional development. Georgia, for example, requires each school to develop an improvement plan that includes professional learning that meets state standards. It is also the first state to offer an online tool that measures the alignment of professional-development practices with state standards. Delaware, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and other states are using their relicensure systems to promote more-effective professional development and to document improved professional practice as well as, in some cases, the impact on students.
Arkansas and New Jersey offer tools and training to promote and support the effective use of collaborative-learning time. North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia are investing in academies and other support structures to develop the capacity of school and teacher leaders to guide effective professional learning.
States are beginning to recognize that effective professional development requires data-collection systems that allow schools and districts to comprehensively evaluate, analyze, and interpret student performance to support both the identification of teachers’ learning needs and the adjustment of teacher instruction.
While there is no one way to transform professional learning, there are multiple examples of successful district and state efforts waiting to be adapted and adopted. Expansion of these effective models would make the continuing education of educators more professional and more focused on what will result in learning gains.
A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Making Every Educator a Learning Educator