Teaching Profession

Researchers Say U.S. Schools Could Learn From Other Countries on Teacher PD

By Ross Brenneman — January 26, 2016 5 min read
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A new pair of reports use international comparisons to show that any school accountability system that fails to take teacher professional development into consideration might be fighting a losing battle.

The studies, commissioned by the National Center on Education and the Economy, a nonprofit that studies education systems around the world, were led by researchers Ben Jensen and Minxuan Zhang. Both researchers presented on their work at a forum hosted by the NCEE here earlier this month. They said their findings boiled down to a single point: School accountability needs to factor in the quality of teacher professional development.

“School improvement equals professional learning,” said Jensen, the president of the Australia-based think tank Learning First.

The Jensen-led report, titled “Beyond PD,” looked at teacher professional-learning models in British Columbia, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore, all high-performing school systems as measured by student achievement on international-comparison tests. In “Developing Shanghai’s Teachers,” Zhang, a professor at Shanghai University and director of its Institute of International Comparative Education, focused exclusively on Shanghai.

‘Not an Add-On’

The reports identify some of the commonalities among PD programs in high-performing systems: career-ladder systems for teachers, strong teacher induction, and consistent, high-quality PD that is led by teachers themselves.

“For all of these people, professional learning is central to their jobs. It is not an add-on. It is not something done on Friday afternoons or on a few days at the end of the school year,” the Jensen report states.

The career-ladder frameworks are used to ensure that more-experienced and knowledgeable teachers help guide and develop younger teachers. In Shanghai, for example, a mentor-teacher is held accountable “for how well he or she mentors a new teacher, the teaching practices of the new teacher, and the performance of the new teacher’s students. If these indicators are not improved, the mentor will miss out on promotion,” the Jensen report notes. That kind of instructional accountability runs throughout the system, including principals and other administrators.

In addition, Zhang said at the NCEE forum, Shanghai schools aim to embed PD throughout instruction. “Teachers are encouraged to write and reflect so they can figure out why some things work and can share it,” he said.

To that end, advanced Shanghai teachers are turned into researchers, using the classroom to develop and test instructional approaches and interventions, the Zhang report shows.

For all these types of models to operate effectively, channels for teacher collaboration are essential, the researchers emphasized.

“This is a profound shift for many systems given the efforts to develop precise school performance measures over the past few years,” the Jensen report says. “It requires faith and trust in the people making professional judgments.”

If these types of PD systems show promise in other countries, why aren’t they more prominent in the United States?

Studies routinely show that educator professional development is a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States, but the effectiveness of that PD is far from clear. An August 2015 study by the teacher-training and advocacy group TNTP questioned the impact of PD activities in U.S. schools and criticized districts for overemphasizing workshops and other trainings that teachers often don’t find helpful.

"[In the U.S.,] there’s a lot of throwing things against the wall and not even checking to see whether they stick,” Daniel Weisberg, chief executive officer for TNTP, said in an interview. “In these systems in other countries, there clearly is an approach that is much more disciplined about testing impact and both adjusting and holding people accountable based on that.”

Uses of Time

Some states and districts, such as Iowa and Baltimore, have implemented career-ladder systems, but there hasn’t been a widespread diffusion of the practice, in part due to political and financial barriers.

One major obstacle to implementing collaborative PD models like those cited in the NCEE-funded reports may be time. U.S. teachers spend more time on face-to-face classroom instruction than do their counterparts in the countries studied, according to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Teachers in Singapore, for instance, spend 10 fewer hours per week on such instruction, giving them more time to work together.

In British Columbia, which trails the U.S. only slightly in face-to-face classroom time, professional learning appears to be worked into every nook and cranny of available time in the school day. One case study from the Jensen report offers a glimpse at an elementary school in which the principal acts as the primary substitute teacher so that her faculty could spend time on classroom observation.

At the NCEE forum, Viticia Thames, an education consultant at the World Bank, brought up another concern: If a system requires that effective teachers help develop other effective teachers, shouldn’t there be a model for high-quality instruction?

“We [in the U.S.] haven’t really taken the time to develop objective measures of what quality instruction looks like in the same way that has been done in Shanghai and Singapore,” Thames said.

While teaching-practice frameworks, such as the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, or CLASS, and Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, do exist, any district that wants to create a system from scratch would need to put in a great deal of time and effort, Thames said.

“There is a need to become much clearer about what is and is not good instruction,” Jensen said via email. “U.S. districts should—and many do—have clear instructional models. But these should not be so granular that they lead to compliance responses,” he added, saying that states and districts need to allow more room for educator expertise.

Panelists at the forum identified additional concerns: If every district or state has its own career-ladder program, how would teachers transition between them if they change districts? What safeguards would there be to ensure that promotion isn’t simply the result of favoritism? How does a district make sure that principals understand the vision for professional learning?

Marc Tucker, the president of the NCEE and an opinion blogger for Education Week, said that the difficulties the United States might face in learning from other countries shouldn’t be a roadblock to experimentation.

“There are examples of things that cost less, produce better, and create more equity,” Tucker said. “We’re damn fools if we don’t go and see what they’re doing.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 2016 edition of Education Week as In Other Countries, Teacher PD Is a Way of Life

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