Improving Teachers Through Improved Teacher Development
Empowering teachers so they lead in their classrooms
A decade ago, Professional Learning in the Learning Profession offered the nation a glimpse into the sorry state of teacher development in the United States. This important report was published by Learning Forward (then known as the National Staff Development Council) and renowned education professor (and current chair of the California State Board of Education) Linda Darling-Hammond.
At the time, then-US Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared that “nothing is more important than teacher quality.” Darling-Hammond added that “we must close the yawning achieving gap in this country.” The takeaway, in 2009, was a simple one. The state of teacher professional development was severely lacking, particularly as federal and state requirements and expectations continue to grow. Earth-shattering, no. But the findings served as strong insight into what may be coming down the pike.
These proclamations followed an era in federal education policy that was best known for being focused on research. The need for data. The definition of good data (and of bad). And the most stringent of means by which to go about collecting it. A decade ago, the powers that be sought to usher in a new era that seemed to be about successfully applying that research so it gets to the rank-and-file policymaker and practitioner. What do we do with data once we have it? How do we use it to effectively close the achievement gap? How do we use it to improve student and teacher performance? How do we use it to grow, to improve, and to generally do better?
The promise was a bold one when it came to teacher development. In summary, education leaders at the time recognized that:
- “Drive-by” or “dump-and-run” professional development doesn’t cut it, at least not in that time of accountability. Meaningful PD must be ongoing, content-based, and embedded as part of the learning day.
- According to the data we do have, the right PD can improve student achievement.
- We need to improve the linkages between teaching and student learning.
- We need experimental research into teacher professional development, particularly in subjects other than math and science.
- Our students are slipping in international measures, in part, because of our professional development opportunities. Our competitors — particularly those in Southeast Asia — are just investing more time, effort, money, and thought into high-quality PD that has a direct impact on student learning and performance. They are taking advantage of our water-treading for the past decade.
- We need to increase both the quantity and the quality of PD offered to teachers, particularly those who are entering the profession.
- At the end of the day, improved professional development (particularly in-service) is key to achieving our educational goals.
- Information is nice, using it effectively is even better.
These were meaningful insights at the time, a bold shot across the bow of an educational status quo that seemed to have little interest in truly developing educators that could wear the label of “best in the world.” Unfortunately, as we survey the realities today, even after a series of statewide teacher strikes intended to improve teaching and learning (and the compensation for such excellence), it seems we still don’t know how to move from good ideas to better practice. Particularly as it relates to state policy, how do we take these data points and build a better teacher development and support network, a network offering ongoing PD, measuring its effectiveness, and ensuring that all teachers are getting the support and professional learning opportunities they need to do their jobs well? On top of the existing need, more than ever before all teachers need embedded PD to learn how to effectively teach in a virtual-based environment. No teacher has been trained to manage a first-grade class over Zoom, or how to balance students both in-person and on-screen at the same time.
What we need to do isn’t exactly rocket science. An integrated approach to improving the teaching profession could include a combination of creating levers and investments in Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act to support the features of effective professional development, investing in rigorous studies of professional learning in relation to student achievement, and participating in OECD studies of teaching, teacher development, and student learning. These are all concepts we have heard before.
A truly meaningful approach, though, also needs to consider some bolder ideas, concepts such as:
- When it comes to PD, all means all. All teachers (and principals for that matter) need ongoing, content-based, job-embedded professional learning opportunities. No exceptions.
- We need to align learning goals (as measured by state assessments) with teaching goals. Every teacher should not only know what is expected of their classes on the state tests, but they should be given the tools and training to deliver high levels of results.
- Every teacher in the United States should receive specific, content-based PD in reading instruction. Reading is an issue that affects every teacher, whether you are ELA, math, social studies, or science. With more than a third of fourth-graders still reading below grade level, every teacher needs the knowledge base to provide the interventions needed to get students reading and engage them in the written word outside of English class.
- We need to incentivize the best teaching, through general performance pay provisions and state and federal efforts. We need to document, share, and learn from best practice. Those schools that are exceeding expectations (particularly those rewarded for it) should be mentoring those schools that are struggling at it. Such a learning loop should be required as part of any incentive program.
- And while we are collaborating, we need to use what we know about social networking and online communities (particularly as we’ve been forced to get creative in the time of Covid) to build virtual networks for teachers to share and learn. How do rural teachers gain best practices from other rural teachers? What can urban teachers in Detroit learn from their brethren in Atlanta or Los Angeles? How do we capture best practices so that we can literally see it (via video) happen in classes like ours with kids like ours? As the teaching profession grows younger and more technologically savvy, either by choice or necessity, such communities are going to be core to professional learning and development. Such social networking is the only way we can deliver high-quality, impactful PD at scale to all teachers, urban, suburban, and rural (particularly with our incoming federal investment in school technology).
- We need to focus high-quality PD on those who need it most, particularly schools in urban areas and teachers of ELLs and special education students. They are the teachers who have fallen through the cracks the most severely, and they are the ones who can most benefit from it today.
No, this isn’t rocket science. We all know that a well-prepared, well-supported, empowered teacher will be more effective. We know that ongoing, content-based PD can have a direct impact on teacher quality and student achievement. We know teaching can’t improve through a drive-by workshop at the start of the school year or a half-day seminar offered twice a year following a half-day of teaching. We know we can do it, we know some are already doing it, we just need to figure out how to package it and deliver it to all.
When it comes to professional development, so much time is focused on the pre-service side of the coin, ensuring that every teacher entering the classroom has the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed as a novice educator of record. Important traits, yes. But the hard work begins after the certificate is awarded and the classrooms are assigned.
For far too long, the education community has sought to close the dual achievement gaps, those that exist here in the United States and those seen for far too long as our nation compares its students to those in other developed countries. Yes, those gaps remain and are more than “yawning” as Darling-Hammond suggested a decade ago. Educational shut- and slow-downs due to COVID have only exacerbated those gaps.
To close the gaps, we must all accept that teachers are the gateway to school improvement (and to our general economic and social strength). We need to dramatically increase our investment in teacher development and support, and we must make sure that investment is delivering meaningful results. That means doing scientific research to demonstrate the real linkages between PD and student achievement. That means content-based PD that is delivered in the appropriate context to meet the needs of today’s teachers. And that means empowering teachers so they are leading in their classrooms throughout their entire careers.