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Virginia Journal of Education

Growing a Better Teacher

What really works for teachers' professional development.

In February, researchers at Stanford University and the National Staff Development Council (NSDC) released a major study on professional development for educators entitled “Professional Learning in the Learning Profession.” The following is an excerpt from that study, reprinted with permission of NSDC (, 2009. All rights reserved.

Rigorous research suggests that sustained and intensive professional learning for teachers is related to student-achievement gains. An analysis of well-designed experimental studies found that a set of programs which offered substantial contact hours of professional development (ranging from 30 to 100 hours in total) spread over six to 12 months showed a positive and significant effect on student achievement gains. Intensive professional development efforts that offered an average of 49 hours in a year boosted student achievement by approximately 21 percentile points. Other efforts that involved a limited amount of professional development (ranging from 5 to 14 hours in total) showed no statistically significant effect on student learning.

The research base also illustrates the shortcomings of the occasional, one-shot workshops that many school systems tend to provide, which generations of teachers have derided. More importantly, this research suggests some general guidelines for the design of effective professional development programs.
While we stress that causal relationships are not fully established, the literature does point to some basic principles for designing professional learning that school and district leaders and policymakers would be well advised to consider:

1. Professional development should be intensive, ongoing and connected to practice.
Today, as in previous decades, most professional development for teachers comes in the form of occasional workshops, typically lasting less than a day, each one focusing on discrete topics (such as classroom management, computer-based instruction, student motivation, assessment, the teaching of phonics, and so on), with their connection to the classroom left to teachers’ imaginations.

However, such episodic workshops disconnected from practice do not allow teachers the time for serious, cumulative study of the given subject matter or for trying out ideas in the classroom and reflecting on the results. Research that finds changes in teacher practice and, in some cases, student learning, supports the conclusion that:

Intensive professional development, especially when it includes applications of knowledge to teachers’ planning and instruction, has a greater chance of influencing teaching practices and, in turn, leading to gains in student learning.

Indeed, the duration of professional development appears to be associated with stronger impact on teachers and student learning—in part, perhaps, because such sustained efforts typically include applications to practice, often supported by study groups and/or coaching. As noted earlier, research studies of in-service programs found that programs of greater intensity and duration were positively associated with student learning. In addition, two separate evaluations of a year-long program designed to promote inquiry-based science instruction found that teachers who received 80 or more hours of professional development were significantly more likely to put the given teaching strategies into practice than were teachers who had received many fewer hours. Further, the more intense, long-term professional development teachers have, the greater the achievement gains posted by their students during the following year.
Rigorous research illustrates the shortcomings of the occasional, one-shot workshops that many school systems tend to provide, which generations of teachers have derided.
Professional development is most effective when it addresses the concrete, everyday challenges involved in teaching and learning specific academic subject matter.

These findings match up well with teachers’ self-reported beliefs about the value of intensive and ongoing professional development. According to results from a national survey, teachers view in-service activities as most effective when they are sustained over time.

2. Professional development should focus on student learning and address the teaching of specific curriculum content.
Researchers have found that teachers are more likely to try classroom practices that have been modeled for them in professional development settings. Likewise, teachers themselves judge professional development to be most valuable when it provides opportunities to do “hands-on” work that builds their knowledge of academic content and how to teach it to their students, and when it takes into account the local context (including the specifics of local school resources, curriculum guidelines, accountability systems and so on).

Equally important, professional development that leads teachers to define precisely which concepts and skills they want students to learn, and to identify the content that is most likely to give students trouble, has been found to improve teacher practice and student outcomes. To this end, it is often useful for teachers to be put in the position of studying the very material that they intend to teach to their own students. For example, one well-known study focused on elementary science teachers who participated in a 100-hour summer institute, during which they actively engaged in a standard “learning cycle” that involved exploring a phenomenon, coming up with a theory that explained what had occurred, and applying it to new contexts. After going through this process, teachers went on to develop their own units and teach them to one another before returning to their classrooms. Later, the researchers tested the reasoning ability of randomly selected students in those classrooms and found they scored 44 percent higher on average than did a control group of students taught by teachers who had not participated in the summer institute.

 It can be useful also for groups of teachers to analyze and discuss student-performance data and samples of students’ course work (science projects, essays, math tests and so on), in order to identify students’ most common errors and misunderstandings, reach common understand¬ing of what it means for students to master a given concept or skill, and find out which in¬structional strategies are or are not working, and for whom. Notably, one study of three high-achieving schools found that high levels of student performance seemed to be associated in part with teachers’ regular practice of consulting multiple sources of data on student performance and using those data to inform discussions about ways to improve instruction.

3. Professional development should align with school improvement priorities and goals.
Professional development tends to be more effective when it is an integral part of a larger school reform effort, rather than when activities are isolated, having little to do with other initiatives or changes underway at the school. If teachers sense a disconnect between what they are urged to do in a professional development activity and what they are required to do according to local curriculum guidelines, texts, assessment practices and so on—that is, if they cannot easily implement the strategies they learn, and the new practices are not supported or reinforced—then the professional development tends to have little impact.
One prominent model of carefully integrated professional development is the National Science Foundation’s Discovery program implemented in Ohio in 1992, which offered sustained support for teachers as part of a larger statewide effort to improve student achievement in science. Following intensive six-week institutes focusing on science content and instruction that matched those outlined in the state standards, teachers were given release time to attend a series of six seminars covering curriculum and assessment. In addition, they were provided on-demand support and site visits from regional staff developers, and contact with peers through newsletters and annual conferences. According to an independent evaluation, this combination of support led to a significant increase in and continued use of inquiry-based instructional practices.
4. Professional development should build strong working relationships among teachers.
The nation’s teachers exhibit a strongly individualistic ethos, owing largely to the built-in privacy and isolation of their daily work as it has been organized in most U.S. schools. Given the prevalence of an “egg¬crate model” of instruction—whereby each teacher spends most of the day in a single room, separated from other adults—the American teaching profession has not yet developed a strong tradition of professional collaboration. Historically, schools have been structured so that teachers work alone, rarely given time together to plan lessons, share instructional practices, assess students, design curriculum, or help make administrative or managerial decisions.

Such cultural norms are not easily changed, particularly if school structures and working conditions continue to favor privacy and isolation. However, research shows that when schools are strategic in creating time and productive working relationships within academic departments or grade levels, across them, or among teachers schoolwide, the benefits can include greater consistency in instruction, more willingness to share practices and try new ways of teaching, and more success in solving problems of practice.

For example, a comprehensive five-year study of 1,500 schools undergoing major reforms found that in schools where teachers formed active professional learning communities, student absenteeism and dropout rates were reduced and achievement increased significantly in math, science, history and reading. Further, particular aspects of teachers’ professional communities— a shared sense of intellectual purpose and a sense of collective responsibility for student learning—were associated with a narrowing of achievement gaps in math and science among low- and middle-income students. A number of large-scale studies have identified specific ways in which professional community-building can deepen teachers’ knowledge, build their skills, and improve instruction.

Perhaps the simplest way to break down professional isolation—but one which rarely occurs in most schools—is for teachers to observe each other’s teaching and to provide constructive feedback. In an evaluation of 12 schools implementing Critical Friends Groups—a peer-observation system developed by the National School Reform Faculty employing a set of protocols that teachers use to guide their observations and responses—researchers found that teachers’ instruction became more student-centered, with a focus on ensuring that students gained mastery of the subject as opposed to merely covering the material. In survey responses, teachers in these schools also reported having more opportunities to learn and a greater desire to continuously develop more effective practices than teachers who did not participate.
Teachers can also use videotapes of teaching to make aspects of their practice public and open to peer critique, learn new practices and pedagogical strategies, and analyze aspects of teaching practice that may be difficult to capture otherwise. Recent research on teachers undertaking certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards—which involves them in producing and analyzing their own classroom videotapes in relation to professional standards, and often discussing them with colleagues—has found that the experience can lead teachers to change how they teach, increase their knowledge of various approaches, and enable them to engage in more effective teaching practices in the classroom.

While efforts to strengthen teachers’ professional relationships can take many forms, a number of researchers have identified specific conditions necessary for their success. For example, in a study of 900 teachers in 24 elementary and secondary schools across the country, researchers found that teachers formed more stable and productive professional communities in smaller schools, schools with little staffing complexity (i.e., where more staff members are classroom teachers and fewer are assigned to specialist and administrative jobs), schools where teachers were relatively more involved in educational decision-making, and, especially, schools that scheduled regular blocks of time for teachers to meet and plan courses and assignments together.

Other Promising Strategies

In recent years, schools and districts across the country have invested in school-based coaching programs, one of the fastest growing forms of professional development today. Typically in such models, administrators identify well-regarded veteran educators and assign them to provide ongoing guidance, advice and mentoring to a group or groups of teachers to help them improve their instruction.

When schools are strategic in creating time and productive working relationships within academic departments or grade levels, across them, or among teachers schoolwide, the benefits can include better instruction and more success in solving problems of practice.
While coaching, mentoring and induction can be justified on commonsense grounds, the jury remains out as to their effectiveness or the conditions under which they are most likely to be effective.
Closely related to school-based coaching is the increasingly common practice of providing mentoring and other forms of formal induction to beginning teachers. Often serving as the primary source of professional development for teachers in the first few years of their careers, various forms of new teacher induction are now required in more than 30 states.
While both of these strategies can be justified on common-sense grounds, their results are not yet confirmed by a solid body of evidence, and the jury remains out as to their effectiveness or the conditions under which they are most likely to be effective. Thus, policymakers would be well-advised to keep in mind the following two points.
School-based coaching may enhance professional learning. Several comparison-group studies have found that teachers who receive coaching are more likely to enact the desired teaching practices and apply them more appropriately than are teachers receiv¬ing more traditional professional development.
Several evaluations have suggested that coaching models of professional development have contributed to positive reforms in literacy instruction. For example, one study cites the impressive achievement gains of students whose school participated in the Alabama Reading Initiative, which utilized a school-based coaching model (following an intensive two-week summer institute) to provide ongoing support to teachers implementing the new literacy approach. Another recent evaluation found that as a result of a differentiated literacy program and other interventions that utilized a coaching model, the percentage of students meeting benchmark standards in an Illinois district increased markedly. In a study by the Foundation for California Early Literacy Learning, teachers reported that the coaching they received had a positive effect on student achievement. Likewise, some researchers have linked achievement gains in reading and writing to literacy coaching.

None of these studies, however, employed comparison-group methods with sufficient controls and on a large enough scale to establish a strong association or causal link between coaching and student achievement, and more rigorous research is required to confirm these relationships.
Further, a major literature review conducted as part of an Institute for Education Sciences evaluation of the Reading First program reported mixed findings on the impact of coaching on instructional practice. As the authors explained, those findings should be read as neither an endorsement nor a criticism of the professional development model, since they may reflect variability in the expertise and practices of those assigned as coaches. In other words, the findings may have as much to do with the content or the uneven implementation of the specific coaching received as with the coaching model itself.
As in any professional development enterprise, it is also critically important that the instructional practices promoted through coaching are themselves more effective for the goals and circumstances in which they are being used than the practices teachers are otherwise using. The content of professional learning matters as much as the process by which it is transmitted.

Mentoring and induction programs for new teachers may support teacher effectiveness. In one large-scale literature review, researchers found that induction programs tend to be effective in reducing attrition among beginning teachers. The strongest retention rates were associated with the assignment of a teacher mentor working in the same subject area and/or grade level, common planning time with teachers in the same subject, regularly scheduled collaboration with other teachers, and participation in a network of teachers. One analysis found that when beginning teachers received a combination of such induction supports, attrition declined by half.

Some studies suggest also that when teacher mentors receive formal training, along with release time to provide one-to-one mentoring, the retention and classroom performance of beginning teachers improves. Further, a recent literature review noted that a number of case-based research studies give strong support to induction programs that are “collegial” and “job-embedded” (as when mentors observe beginning teachers in the classroom), while finding that workshops for new teachers tend to be ineffective. However, these same reviewers also note that the research to date has tended to rely on teachers’ self-reported gains in their knowledge and skills.



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