A report from the organization Learning Forward repeats a familiar complaint about the state of professional learning.
...something seems to hamper professional learning and impede our ability to roll out system-wide improvements. What if the very professional development strategies that we expect to help schools achieve their goals do not effectively support teachers' continued growth? What if we are operating under faulty assumptions about how adults learn and what motivates them to improve?" (Calvert, 2016, p. 1)
The tone of frustration is likely a result of the fact that the efforts over many years to improve the quality of professional development have yet to produce much evidence that such efforts can improve student learning.
But there are educational systems that do well by their students especially when compared with American systems.
Results on the 2012 PISA show that fifteen year olds in British Columbia, the western-most Canadian Province lead their American peers by 11 months in reading literacy, 12 months in math, and 15 months in science.
Fifteen year olds in Shanghai, China are 22 months ahead of their U. S. peers in reading literacy, 39 months (!) in math and 26 months in science.
The fifteen year olds in two other systems, Hong Kong and the Republic of Singapore, fall between the British Columbia and Chinese results in comparison with U. S. fifteen year olds. (Jensen, Sonnemann, Roberts-Hull, & Hunter, 2016, p.3)
Beyond PD, a 2016 report from the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) describes how these "high-performing systems" develop policies and practices that place teacher professional learning at the center of their schools and teachers' day-to-day work.
It is striking that the elements of the high-performing systems are not so different from those found in the U. S. schools and districts (the school improvement cycle, school and teacher evaluation and accountability, professional development, leadership and leadership development). The differences lie in how these elements are put together.
Both the American and the four high-performing systems share a recognition of the importance of teacher professional learning to the improvement of student outcomes.
The American implementation of professional development, however, has been for many teachers "an empty exercise in compliance, one that falls short of its objectives and rarely improves professional practice." Evidence for this harsh judgment comes from a 2014 study which reported a survey of 1,600 American teachers who "characterized their professional development as irrelevant, ineffective, and not connected to their core work of helping students learn." (Calvert, 2016, p. 2)
This view contrasts sharply with the status of professional development for those who work in these four systems, 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. Teacher professional learning is how they all improve student learning; it is how they improve schools; and it is how they are evaluated in their jobs. They work in systems that are organized around improvement strategies explicitly anchored in teacher professional learning. (Jensen, Sonnemann, Roberts-Hull, & Hunter, 2016, p. 3)
The Beyond PD report is designed to serve "as a resource for teachers, school leaders and policymakers wanting to improve teacher professional learning in their schools." It therefore describes policies and practices in the four exemplary systems and includes detailed background information about each system as well as resources that can be used by U. S. districts and schools.
What are some of the lessons that can be drawn from the report?
The school improvement strategy in the four systems is built around three central tasks: the development of teachers as instructional leaders, the integration of the teacher and administrator evaluation and the school, administrator, and teacher accountability systems, and the creation of the conditions (primarily time) for teachers to engage in professional learning.
The systems invest in the development of teacher leaders. All four systems recognize that beginning teachers face steep learning curves when they begin a career that will see them develop into productive and skilled educators.
The concept that learning is a continuum for all professionals is embodied in formally defined and progressively more demanding job tracks. As teachers grow professionally, their new skills are used to support the professional development of newer and less skilled peers. This means that at each level in the system there are skilled professionals to support professional learning, from mentors to master practitioners.
How teachers acquire professional knowledge also matters in the four systems. In the U. S. teachers can meet the requirements for professional growth by way of face to face or online courses. They can acquire credit for learning about classroom practice without actually engaging in meaningful classroom practice.
Professional learning in the four systems is achieved primarily in the classrooms of their schools in collaboration with peers.
In British Columbia, all teachers participate in the Spiral of Inquiry teams, each led by a senior teacher. The teams work to identify learning gaps, develop ways to change classroom practice to address the gaps and evaluate the effect of changes on student learning. These plans and their outcomes become a formal part of the school's improvement plans.
The evaluation system and the accountability systems are integrated in contrast to U. S. practice where often the two are viewed as being at cross purposes. The authors of the report make it clear that in the high-performing systems both evaluation and accountability matter. Both the outcomes and the quality of working relationships are recognized and measured as parts of school and individual teacher performance. "A teacher or a school leader will therefore never be recognized as good at professional learning if they are ineffective at raising the performance of their students." (Jensen, Sonnemann, ., Roberts-Hull, K., & Hunter, A., 2016, p. 18) However, it would seem that because professional learning is focused on critical inquiry about what students do and do not know and is supported by collaborative discussion about the content to be learned with skilled teachers who had the opportunity to grow as professionals, the young teacher in the four systems would seem to have an advantage over the young American teacher who is mostly on her own at the beginning of her career.
Finally, if teachers are going to engage in practice-based professional learning, there must be time for it. American teachers spend more than three-fourths of their professional day in face-to-face instruction. American practice with its emphasis on the smallest possible class size has resulted in a dearth of time for other professional activities during the work day. In the four high-performance systems, teachers have more professional time because they teach larger classes, giving more time for planning, inquiry, and learning. All of the systems invest heavily in providing time for the professional work of teachers. The success of the four high-performing systems perhaps is found in the fact that professional learning is focused literally on the learning that professionals need to do their work. It's not recertification credit or courses taken to acquire advanced degrees, or for personal growth. The problem of the irrelevant, ineffective, disconnected "in-service" workshop would disappear if we emulated the four systems where professional learning is simply that.
Calvert, L. (2016). Moving from Compliance to Agency: What Teachers Need to make professional learning work. Oxford, OH: Learning Forward and NCTAF.
Jensen, B., Sonnemann, J., Roberts-Hull, K., & Hunter, A. (2016). Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performance Systems. Washington, DC: The National Center on Education and the Economy.
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.