Johnson: Teacher professional development is in a rut, but better research can help. New partnership seeks to do just that

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When the topic of teacher professional development is brought up, educators often moan. Teachers are overworked and their professional development experiences are often seen as a waste of time. When I was in class, I was one of those whining educators. I would attend professional development that had nothing to do with the content I was teaching or the needs of my class, and I would ask myself: What am I learning that will actually benefit my students?

Professional development has a checkered history. For years, researchers have found that teacher professional development programs were largely ineffective. Less than half of the math and science programs included in a summary of recent research showed positive effects on teacher knowledge and practice, and only a third showed positive effects on student achievement. Concretely, like my experience, this means that educators do not have the possibility to really develop new skills and knowledge.

In fact, even in my days of professional development, PD became such a dirty word that my colleagues and I preferred an alternate term representing a reinvented way of thinking about how we could improve our craft: learning. professional.

When we consider what we ask of teachers today – accelerating student learning, dealing with student trauma, helping students recover from a global pandemic – it is more important than ever to understand how the old model was ineffective and figuring out how we’re going to approach what we don’t know.

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A new and growing body of research suggests that professional learning, well done, can both increase teacher morale and increase student achievement. This means that it is about:

In short, effective professional learning must be relevant, so that teachers do not perceive a gap between it and their daily work. And, quality is more important than quantity – the value of experiences is more important than the number of hours devoted to training.

Teacher learning based on this research shows an impact. For example, a robust randomized controlled trial of the National Writing Project’s College-Ready Writers Program found a statistically significant impact on the content, structure, and quality of student writing. Why does it work? A key element is that College-Ready Writers introduces teachers to new teaching techniques through a cohort of highly collaborative and supportive educators who meet regularly, share their expertise and learn together. Those who participate improve their teaching of argumentative writing through classroom demonstrations, co-teaching and coaching tailored to the needs of their students and schools. A teacher commented to researchers studying the program that “everything they looked at was something that we could immediately go back to the classroom and implement and see results.”

Yet despite these promising results, research on professional teacher learning too often focuses on how well a program works, not how and why. More information is needed on the specific features that make some programs more effective than others, so designers know how to create and implement better learning opportunities for teachers. And there is still work to be done to engage teachers; with only 29% saying they were satisfied with the current state of professional learning, programs cannot simply assume the support of educators.

What is needed, in short, is a concerted effort to further research on professional teacher learning. the Research Partnership for Professional Learning, a collaboration of professional learning organizations and researchers from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, is doing some of that work by bringing together experts to drive a transformation of research and practice into professional learning in the United States. To help target the area, the partnership recently released a learning program which outlines its goals for improving research and practice in teacher learning, including:

  • Change the types of questions that researchers study. Today, most vocational training courses assess the effectiveness of specific programs in a positive or negative way. Instead, the partnership will pursue studies that shed light on the comparative effectiveness of the programs, to find out why certain approaches work so well.
  • Develop knowledge between organizations and the educators they work with. Each member of the partnership has a different approach to professional learning. Some focus more on content, others on the mindset of teachers; some engage with teams of teachers, while others work with coaches or educational leaders. Of course, they all work with a variety of states and districts. Asking the same research questions across these different models and communities will quickly increase understanding of what works and why.
  • Using randomized experiments to test specific features of the program, gain knowledge about what works globally.

Why is this important? the the members of the partnership believe that if you don’t take teacher learning seriously, you don’t take student learning seriously. By advancing the field through the study of effective design, the partnership hopes to encourage the development of learning opportunities that both engage teachers in their own professional development and accelerate their acquisition of new knowledge and skills.

Ultimately, it is the students who will benefit the most from this much needed change.

With the dramatic changes COVID has brought about, professional learning has never been more important. But it cannot be left to guesswork and unproven programs that fail to engage the educators it is intended to reach. It is only by working together and creating innovative research partnerships that we will achieve the kind of rapid progress that educators and students in this country deserve.

Sarah Johnson is a founding member and vice-chair of the Research Partnership for Professional Learning and CEO of Teaching Lab, a non-profit organization that partners with schools and districts to improve teaching and learning.

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