CD3: Professional Development Services
Obtaining “High Quality” Results from Professional Development

By Dr. Kathleen Madigan 

Senior Research Scientist

The No Child Left Behind Act calls for a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom. Yet, how to achieve this goal is up to each state, school district and school. The good news is that funds have been allocated under Title II for professional development to help states meet the highly qualified standard for all teachers; in Title I, Part A each state receiving Title I funds must develop a plan to ensure that teachers in core academic areas are highly qualified.  In addition, the NCLB Act has defined some of the elements of what the federal government considers (and doesn’t consider) professional development activities.  For example, states can use the funds to improve teacher knowledge in one or more of the subjects they teach, increase skills in methods for improving student behavior, or learn how to teach students with disabilities. Yet, one-day or short-term workshops or conferences are no longer considered acceptable professional development experiences. What should schools and school districts do to establish professional development programs that will produce results? This paper will provide the policymaker with an overview of the eight key elements that all professional development programs should contain to impact K-12 student achievement: 1) All activities are referenced to student learning; 2) Schools use data to make decisions about the content and type of activities that constitute professional development; 3) Professional development activities are based on research-validated practices; 4) Subject matter mastery for all teachers is a top priority; 5) There is a long-term plan that provides focused and ongoing professional development with time well allocated; 6) Professional development activities match the content that is being instructed; 7) All professional development activities are fully evaluated; 8) Professional development is aligned with state standards, assessment, and the local school curriculum.

The following is an example of a professional development program model that uses all eight features and has been successful in improving student achievement.
The individual faculty member, school as a unit, and district office interact as a learning community which form the network for all professional development activities. Each informs the others to make improvements. The leadership team consists of a principal, a professional development coordinator, behavior intervention specialist, lead teachers for each grade level, and a special education teacher. Using weekly student learning and behavioral data that chart curriculum-based assessments linked to state standards as well as actual student work, each lead teacher conduct weekly grade level team meetings to discuss student performance for every instructional group in their grade. As the team leader, the lead teacher is responsible for maintaining a problem-solving format and taking any unresolved issues to the weekly leadership team meeting.
The weekly leadership team meeting is co-coordinated by the Principal, Professional Development Coordinator, and expert(s) from or hired by the district.  During the leadership meeting, again student performance is discussed using a problem-solving format. Solutions to student performance problems are identified and implemented. These include in-class coaching, in-service sessions, individual "tutoring" sessions with the teacher, video or audio-tape self-assessments, and assignments to increase subject matter knowledge. Thus, decisions about ways to improve teacher performance are developed from a weekly analysis of student performance information. Professional development activities are implemented in a timely manner and are always referenced to student performance.
Professional development activities at this school, therefore, are ongoing, collaborative, student-related, and directly impact "life" in the school and classroom. As the individual faculty members grow and develop, so does the school organization. Effective practices at one school are shared and replicated at other schools via the district wide learning network (formal and informal avenues). In addition, school development helps to create changes in policies, procedures, curriculum, and assessment standards implemented across the district.

Although the above example seems fictional, it is not. It is a basic professional development model used in many successful schools.  Why is this approach to professional development successful? Because it contains the same eight key features of all successful professional development programs.

1.  All activities are referenced to student learning.
School leaders should establish that all students will learn and that improving student learning is key to school and teacher success. By referencing all activities to student performance, the school leaders evaluate professional development opportunities through a different lens. No longer are inspirational speeches or one-day workshops considered professional development. They might be considered a part of the process, but not the actual end product. Leaders and teachers must constantly ask themselves, how will this experience increase my skills and/or knowledge and how will that increase student performance. The answers to these questions should be clear to all participating teachers. Although the teacher is central to student learning, other members of the school community should be included in professional development activities that increase student learning.

2.  Schools should use data to make decisions about the content and type of activities that constitute professional development
Student information that must be collected to inform the overall professional development plan includes: student test scores, numbers and types of students taking rigorous courses (e.g., algebra and geometry), graduation rates, attendance rates, promotion rates, number and types of disciplinary referrals for each school (or by grade/teacher), number and types of suspensions. As in the example, ongoing performance on curriculum based tests, lesson accuracy and completion for each student can be collected to make decisions regarding the type of instruction or content needed by the teacher to address the student’s needs. In addition, it is important that schools collect information about their teachers’ subject mastery knowledge either through formal or informal teacher testing programs.
All of this information can inform the professional development plan, as well as, provide data to evaluate the effects of professional development activities. For example, if the school learns that the number of students taking rigorous coursework in high school is less than optimal and the school, also, finds that there are only a handful of teachers who can teach the advanced coursework, the school might invest in improving subject matter knowledge for other teachers who could teach the advanced coursework. Additionally, the school might provide ongoing mentoring and coaching for those teachers currently teaching remedial or “regular” coursework, so that they could implement specific strategies to increase student performance and ready them for more challenging courses. Thus, improving the skills and knowledge of the teachers could positively impact the number of students taking rigorous courses.
Another example of using data to make decisions for designing professional development activities can be taken from early grade reading scores. If a school has consistently low scores in beginning reading, then the early grade teachers’ skills and knowledge must be improved.  Buying new reading books, having a better library, or requiring more time for reading instruction, will not improve student reading, if the teachers don’t know how to sound out words, make rhyming patterns, or design instruction that is systematic and explicit.

3.  Professional development activities are based on research-validated practices.
The No Child Left Behind Act specifically requires the use of scientifically based research to verify practices and has, thus, placed an empirical spotlight on the study of teaching and learning. Most people agree that teacher quality directly impacts student learning. Even though there are many avenues to improving teacher quality, professional development is the one most traveled. Unfortunately, to date there has been no comprehensive study that has determined the impact of different professional development activities on K-12 student learning. What we do know, however, is that there are certain empirically tested instructional strategies that produce student learning; these strategies need to be disseminated, practiced, reinforced and refined through professional development opportunities.
The challenge for teachers, administrators, and policymakers is seeing through the fads that are disguised as “research based.”  For example, schools and school districts are spending a great deal of time and money on preparing teachers to understand and implement instruction using two interesting, but untested theories— a) Multiple Intelligences promoted by Howard Gardner and, b) Brain-based learning. Gardner’s theory has an intuitive appeal--- we are all intelligent in some way; traditional IQ tests don’t adequately measure a person’s full range of abilities or talents. What is most disturbing about the trend to use multiple intelligences for instructional and curriculum decisions, is that there is no scientific base for saying that if one designs and implements instruction based on the theory of multiple intelligence students will learn better than if instruction was designed or implemented in any other way. Furthermore, this theory ignores and contradicts extensive research that is well established and addresses effective instruction.
This is also true of the recent zeitgeist for brain-based learning. Although, it is commonsense to conclude that our central neurosystem plays an important part in how we learn, the current strategies and tactics that are promoted in “brain-based kits” have not been subjected to rigorous evaluation. Kurt W. Fischer, director of the Mind, Brain, and Education Program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education indicates: “You can’t go from neuroscience to the classroom, because we don’t know enough about neuroscience.”  He is not alone in offering cautionary words. Many neuroscientists suggest that it is just too early to create classroom applications from studies on memory and learning.  Even if the science were ready for application, educators and policymakers should demand careful study of any tools based on theory before supporting wholesale implementation and dissemination. Only innovation that comes from scientifically based researched will improve our professional knowledge base.
So what does work? And how does one know? Jeanne Chall reported that the use of teacher-directed, rather than student-centered instructional strategies, correlate closely with higher levels of student achievement. Citing numerous studies, she made a strong case for adopting teacher directed strategies.  In 1990, Herb Walberg reviewed over 800 studies in order to determine which teaching methods were most effective. He also found that teaching techniques that maximized engagement, provided appropriate cues, corrective feedback, and direct and explicit instruction were closely linked to better student achievement across subject areas.  Policymakers, teachers and administrators should ask four questions to determine whether the professional development efforts are based on solid research: a) What are the results of the research to test these strategies or products?; b) What methods were used to gather the data? c) Can you show me a video, or direct me to classrooms that I could visit to see the product or strategy in action? d) How does it fit within the context of well-established research on effective instruction?
If you are told an anecdote about how effective it was in a particular classroom or with a small number of students, then you know this technique is neither research-based nor proven. If you are shown a list of references, then ask to see the actual studies. Remember, there is no distinction in a reference list between articles that are actual studies or papers written by someone with an interesting opinion. If you are shown real studies with real students in real classrooms, then check for comparison groups, and make sure the researchers support their claims.   Until we hold education accountable for creating a reliable professional knowledge base and for giving teachers thoroughly tested and evaluated tools, we will continue to find ourselves following the latest trend, more like the fashion industry than the medical profession.

4.  Subject matter mastery for all teachers is a top priority.
There is strong evidence to suggest that teachers who know their subjects are more likely to produce student learning gains than those who do not.   This is especially true in mathematics.  One measure of subject matter mastery is to determine if the teacher has a major or minor in their field. However, not all majors and minors are created equal. In some colleges, a person can be an English major and never have had a course in Shakespeare. Teachers cannot teach what they do not know. Nor can teachers design effective instruction without deep content knowledge. Providing teachers with ongoing support to maintain (or improve) their subject matter competence is an essential part of any well-designed professional development program. This can be accomplished by connecting with the college of arts and sciences at local universities, online university coursework in key subject areas, or professional associations in the content area. When working with professional associations that are for teachers in the content area or the “learned societies” be cautious. Oftentimes these groups promote a certain ideology more than content. Many school districts have a great deal of success developing relationships with professional associations in content areas that are not specifically designed for teachers. In order to determine the content knowledge needs of the teachers, it may be necessary to administer formal or informal content area knowledge tests. Although, subject area mastery is usually discussed in relation to middle and high school teachers, elementary teachers should have a solid grounding in many subject areas. Interestingly, Pennsylvania recently required 33,400 teachers to be tested in basic reading and math skills. It may seem to odd to test current teachers in basic skills, but the results indicate a real need to provide professional development in improving basic math and reading skills for Pennsylvania’s teachers.

5.  There is a long-term plan that provides focused and ongoing professional development with time well allocated.

It is important that the school provide time for teachers to improve their skills and knowledge during their contract year. It is important that these activities are focused and ongoing. It is recommended increasing the contract year to at least 20 teacher workdays beyond student attendance days, so that time can be created to support professional development activities. The additional cost would be decreased by increased teacher retention, reduction in recruiting efforts, and increased job satisfaction.

6.  Professional development activities should match the content that is being instructed.
Although there are some initial studies on “adult learning,” the results are inconclusive and the information should be used cautiously when creating professional development experiences. More importantly, when designing effective professional development one should ask: What are we trying to teach and what is the most efficient and effective means of communication?  Having large faculty meetings to go over the state standards may seem efficient from an administrator perspective, however, if the outcome is to improve student learning (which it should be), it may be more appropriate to introduce the structure of the standards in a large group meeting and then create individual work groups to review the actual standards.
Or if the school analyzes the student data and determines that their teachers need to know how to connect student assessment data to instructional practices, then perhaps a specific series of courses on making decisions using data would be appropriate. These courses could be offered on-line with seven-day-a-week and twenty-four hour access, similar to the coursework created by Center for Professional Teaching for the State of Pennsylvania.  We could also assume that new teachers will need more mentoring and coaching as a part of their induction program. However, releasing master teachers to complete observations in new teacher’s classrooms is often a challenge and usually doesn’t occur at the frequency that the new teacher needs feedback. The school could use LessonLab, a product developed by James Stigler from his research on Third International Math and Science Study. A lesson is videotaped and then “sent” via the web to a mentor, who can provide specific feedback regarding the teacher and student interaction, lesson components, content covered, etc., at anytime that is convenient for the mentor.  

7.  All professional development activities are fully evaluated.
Since we need to use data to make decisions about what teachers need to learn, we should, also, use data to determine if our decisions and implementation was sufficient to bring about student change. First, make sure that there are evaluation measures in place from the very start that assess the participants knowledge and skills at beginning of the professional development activity and their knowledge and skills at the conclusion of the professional development activity. Even if the professional development activity is ongoing, there should be benchmark assessments of the knowledge and skills that the teacher has gained throughout the experience. For example, if there is an ongoing coaching that a teacher is receiving in order to improve his/ her skills, then there should be observational records noting the continuous improvement of the teacher and how that is affecting his/her students’ performance on curriculum based assessments and other assignments. Or a pre and post-test could be given when providing subject matter course work for secondary teachers. Finding out teachers’ satisfaction with a certain activity is one form of assessment data, but it shouldn’t be the only measure or even the most important. Teachers will often report how they felt about the session or session leader, not necessarily what they learned.
There should be measurable objectives before and after the professional development; data need to be collected and connected directly to K-12 student learning.  Individual teacher goals should be linked directly with the overall state and school objectives as well as the individual teacher needs. Teachers’ professional development plan should be a part of their annual evaluation. In addition, superintendents should hold principals accountable for making certain that all professional development goals for each faculty member are fully met. School boards should hold superintendents accountable for reporting the content and types of professional development activities provided at each school; results should be reported about the effects of professional development on K-12 student learning.

8.  Professional development must be aligned with state standards, assessment, and the local school curriculum.
If the state standards require that students learn how to write first person narrative essays, but the teacher only knows how to teach persuasive writing, then there is a mismatch between the teacher skill and student requirement. If the professional development activities focused on teaching descriptive writing, the mismatch would likely continue. There is nothing wrong with persuasive essays or learning how to teach descriptive writing, it just isn’t aligned with what the students need to know. Schools and districts are making this a priority for professional development. This last year eighty percent of public school teachers were most likely to have participated in professional development that focused on state or district curriculum standards.  The challenge for districts now is to make sure that teacher participation in the professional development activity that focused on standards translates into alignment with assessment and curriculum.

In summary, teachers and administrators in the past could piece together a professional development program based on course work, travel, conferences, inspirational speakers, and other activities that may or, more commonly, may not have been related to improving student achievement. By providing funding for professional development, the No Child Left Behind Act has created a unique opportunity to develop standards and require results for professional development activities. Now it is up to the states, school districts, school leaders, teachers, and teachers unions to justify that investment in the profession---all the while keeping in mind that the end result is to improve K-12 student learning.

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