Investing in Professional Development – and Making it More Effective!

By Ed Moscovitch

Last week, TNTP, a Brooklyn-based non-profit that works on improving teaching, particularly in inner-city schools, published a report on teacher professional development (PD) programs in three large school districts and a network of charter schools. The report concluded that the districts invest a great amount in PD, but the programs are making relatively little impact on how teachers teach. In its coverage, the Washington Post misstates TNTP’s conclusions, suggesting that the spending is wasteful, makes little difference, and should be cut back.
In fact, the TNTP authors say that improving teacher effectiveness “is critical to the long-term success of our education system and worthy of substantial investment” and that we need to find ways to make districts’ PD efforts more effective.
The Bay State Reading Institute’s mission is closely aligned with TNTP’s: helping principals and teachers improve the quality of instruction, particularly in high-poverty schools. In our case, we work with teachers to help them move away from “stand and deliver” classrooms and instead focus on differentiated, small-group instruction, with an emphasis on having students actively participate in their learning by reading texts and solving problems together, asking each other questions, debating, and picking out main ideas. In the great majority of our schools we’ve seen huge changes in the way teachers teach; the steps we’ve taken to do this run along similar lines to what TNTP suggests. Our experience offers important insights into what works in this area.
If professional development is understood to mean that each teacher chooses her own courses, so that only one or two teachers from a school attend a particular session, and that there is no follow-up in the school, it’s hardly surprising that is has little impact on teaching.
Our experience is that a school improves when the faculty as a whole embarks on a coordinated, long-term effort to achieve specific pedagogical goals. This effort requires strong educational leadership from the principal and whole-hearted support from the district’s central office. It requires that entire grade-level teams attend our training sessions together, along with the principal and the school instructional coach. And it means that when everyone comes back from PD sessions, the principal, the instructional coach, and the BSRI coaches are in the classrooms giving teachers hands-on help in implementing what they’ve learned.
As TNTP points out, this only works if the principal creates a climate in which teachers feel safe taking risks and have considerable say in how they implement school-wide goals. Making an impact on school effectiveness means changing instruction in all classrooms, not just one or two; this only happens when the principal herself knows what good pedagogy looks like, is in classrooms frequently, and makes specific pedagogical requests of each teacher.
Building in time for teachers and principals to regularly review data together and make instruction decisions for individual students collaboratively is also critical for school change as this video shows. It’s also important that if a teacher doesn’t think a suggestion from a principal or coach would work in her classroom, she feels free to say so and they can all work together to find a solution that the teacher is comfortable with and that the coach feels will be effective.
A nice example of this comes from the Cheshire Elementary School, which became a BSRI partner school a year ago. Working with his coaching team, the principal set a monthly goal for all the teachers to meet. In September, for example, the goal was for every teacher to create a focus wall that laid out the key points for each days’ lessons. In later months, goals centered on such changes as paired reading, teaching in small group (at first with only two groups of students), and differentiating instruction. The principal went out of his way to praise teachers who were willing to take risks and make changes, indicating his strong support for them, and pointing out at faculty meetings that these teachers were seeing the biggest gains in student learning.
The principal and the school’s reading coach do regular classroom walkthroughs to observe instruction and then to meet with teachers to give feedback and support. The monthly walkthroughs with the BSRI coaching team have become very popular with teachers, who have specifically requested one-on-one time with the coaches to get their suggestions.
When I visited Cheshire Elementary in the spring of 2014 (before our partnership began), instruction was primarily in whole group, with relatively little student participation. By December, four months into using the BSRI model, most teachers spent the bulk of their time in small group instruction, and by May classrooms buzzed with the hum of students engaging each other in useful discussion. Kindergarten students could tell me the difference between a noun and an adjective. Teachers were thrilled with the progress they had made and, in particular, with the newfound enthusiasm of their students.
So I agree with TNTP: Investing in teacher professional development is definitely worthwhile; PD will be far more effective when the dollars spent are more carefully focused and when the program reflects a commitment from leadership and teachers alike to work together to realize a clear and comprehensive vision for what great teaching looks like.