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Beyond Teacher Quality

Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems is a recent report from the Learning First Alliance and the International Center for Benchmarking in Education at the National Center for Education and the Economy. The paper describes practices and policies from four high-performing school systems – British Columbia, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore – where professional learning is believed to be the primary vehicle for school improvement.

My first reaction was: This sounds great, but where is the ubiquitous discussion of “teacher quality?” Frankly, I was somewhat baffled that a report on school improvement never even mentioned the phrase.* Upon close reading, I found the report to be full of radical (and very good) ideas. It’s not that the report proposed anything that would require an overhaul of the U.S. education system; rather, they were groundbreaking because these ideas did not rely on the typical assumptions about how the youth or the adults in these systems learn and achieve mastery. Because, while things are changing a bit in the U.S. with regard to our understanding of student learning – e.g., we now talk about “deep learning” – we have still not made this transition when it comes to teachers.

In the U.S., a number of unstated but common assumptions about “teacher quality” suffuse the entire school improvement conversation. As researchers have noted (see here and here), instructional effectiveness is implicitly viewed as an attribute of individuals, a quality that exists in a sort of vacuum (or independent of the context of teachers’ work), and which, as a result, teachers can carry with them, across and between schools. Effectiveness also is often perceived as fairly stable: teachers learn their craft within the first few years in the classroom and then plateau,** but, at the end of the day, some teachers have what it takes and others just don’t. So, the general assumption is that a “good teacher” will be effective under any conditions, and the quality of a given school is determined by how many individual “good teachers” it has acquired.

In British Columbia, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore, none of these assumptions seems to be at work. Teacher effectiveness is not something fixed that individual teachers do or don’t possess. Rather, effectiveness is both a quality and an aspiration of schools: Schools ought to be organized and resourced so that teachers continuously and collaboratively improve. In these high performance systems, the whole (school effectiveness) is greater than the sum of its parts (individual teacher effectiveness) because, as Susan Moore Johnson argues:

Whatever level of human capital schools acquire through hiring can subsequently be developed through activities such as grade-level or subject-based teams of teachers, faculty committees, professional development, coaching, evaluation, and informal interactions. As teachers join together to solve problems and learn from one another, the school’s instructional capacity becomes greater than the sum of its parts. (See more here)

The report describes how these four high performing systems went about creating structures, processes, and norms to support adult and student learning – or help teachers learn about how students learn – and how they did so systematically and system wide through incremental reforms.

Next, I offer a brief overview of the first part of the report, which focuses on the policies that support this model. I then offer a few concluding reflections on why I think the ideas and assumptions underpinning this model are an important breakthrough, and why these systems, while very different from that of the U.S., can be regarded as useful proof points. 

***

In British Columbia, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore, all professional learning is developed around the following improvement cycle: 1) assess student learning to identify their next stage of learning; 2) develop teaching practices that provide for the next stage of student learning; and 3) evaluate the impact of the new practices on student learning so the teachers can refine their practice. As the report notes, none of this is new. Plus, “in isolation, [this improvement cycle] is insufficient for sustained reform. To make it effective requires a broad strategy with strong linkages between how leadership roles are structured, how resources are allocated, and the focus of evaluation and accountability measures.” (p. 4) The report then examines three policy areas that support student-centered professional learning: 1) leadership; 2) evaluation and accountability; and 3) time.

Leadership

Professional learning leaders are developed at the school- and system levels. These leaders receive training on “how to set professional learning targets, evaluate professional learning, and develop coaching and mentoring skills as well as strategic and administrative planning skills.” (p. 23)

Learning leaders work closely with school principals, and “spend a lot of time in schools in order to research and understand teacher strengths and weaknesses, identify areas for development, and design professional learning curriculum.” (p. 15)

Evaluation & Accountability

Evaluation and accountability are integral to the success of professional learning in schools. And the reason for this is that accountability is not exclusively focused on student performance. When teacher learning is truly viewed through the growth (as opposed to the fixed) lens, through the social-organizational (as opposed to the individual) lens, and as the primary vehicle for student learning, then it’s not surprising that the system focuses on increasing the quality of the professional learning environment. This is done in multiple ways. For example:

A mentor teacher is held accountable for how well he or she mentors new teachers, the teaching practices of the new teacher and the performance of the new teachers’ students. If these indicators do not improve, the mentor will miss out on promotion. (p. 17)

Evaluations of the professional learning environment are based on data gathered from focus groups, surveys, and interviews of school leaders, teachers, parents and students. These data complement other administrative and student performance information. Using these sources of information requires a profound shift; you must have “faith and trust in the people making professional judgments.” According to Ben Jensen, a co-author of the report, as quoted in a recent Vox story: "Until you’re willing to let schools try, and some of them will get it wrong, you’re not going to get the growth that’s possible."

Time

The lack of time is a well known barrier preventing effective professional learning. But, because time is a necessary though not sufficient condition, attempts to secure more time for professional learning have not always had the desired impact on students. Professional learning is effective “only when it becomes a normal part of daily work life in schools.” Accordingly, “separating professional learning from daily teaching routines is counterproductive, and limits the benefits for teachers and students alike.” (p. 28)

For all these people, professional learning is central to their jobs. Is not an add-on. It is not something done on Friday afternoons or in a few days at the end of the school year. Teacher professional learning it's how they improve student learning; it is how they improve schools; and it is how they are evaluated in their jobs. (p. 3)

The good news is that, according to the report, once the cultural shift occurs, even small amounts of extra time seem to go a long way. In British Columbia, for example, only 1 or 2 periods per week are allocated to formal professional learning.

***

Media attention to the Beyond PD report has been modest – see here, here and here – and somewhat off base, in my opinion. Commentators, for example, have noted that these systems are more likely to recruit and keep top talent, which the report doesn’t actually say. But even if this is true, what’s important to keep in mind is that these systems didn’t implement their policies with those goals in mind. Their goal was to create the kind of high-quality learning environments in which both students and teachers thrive and improve. These systems did what they did because they figured that’s how adults learn about how children learn. In so doing, yes, teaching becomes more professional and a more desirable career choice. But the motivating goal was not necessarily to make teachers more like bankers or like lawyers, as some commentators have suggested. My concern is that we are looking at new evidence with old lenses – without changing the set of assumptions I outlined at the beginning.

To reiterate, the key difference between these systems and the United States is that they don’t assume that teacher effectiveness is static, portable, individual and independent of the context. Conversely, teacher effectiveness is believed to grow within the school organization; thus, a primary goal is to build schools and school systems where this growth is continuous, collaborative, and where it responds to the changing and situated needs of students. As the report notes: “High-performing systems transform the improvement cycle into a culture of continuous professional learning that, in time, turns schools into true learning organizations.” (p. 4) In a nutshell: Their ‘learning organization’ is our ‘teacher quality.’ And that, to me, is the big idea of this report.

*****

* To be exact, the phrase appears once, in the copyright page, to indicate that the study is part of a series on “teacher quality.”

** Recent studies call into question the inevitability of the plateau – see Ladd and Sorensen (2014) and Kraft and Papay (2014).

Issues Areas

Comments

The best leaders are the ones that instill confidence and the ability to let classroom teachers develop their own Professional development given the resources and time to do it. In our New York Performance Standards Consortium ( 38 small schools in NY that have a waiver not to teach to the regents except the ELA) we have teacher led Professional development a number of times a year. These are all teacher designed and led. We look at student work and are constantly developing updating rubrics to agree upon for student assessments. Our schools are run collaboratively with some principals teaching courses.

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