Federal education officials are ratcheting up the stakes for teacher professional development. In a pilot project that began last fall, officials hope to learn whether software can be used to track and analyze the effectiveness of a district’s staff training programs in much the same way it can be used to gauge the effectiveness of classroom instruction.

The three-year project, made possible through a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), aims to create a decision support tool that will enable educators to track and manage professional development, report on data from various sources, and create alternative scenarios designed to enhance the practice of teaching in schools. The project enters its critical test phase in the coming months.

Sixty test and control schools in 14 districts across eight states have signed on to participate in the project, which is headed by Co-nect, a Massachusetts-based for-profit provider of professional development services to schools, in partnership with TetraData Corp., a builder of K-12 data warehousing solutions headquartered in South Carolina. If the tool works, program developers say they eventually plan to offer it to schools nationwide.

After the inception of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001, school leaders were forced to accept a much greater reliance on data to improve student achievement. Just three years later, data warehouses and web-based assessment tools intended to track everything from students’ reading scores to simple demographics abound in schools from coast to coast. Now, with the national focus shifting toward teacher quality and training, developers of the technology contend these systems are as effective at highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of a school district’s teachers as they are with students.

Just as data can be used to individualize learning for the student, they also can be leveraged to customize training for the teacher, said Bruce Goldberg, chief education officer at Co-nect. But what works in one school district isn’t necessarily going to work for another, he added. Different circumstances often necessitate different means of training.

If the tool now under development does its job, it will enable school leaders to see which training methods elicit favorable results in specific environments–from cash-strapped urban districts to wealthy suburban communities–thus helping schools achieve the best return on investment for their in-service training programs.

The web-based system, to be built atop schools’ existing data infrastructures and facilitated by TetraData’s suite of EASE-e data mining and reporting tools, will group data together from multiple sources, so that decisions about professional development and training can be matched with the specific needs of individual teachers, the project’s partners said.

Co-nect will work with the schools to develop new metrics and evaluate the effectiveness of select training and development programs. Kenneth Tam, director of business systems for Co-nect, said the company is acting as “the general contractor” for the project, helping to facilitate the evaluations while coordinating the various contributions of grant participants.

When the project is finished, Co-nect’s Goldberg hopes schools across the country will have an opportunity to see which professional development approaches worked in certain scenarios and which did not. Administrators, he said, then can use that evidence to decide whether it’s worth pursuing certain staff development initiatives on their own.

“Being highly qualified is no longer an option,” Goldberg said–it’s a necessity. Schools need to recruit, retain, and keep training the highest-quality educators to stay competitive. To do that, he said, school leaders must have a handle on which professional development approaches are most effective under which circumstances.

During the project, participating educators will be asked to complete an annual school climate survey that assesses their perception on topics such as collaboration, instruction, leadership, and data use. University researchers then will compare the results to determine how much of an impact these professional development programs have had on educators’ understanding of these critical issues.

School leaders in the experimental groups will have access to TetraData’s analysis tool to help them determine which training programs were most effective under which circumstances, so they can target their efforts and resources accordingly.

When asked why Co-nect chose to perform climate surveys instead of basing its data on more explicit assessments such as teachers’ skill exams or student test scores, Tam said researchers sided with the metric most likely to elicit change in the shortest period of time.

Though project directors anticipate the data tool will lead to better teaching and, eventually, higher student test scores, Tam said these improvements will be gradual–meaning they aren’t likely to occur before money and time runs out on the pilot project next year. However, with the climate surveys, he said, results will be evident almost immediately.

Elmer McPherson, superintendent of Decatur Public School District #61 in Decatur, Ill., called the pilot program “a natural fit” for his 10,000-student district.

In Decatur, six schools are signed up to participate in the Co-nect pilot program. If the data tool works, McPherson said, he’ll look to expand the service to all 23 schools at some point.

“We’re really proud of the fact that we’re holding ourselves accountable before we’re mandated to do it,” he said. “The teachers have been really receptive.”

McPherson said he isn’t concerned with the potential for a backlash within the community if analysis of the data suggests his district has been spending money on training programs that don’t work.

“We’re looking to work smarter, not harder,” he said. If the data tool finds the district’s training methods have been unsuccessful to date, then “we will try something new,” he added. “This isn’t a matter of pride.”

On the flip side, he said, the pilot project might help district leaders find a solution that works better. Program architects say they eventually hope to create a diverse catalog of professional development solutions aligned with state standards and proven to work under various circumstances.

Goldberg acknowledged that schools using the tool might be forced to face the reality that their training programs aren’t up to par. But he compared NCLB’s reliance on data to steer education with the success of evidence-based research approaches in the medical field.

Teachers and administrators are a lot like doctors, he said. Instead of prescribing medicine to cure ailments, educators prescribe learning to combat ignorance. But a cure is only effective if the dosage is right. That’s why professional development programs need to account for educators’ individual needs and circumstances, he added.

Collaborating with Co-nect are four other school improvement organizations: Atlas Communities, Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, Modern Red Schoolhouse Institute, and Success For All.

Participants in the pilot project hail from districts and schools in Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, New York, South Carolina, and North Carolina, Tam said.

Researchers from the University of Michigan and the Center for Research in Educational Policy at the University of Memphis will be involved in the project’s evaluation.

“We know high-quality teaching make the biggest difference in improving student performance,” said Brian Rowan, a professor with the Educational Studies Program at the University of Michigan. “What we don’t know is how to routinely target professional development so that it meets the needs of teachers and students. That’s what this grant will allow Co-nect and the consortium to explore, understand, and act upon.”

See these related links:

Project web site
http://www.co-nect.net/consortium

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov