Terms like “work collaboratively,” “share what you know,” and “problem-solve as a team” are commonly associated with the kinds of 21st-century skills that most people agree today’s students should learn—but according to a professional development expert with decades of experience in the field, those terms should apply to teachers, too.
During the American Association of School Administrators’ National Conference on Education, Stephanie Hirsch, executive director of Learning Forward (formerly known as the National Staff Development Council), discussed how her organization has redefined its standards for teacher professional development to keep up with what is being expected of today’s students.
“What we mean by PD is not some one-off seminar,” Hirsch said. “So many times I hear people say, ‘This was a waste of time. Nothing changed.’ Well, … PD is only as good as its implementation. So let me tell you what we know: PD [should be] ongoing, and it means teachers collectively sharing the responsibility for all students—from grades to lesson plans—and that happens by implementing teacher teams that meet up regularly.”
Hirsch encouraged school district leaders to think of teacher professional development as…
• The glue that fosters collective responsibility for the success of all students;
• The system for engaging all teachers in learning teams committed to continuous improvement; and
• The great equalizer that ensures that all—not just some—students experience great teaching.
“How many times have we heard of principals talking to parents [who are] concerned about what teacher their child will get?” asked Hirsch. “Imagine if this school had collaborative teacher teams using their meetings for continuous PD to foster student learning improvement and achievement. What if the principal could say, ‘I know your child will receive the best education from any of our teachers, because our teachers work as a team to take responsibility for your child and meet continuously to discuss all students in the grade, not just the students part of his or her class.’ Imagine how much better the parent would feel?”
According to Hirsch, these collaborative teams were inspired by some of the same characteristics found in the educational systems of higher-performing countries. For example, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), high-performing countries provide ample time for teacher professional development that is structured into teachers’ work lives. Also, beginning teachers receive extensive mentoring and induction supports, teachers are widely encouraged to participate in school decision-making, and governments provide significant levels of support for additional PD.
These methods are also supported by numerous studies, which can be found here.
Before schools can adopt these new 21st-century standards for teacher professional development, Hirsch said there are some prerequisites: (1) Educators must commit to ensuring that all students succeed. (2) Educators must be ready to learn continually. (3) School district leaders must understand that professional learning involves collaborative inquiry and learning. (4) School district leaders must understand that educators learn in different ways and at different rates.
Learning Forward’s seven standards for professional learning that increase teacher effectiveness and results for all students are:
- Learning Communities: Groups of teachers who are committed to continuous improvement, shared responsibility, and collective goal alignment.
- Leadership: Skillful leaders who develop capacity, advocate, and create support systems for professional learning.
- Resources: Prioritizing, monitoring, and coordinating resources for professional learning.
- Data: Using a variety of sources and types of student, educator, and school system data to plan, assess, and evaluate professional learning.
- Learning Designs: Integrating theories, research, and models of human learning to achieve intended outcomes.
- Implementation: Applying research and sustained support for implementation of professional learning to foster long-term change.
- Outcomes: Aligning outcomes with educator performance and student curriculum standards.
To illustrate how these standards should be implemented, Hirsch showed a video of the math department of Ford Middle School in Allen, Texas, where the teachers meet to share their expertise. (To watch the video, click here, then scroll down the page to “Ford Middle School: PD in Action” on the right-hand side.)
In the video, Teacher A tells the group that she’s noticed students are having difficulty relating word problems to their equations. Teacher A then takes an example of student work and shows the group, explaining where in the problem trouble occurs. Teacher A then tells the group what she’s been doing to try to solve this problem.
Teacher B says she’s noticed another problem in her class that’s similar and is interested in trying Teacher A’s method, which might work in her class as well. Teacher B asks if Teacher A wouldn’t mind co-teaching a few classes to help.
The group then collectively moves on to larger goals for the long term, such as weekly exams and unit objectives, as well as end-of-year assessments and state exams. The meeting continues with more teachers sharing their problems and ideas, and some even volunteer to design teacher projects for the upcoming year.
“Not only do students benefit,” says the principal, “but teachers say they’re more professionally satisfied as well.”
“Research says that teachers plateau after four years,” Hirsch explained, “and that’s because they don’t have access to new information or their peers.”
North Dakota and Michigan have adopted Learning Forward’s updated teacher professional development standards at the state board level, and one Kansas school district has, too.
However, Hirsch recognized that implementing new standards isn’t easy.
“Schools have limited resources, including time, as well as … differing levels of expertise. Documenting the impact of investments is also hard, and there are competing priorities,” she said. “Yet, by looking over the standards and planning to adopt them, you’re already taking the first step forward.”
Learning Forward also is urging Congress to amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Title IX, Section 9101(34), to include components of this new definition of teacher professional development, such as:
• A comprehensive, sustained, intensive approach—aligned with state and district standards—in which teachers take collective responsibility for student learning; and
• Conducted several times per week, using a cycle of continuous improvement, in teams facilitated by well-prepared principals, mentors, coaches, and teacher leaders.
“If teachers had this kind of professional learning community, I bet most would stay in their career for the long haul, feeling supported and knowing they’re doing the best for their students,” concluded Hirsch.
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