Teachers’ training needs improvement so students benefit, new report says

June 6, 2017

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For classroom teachers, professional training can be a mixed bag that too often leaves teachers uninspired with no improvement in student learning, according to a new report by the Learning Policy Institute.

So researchers for the nonprofit institute set out to find what works best in helping teachers to improve teaching methods and their students’ learning and test scores. In reviewing results of 35 previous studies, the new report urges that mid-career teacher training, which is also known as professional development, focus tightly on the academic subjects’ content, incorporate active learning, encourage collaboration, provide coaching, and be of sustained duration, among other things.

“It is obviously most important that what teachers are taught reflects the practices that can actually make a positive difference for student learning. That is, the content of professional development matters, along with its form,” said the report titled “Effective Teachers Professional Development.” Its authors include Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute and chairwoman of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

The report reviewed studies that found even some well-funded professional development programs with poor results because they did not take into account teachers’ own knowledge and skills, whether mid-career or new to the classroom, and did not provide any follow-ups. Other studies showed that teacher training sessions were often too short, badly focused and awkwardly scheduled, usually in after-school workshops.

“Even the best designed (professional development) may fail to produce desired outcomes if it is poorly implemented due to barriers such as  inadequate resources, including needed curriculum materials; lack of shared vision about what high-quality instruction entails;  lack of time for planning and implementing new instructional approaches; conflicting requirements, such as scripted curriculum or pacing guides; and lack of adequate foundational knowledge on the part of teachers,” the Learning Institute report said.  The institute, which has offices in Palo Alto and Washington, D.C., urged school districts and teachers to redesign the programs so that teachers can incorporate new and improved practices in the classroom.

On the positive side, the report cited a 2011 study of a program aimed at improving the teaching of biology in California high schools. More than 40 teachers came together for a week in the summer and other sessions during the school year that all focused tightly on texts and classroom exercises, analyzed student work and developed reading logs for students. Participants stayed in touch on a listserv that fostered the exchange of resources and ideas and was moderated by coaches.  The students of these participants later showed significant improvements in both reading and in biology test scores.

“In the end, well-designed and implemented professional development should be considered an essential component of a comprehensive system of teaching and learning that supports students to develop the knowledge, skills, and competencies they need to thrive in the 21st century,” the Learning Policy Institute report stated.

Other report authors were Maria E. Hyler, deputy director of the Learning Policy Institute’s Washington office, and Madelyn Gardner, a research and policy associate.

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