A new era in federal leadership is bringing increased attention to attracting and retaining talented classroom teachers. And for the first time in history, national leaders are providing resources to support and develop "human capital" in America’s classrooms, with an emphasis on assigning the country’s best teachers to our most vulnerable students who are currently attending failing schools.
The emphasis in professional development focuses on building teacher capacity to effectively instruct diverse students, especially those students with special needs, those who are English language learners, and those at the early-childhood level. Furthermore, a critical shortage of teachers who can teach math and science at all levels exists. To address these needs, effective professional development is needed to deepen teacher content knowledge and to strengthen instructional practice so that teachers can effectively reach all students and close the achievement gap that exists between high-poverty students and their more affluent counterparts.
In order to reflect the current research, to change teaching practice, and to increase student achievement, professional development must be ongoing, job-embedded, relevant to the teacher’s instructional needs, and collaborative in nature. The advent of quality online professional learning combined with in-person, peer-based professional learning communities has enabled this approach to professional development to have the greatest success for increasing teaching quality and student learning.
Online professional development achieves the following goals:
Bringing education research to classroom practice. For too long, the knowledge gained from education research conducted at U.S. colleges, universities, or other organizations has lagged in its transfer to practice in the K–12 system. Online professional development creators who partner with university researchers to feature their findings in an accessible online environment increase knowledge and practice transfer and make it more relevant for teachers. The inclusion of short videos featuring teachers demonstrating instructional strategies and the application of content knowledge brings research to life and makes learning concrete.
Building a common framework for teacher practice and achievement goals. When instructional leaders and classroom practitioners use common reference materials, schools and districts can build a common framework in which visions and goals are clarified and strategies for school or district improvement become more universal. While every teacher has a unique instructional style, the research underpinnings of successful teaching require common concepts and terminology that are universally understood and relevant to teacher practice. Online, research-based professional learning resources help support school-based coaches and professional learning communities, building the capacity for schools and districts to manage their own professional development and to focus their efforts on the specific needs of individuals, grade-level teams, and/or school priorities.
Scaling professional learning beyond a single school to an entire district or state. Large districts have always faced the challenge of scaling any districtwide program or initiative in a way that maintains the integrity of the initiative. With online, research-based professional development, materials are available districtwide (or statewide), and online support is available for anyone who requires it. Online professional learning requires computer access for all teachers. But once teachers have access and become comfortable using online resources to support their collaborative and personal professional learning needs, they also gain comfort with incorporating technology-supported strategies in their classrooms.
Online professional development requires a school or a district to be intentional about its student achievement goals and the professional learning priorities that align with those goals. However, online resources are not the "magic bullet" to solving district learning needs. Rather, they are tools to support the schoolwide and districtwide professional learning that incorporates analysis of needs, focuses on instructional priorities, and systematically evaluates the effectiveness of the program.
Ongoing and Embedded
In order to maintain and extend teachers’ practice, it is important that ongoing professional development be a regular part of the school day. Many states have enacted policies that require ongoing professional learning for practicing educators. As a result, educators themselves are seeking more opportunities for professional learning and are demanding that these experiences be more closely related to their specific responsibilities and to their students’ learning needs. In addition, collaborative professional learning that brings teams of educators together enhances schoolwide and districtwide application and support. Teachscape, a professional learning service organization, has found that educators learn more and learn faster when professional learning is embedded into the workday and is immersive.
Teachscape’s Classroom Walkthrough is one research-based professional development activity that allows schools to use data to drive instructional improvement. Schools set up collaborative communities of teachers that are led by principals and teacher-leaders engaged in a continuous cycle of improvement. Walkthroughs provide a means for teacher teams to share teaching strategies and to build expertise within the team or throughout the school.
One example of this job-embedded approach focuses on second-grade reading. A team of second-grade teachers learn together by discussing a reading strategy, deciding how they would implement it in the classroom, and then planning how to apply the strategy in their individual classrooms. Once the strategy had been implemented, they would reflect together on how it affected particular students and how it affected the teacher while teaching. This kind of shared learning, planning, and reflection allows teacher teams to build a sense of shared expertise so that every teacher in the second grade has the same knowledge. It also facilitates teacher collaboration so that every teacher’s expertise is used to ensure that every student within a school benefits from the expertise of every teacher in a school, even if students do not physically interact with them.
The Instructional Leader’s Role
Instructional leaders have several responsibilities in order to make ongoing, job-embedded professional development a reality. Scheduling time within teachers’ days so that they can meet with their learning communities is essential. Doing walkthroughs, sharing data, and meeting with teams regularly to reinforce the vision and to discuss teamwork are also important responsibilities. Coaching and encouraging teams to work together, providing ongoing feedback, facilitating meetings, addressing issues of team structure, recommending new strategies, reviewing team logs and plans, providing resources and support, and dealing with those individuals who are either resisting the collaborative professional learning or not taking an active role within their teams are all responsibilities of the instructional leader.
The LMS’s Role
The school library/media specialist (LMS) also becomes an important resource in professional development. A Wisconsin school system trained its library media specialists to become coaches so that they could coach teachers on instructional effectiveness and using resources and tools within the school. The media specialists were able to provide teachers with resources to help them strengthen their teaching practices and keep them current in the latest research. As resource specialists, media specialists can also help teachers and students to be more thoughtful in using technology to support learning.
Today’s professional development is job-embedded, results-driven, and student achievement-focused. Using student results as the framework for evaluating the effectiveness of professional learning and for identifying goals for teacher learning are practices that are increasing in results-oriented districts and schools. With a focus in the Obama administration to recognize and incentivize quality teaching, we need better strategies for collecting data at the classroom level. Teacher and student portfolios supported with technology may give us data to support different ways to recognize and compensate teaching quality.
Joellen Killion is deputy executive director of the National Staff Development Council. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Cheryl Williams is vice president for strategic initiatives at Teachscape. Contact her at email@example.com.