Professional Learning

Teacher Development Research Review: Keys to Educator Success

How can you get the best out of your teachers and improve student learning? Edutopia’s research analyst explains some of the best practices found by researchers to help ensure educator growth and success

January 3, 2013 Updated November 1, 2015
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Schools That Work: Cochrane Collegiate Academy principal Josh Bishop (right) makes sure his middle school teachers receive strong support and consistent PD -- up to 90 hours every year. Photo credit: Zachary Fink

Teaching quality has been defined as "instruction that enables a wide range of students to learn" (Darling-Hammond, 2012), and it is the strongest school-related factor that can improve student learning and achievement (Hanushek, 2011; Nye, Konstantopoulos, and Hedges, 2004; Rivkin, Hanushek, and Kain, 2005). Knowing this, what is the best way to foster and provide ongoing support for good teaching practices? While every school is unique, research has identified several elements that can almost universally increase the chances for successful teacher development and create a powerful and positive school community. The following three sections detail the range of best practices found by researchers to be critical for ensuring educator growth and success:

Effective Administrator and Teacher Leadership

Leadership is second only to teaching among school-related factors that can improve student achievement, and it tends to show greatest impact in traditionally underserved schools (Leithwood, Seashore Louis, Anderson, and Wahlstrom, 2004). Superintendents, principals, and others in positions of authority in school systems are instrumental in providing the vision, time, and resources to support continual professional learning, a positive school climate, and success for all students (Leithwood et al., 2004; The Wallace Foundation, 2012). Research shows that the following features of effective leadership can improve student achievement (Leithwood et al., 2004; Vescio, Ross, and Adams, 2008; The Wallace Foundation, 2012):

  • A vision of academic success for all students based on high expectations
  • A safe and cooperative climate for learning
  • Support and training to promote continual professional learning
  • Data to track and promote collaborative inquiry and practices that improve student learning
  • Cultivating leadership in staff, parents, and community partners

Great leaders focus on developing people's capacities rather than their limitations (Leithwood et al., 2004; Alliance for Excellent Education, 2011). Schools that foster trust among parents, teachers, and school leaders are more likely to see academic improvement than schools that do little or fail to foster trust (Bryk and Schneider, 2003).

Teacher leadership is also critical for school improvement efforts to succeed. Accomplished teachers are most knowledgeable about how students in their school or district learn, and thus they are ideal candidates to lead professional-learning and curriculum development efforts (Vescio et al., 2008; Webster-Wright, 2009; Accomplished California Teachers, 2012). Teacher-advancement systems that effectively identify and support quality teaching include the following features (Accomplished California Teachers, 2012; Darling-Hammond, 2012):

  • Professional standards, such as those of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). Research has found that the National Board certification is a way to identify teachers who are more effective in increasing student engagement, learning, and achievement, and a variety of evidence shows that NBPTS-certified teachers may be more likely to stay in the profession, as compared to teachers who have not achieved certification (NBPTS, 2012; NBPTS Research page). Additionally, the standards themselves influence teacher mentoring, leadership, team building, professional development and evaluation, curriculum development, efficacy, and overall school leadership (NBPTS: Impact of National Board Certification page; NBPTS Research page).
  • Performance assessments that integrate evidence of teaching practices and student learning measured in a variety of ways (such as student work, lesson plans, assignments, in-person or video observations based on standards, and/or National Board assessment)
  • Consideration of practice and performance for teacher teams and individual teachers to encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing
  • Expert evaluations, with experts who include teachers who are trained in evaluation criteria and have demonstrated expertise in teaching the content and working with their peers
  • Useful feedback connected to professional-learning opportunities and reviewed by an oversight committee to ensure fairness and consistency
  • Extensive evidence of quality teaching for tenure (e.g., using Peer Assistance and Review programs as described in Darling-Hammond, 2012 (PDF))

To promote student learning and achievement, research indicates that teacher advancement systems should compensate teachers for their expert contributions, particularly in economically disadvantaged schools where teaching challenges tend to be greater (Accomplished California Teachers, 2012). Finally, researchers discourage the use of value-added modeling in teacher evaluation practices due to their low levels of statistical reliability across years and limited validity for detecting individual teacher effects (Darling-Hammond, 2012).

Job-Embedded Professional Development

When teachers receive well-designed professional development, an average of 49 hours spread over six to 12 months, they can increase student achievement by as much as 21 percentile points (Yoon, Duncan, Lee, Scarloss, and Shapley, 2007). On the other hand, one-shot, "drive-by," or fragmented, "spray-and-pray" workshops lasting 14 hours or less show no statistically significant effect on student learning (Darling-Hammond, Wei, Andree, Richardson, and Orphanos, 2009). Above all, it is most important to remember that effective professional-development programs are job-embedded and provide teachers with five critical elements (Darling-Hammond et al., 2009):

  • Collaborative learning: Teachers have opportunities to learn in a supportive community that organizes curriculum across grade levels and subjects. When teachers and schools engage in high-quality collaboration, it leads to better achievement gains in math and reading for students. In addition, teachers improve at greater rates when they work in schools with better collaboration quality (Ronfeldt et al., 2015).
  • Links between curriculum, assessment, and professional-learning decisions in the context of teaching specific content: Particularly for math and science professional-development programs, research has emphasized the importance of developing math and science content knowledge, as well as pedagogical techniques for the content area (Blank, de las Alas, and Smith, 2008; Blank and de las Alas, 2009; Heller, Daehler, Wong, Shinohara, and Miratrix, 2012).
  • Active learning: Teachers apply new knowledge and receive feedback, with ongoing data to reflect how teaching practices influence student learning over time.
  • Deeper knowledge of content and how to teach it: Training teachers solely in new techniques and behaviors will not work.
  • Sustained learning, over multiple days and weeks: Professional-development efforts that engage teachers in 30 to 100 hours of learning over six months to one year have been shown to increase student achievement.

Research on professional development for teachers has shifted in the last decade from delivering and evaluating professional-development programs to focusing more on authentic teacher learning and the conditions that support it (Webster-Wright, 2009). In the next section, we discuss models of professional learning that focus on supporting continual professional learning and community-based feedback cycles that help teachers to critically and collaboratively examine and refine their practices.

Professional Learning Communities

Professional learning communities (PLCs) or networks (PLNs) are groups of teachers that share and critically interrogate their practices in an ongoing, reflective, collaborative, inclusive, learning-oriented, and growth-promoting way to mutually enhance teacher and student learning (Stoll, Bolam, McMahon, Wallace, and Thomas, 2006). PLCs go a step beyond professional development by providing teachers with not just skills and knowledge to improve their teaching practices but also an ongoing community that values each teacher's experiences in their own classrooms and uses those experiences to guide teaching practices and improve student learning (Vescio et al., 2008). Research shows that when professional learning communities demonstrate four key characteristics, they can improve teaching practice and student achievement in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies subject tests (Vescio et al., 2008):

  • Successful Collaboration
  • Focus on Student Learning
  • Continuous Teacher Learning
  • Teacher authority to make decisions regarding curriculum, the processes of their own learning, and aspects of school governance.

In the following sections, we discuss several practices of professional learning communities that have received consistent support:

  • Video-based reflections
  • Lesson study
  • Mentoring programs
  • Grade-level teams

Video-based reflections: Using video to reflect upon teaching practice has been shown by several studies to improve teaching practice or student achievement (Allen, Pianta, Gregory, Mikami, and Lun, 2011; Brantlinger, Sherin, and Linsenmeier, 2011; Roth, Garnier, Chen, Lemmens, Schwille, and Wickler, 2011). In one case study, teachers met regularly to develop video clips of their best teaching practices for the National Board Certification application (Brantlinger et al., 2011). This resulted in the teachers engaging in intensive discussions about mathematical discourse while collaboratively and substantively examining each other's practices (Brantlinger et al., 2011). Similarly, in a case study of four middle school math teachers who participated in a yearlong series of ten video club meetings to reflect on their classrooms, teachers in the video club "came to use video not as a resource for evaluating each other's practices, but rather as a resource for trying to better understand the process of teaching and learning" in a supportive, nonthreatening setting (Sherin and Han, 2004). MyTeachingPartner-Secondary (MTP-S) is a coaching system that provides a library of videos showing effective teaching, as well as personalized Web-based feedback videos of teaching practice using the research-based CLASS-S scoring system to define effective student-teacher interactions (Allen et al., 2011). In a randomized controlled experiment of 78 secondary school teachers and 2,237 students, MTP-S improved teacher-student interactions and increased students' performance on standardized tests by nine percentile points (Allen et al., 2011). Science Teachers Learning through Lesson Analysis (STeLLA) is a professional-development program for upper-elementary school science teachers in which teachers develop two lenses for analyzing teaching, the "Student Thinking Lens" and the "Science Content Storyline Lens," to analyze videos of teaching practice. In an experiment with 48 teachers and 1,490 upper-elementary students, STeLLA improved science teaching and science content knowledge among students and teachers (Roth et al., 2011).

Lesson study: Lesson study is a form of Japanese professional development that engages teachers in collaborative analysis of lessons. It has grown rapidly in the United States since being introduced in 1999 (Lewis, Perry, and Murata, 2006). One purpose of lesson study is to continually improve the experiences that teachers provide for their students. Teachers come together to work on three main activities: (1) identifying a lesson study goal, (2) conducting a small number of study lessons that explore this goal, and (3) reflecting about the process (including producing written reports). In one California school district, lesson study began when an instructional improvement coordinator and a math coach sent an open letter inviting teachers to participate in lesson study during the 2000-01 school year. In the first year, 26 teachers responded, and six years later, the school was still continuing the program. Student achievement data at Highlands Elementary School suggest that lesson study is paying off for students (Lewis, Perry, Hurd, and O'Connell, 2006). Lesson study is used in the majority of elementary schools and middle schools in Japan but is rare in high schools (Yoshida, 2002). For materials to start a lesson study community, check out these resources by Makoto Yoshida, whose 1999 dissertation brought the practice to the attention of U.S. educators, and Catherine Lewis, who conducts academic research on lesson study.

Mentoring programs: A body of research indicates that mentoring programs can increase teacher retention, satisfaction, and student achievement (Ingersoll and Strong, 2011), as well as reduce feelings of isolation, particularly for early-career teachers (Beltman, Mansfield, and Price, 2011). For example, a quasi-experimental study by the Educational Testing Service found that teachers with a high level of engagement in a large-scale mentoring program (California Formative Assessment and Support System for Teachers) improved both teaching practices and student achievement, producing an effect size equivalent to half a year's growth (Thompson, Goe, Paek, and Ponte, 2004). Mentor relationships are most successful when the mentor is positive, pro-social, professional, and from the same teaching area (Beltman et al., 2011).

Grade-level teams: Grade-level teams focused on student learning have also been supported by research. In a quasi-experimental study in nine Title I schools, principals and teacher leaders used explicit protocols for leading grade-level learning teams, resulting in students outperforming their peers in six matched schools on standardized achievement tests (Gallimore, Ermeling, Saunders, and Goldenberg, 2009). These outcomes were more likely for teams led by a trained peer-facilitator, teaching similar content, in stable settings in which to engage in ongoing improvement, and using an inquiry-focused protocol (such as identifying student needs, formulating instructional plans, and using evidence to refine instruction) (Gallimore et al., 2009).

Teacher Development Research Table of Contents:

  1. Introduction
  2. Keys to Educator Success
  3. Avoiding Pitfalls
  4. Annotated Bibliography

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