Aiming for a True Learning Culture Among Teachers

Every so often in the field of education research a study comes along that challenges some basic assumptions about the way that schools and school systems operate. Such is the case of a new report released by TNTP entitled The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development. In setting out to answer a core question in education—do we know how to help teachers improve?—this new piece of research ends up raising serious doubts about how we typically endeavor to improve instruction and raise achievement.

As part of the investigation, researchers consider how much time and money is spent on all forms of professional development in three large urban districts and a mid-sized charter management organization. Even more important, the research seeks to uncover the associations between the ways in which teachers spend their time trying to improve their instruction and their performance as educators.

And what they found on the second matter is nothing short of disorienting. Comparing the professional development practices of teachers who had made verified improvements in instructional effectiveness—both on the basis of student performance and evaluator ratings—to those who had not made improvements, study authors found that there were:

no common threads that distinguished ‘improvers’ from other teachers. No type, amount or combination of development activities appears more likely than any other to help teachers improve substantially, including the “job-embedded,” “differentiated” variety that we and others believed to be the most promising.

And later in the report they elaborate:

Every development strategy, no matter how intensive, seems to be the equivalent of a coin flip. Some teachers will get better and about the same number won’t. What separates them may be a host of highly individualized variables or a combination of many we have not yet pinpointed. In practice, though, this means that districts don’t have clear direction for how to help any given teacher improve—they are hoping for the best, rather trying to determine the results first and build from that foundation. (p. 22)

Space limitations here prevent me from sharing the bevy of data that leads this conclusion, so I highly recommend reading the full report to get a sense of the scope of the issues. But I’ll comment on one datapoint since it relates so directly to our work at NCTL. Report authors describe the disconnect between what teachers view as valuable learning experiences and what districts actually set aside as time for professional development. Here are the details:

Even though nearly three quarters of the teachers we surveyed said that observing other excellent teachers was a good use of their development time, they reported observing excellent peers less than twice a year.  By contrast, teachers spend an average of 24 hours per year participating in one-time professional development workshops, even though only 36 percent view them as a good use of time. (p. 26)

As we detailed in Time for Teachers last year, how teachers spend their time learning really does matter. In particular, peer observations can have an enormous impact on altering teaching routines for the simple reason that watching one’s peers in the next classroom over connects so directly to teachers’ own practices and the conditions in which they work. This potential for significant impact is the reason we’ve coached so many schools to build in repeated opportunities for teachers to observe their peers.

Unfortunately, though, as the Mirage report reveals, those opportunities are in too many cases too infrequent and uncoordinated to have any real impact.  And so I would entirely agree with the report’s conclusions—conclusions that mirror our own in Time for Teachers and that we seconded by signing onto a letter from Learning Forward reacting to the report—that school districts thoroughly reconsider how they organize and deliver professional learning for teachers. 

As the Mirage authors learned, the schools that seem to be having the greatest influence on teacher practice are those in the charter management organization because those schools emphasize the importance of fostering a learning culture for teachers (not only for students). As NCTL continues to work with schools to help administrators and teachers create the conditions where professional learning is valued and pursued aggressively, we hope that this new study will persuade others to follow the same path toward stronger instruction and better learning for our kids.