Scaling up innovative professional learning systems for teachers

How can we invest wisely in innovative professional learning for American teachers? What does scalability require?

Points of connection across the globeHow do we redesign professional learning systems for teachers—and take those changes to scale?

What we already know about scaling up

The school reform community has a lot to learn from the long litany of literature, beginning with the sociologists Waller (1932) and Lortie (1975) about the school structures that have kept (and continue to keep) teachers from learning from each other. And there’s plenty to keep in mind about scalability:

  • The RAND change agent studies of the 1970s concluded that effective policies are ones that are mutually adapted by those who implement them.
  • Michael Lipsky taught us a similar lesson in the 1980s. He made the compelling case that “street-level” professionals, especially those who work with conscripted clients (as do police officers and teachers), must always reinvent policy in order to take into account the context-specific complexities of their work
  • And as Dick Elmore pointed out in the 1990s: “The problems of scale are deeply rooted in the incentives and cultural norms of the institutions, and cannot be fixed with simple policy shifts or exhortations from people with money.” He tried to inform policy leaders that getting to scale requires teachers—who do the real work of teaching and learning—to “think of themselves as operating in a web of professional relations that influence their daily decisions, rather than as solo practitioners.”

Driving innovative professional learning systems

Here are two key drivers of innovative professional learning systems:

New ways to de-isolate teachers. Advance opportunities for teachers to witness the practice and reflections of their colleagues, whether they teach next door or across the world. This is already happening to some extent, but imagine the results if teachers were accorded time for (and professional acknowledgement and support of) their interactions via platforms like the CTQ Collaboratory, the Teaching Channel, and Better Lesson as well as Twitter and other forms of social media yet to be invented.

Policies that value teachers’ spreading of their teaching know-how to their colleagues. This is especially important when it comes to the next generation of evaluation systems.

Other strategies to keep in mind

Of course, those are only starting points. To get to—and beyond—these starting points, education stakeholders can take these steps:

Surface and tell professional learning stories. Too many Americans (including policymakers) believe that teachers are not working if they are not teaching in front of students. Teacher leaders are spreading expertise now—if in limited or informal ways. We need to make sure that policymakers know what is being shared, how, and (most importantly) why this matters for students.

Prepare teachers as researchers. Preservice recruits to teaching in the U.S. must be prepared (as are their peers in top-performing countries like Finland and Singapore) to engage in systematic inquiry with a growth mindset and an evidence-based approach.

Design seamless connections. New recruits to teaching, like their counterparts in Singapore, need to be prepared and assessed in ways consistent with how they are evaluated as veterans.

Create time for teachers to be imaginative. As is the case in top-performing nations, teachers in the U.S., need time to learn and flexible work schedules (that look different on different days of the week) to inspire creative efforts (independent and collective) that benefit student learning.

Make school conditions matter. If teachers are to be responsible for student outcomes, policymakers must be accountable for the conditions that need to be in place for teachers to learn and lead to achieve those results.

Tackling this issue

Last week, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation assembled a small team to consider how best to scale up innovative professional learning for teachers. Building on previous investments in teachers’ professional learning, the Foundation has launched a portfolio of work called Innovative Professional Development (iPD) that is evidence-based as well as personalized to what teachers (individually and collectively) need to help students learn (and learn deeply).

The team included think tank analysts, top-level state policy officials and district administrators, professional development experts, and leaders of nonprofits and university-based R&D centers. I learned a great deal from those in the room, and even more when we were joined by administrators and teachers of Bridgeport, CT, one of 14 sites supported by the Foundation in its quest to figure out iPD. I was invited to help drive discussion (along with several other participants) and touched on many of the points outlined in this post.

I hope that some of these ideas stick. What do you think?