Teachers as learners and leaders: To dos for American decision makers

How can we most effectively support teachers and their professional learning? Barnett Berry examines evidence and shares practical to dos for education decision makers.

How can we most effectively support teachers and their professional learning? Earlier this summer, a dynamic group of policy leaders, journalists, professional association heads, and a few practicing teachers discussed this question at a Washington, D.C. event sponsored by National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) and the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD).

Not-so-surprising insights from TALIS data

OECD research director Andreas Schleicher kicked off the deliberations by outlining top findings from the 2013 Teaching And Learning International Survey (TALIS) of 100,000 teachers (and principals) from 34 nations:

  • The more teachers believe that teaching is valued in their respective nations, the better their students perform on international measures of student achievement;
  • In top-performing jurisdictions (like Singapore, Finland, and Estonia), teachers have a significant say-so in major decisions about teaching and learning;
  • The most effective professional learning systems focus on peer-to-peer support, not external training;
  • Collaborative teaching practices improve job satisfaction, which is linked to effectiveness of the nations in generating school improvement.

His conclusions came as no surprise to anyone at the conference.

A great deal of recent research has shed light on teachers’ professional learning. For example, economists using sophisticated statistical methods have found that students score higher on achievement tests when their teachers have opportunities to work with colleagues over a longer period of time and share their expertise. And a just-released study found that teachers improve their practice at greater rates when they work in schools with better quality collaboration. We know even more from scholars like Dylan Wiliam: Effective professional learning systems engineer situations, activities and tasks (like lesson study and action research projects) that support teachers to spread their expertise and go public with their ideas, successes, and challenges.

Again, not too surprising.

Way back in 1996, NCTAF drew on a wealth of research to introduce a comprehensive policy blueprint for closing the student achievement gap: ‘School reform cannot succeed unless it focuses on creating the conditions in which teachers can teach, and teach well.’

Nineteen years later, the TALIS results still point to a range of ways in which the US education system fails its teaching profession. American teachers are far less likely to see their colleagues teach — and they are far more likely to be observed by administrators than peers. They are less likely to report positive change following the feedback they do receive.

To dos for decision makers

Why the gap between research and reality? Here are at least three explanations, and some practical to dos for decision makers in American education:

  • Policymakers have focused on fixing “bad” teachers, as opposed to maximizing the many excellent practitioners who could help their colleagues improve. To do: Reinvent teacher evaluation systems in order to place a premium on the spread of teaching expertise by maximizing the many excellent practitioners who could help their colleagues improve.
  • Administrators, the gatekeepers of school resources and time, often do not know how to lead professional development in effective ways. To do: Establish expectations (and preparation) for a new brand of instructional leadership, positioning administrators to rethink teaching schedules and build trusting, risk-taking school cultures for high-quality teacher collaboration.
  • Teacher unions historically have been reluctant to ensure quality control among their ranks and identify the most accomplished members. To do: Partner with school districts to jettison the single salary schedule and create a new system of preparing, recognizing, and rewarding teacher leadership that fuels student learning.

Pie-in-the-sky? Not really. All of these practices are in place somewhere in the world right now. And you’ll never guess where policymakers from top-performing jurisdictions learned much of what they are enacting: yep, American educators and researchers (whose findings never found widespread application at home).

The question now: Are we ready to DO what we have learned is effective for teachers and students?