Improving professional development policy

Welcome back to this blog after a (northern hemisphere) summer break. Prior to the break, we had been talking about the importance of policy interactions. This discussion can get a bit theoretical and high-level, so I want to bring it back down to the tangible and go through specific steps for system leaders to improve policy in a way that emphasises policy interactions to improve results; in this blog, we will focus on teacher professional development policy. As you will see below, this looks much more like a strategic approach to change than any artificial emphasis on interactions.

September 25, 2019 | Ben Jensen

A recent blog highlighted that teacher professional development continually fails to improve teaching and learning in many systems across many countries. But with professional development policy there is a great paradox: on the one hand, professional development expenditure is normally ineffective and on the other hand it’s very difficult to find a system that has improved significantly without professional development being a key driver of improvement. So, the finding that most professional development does not have an impact doesn’t mean that professional development is not worth investing in, but that professional development policy needs to change (and in most cases, change significantly).

Four steps can hopefully make it easier for policymakers and system leaders to improve teacher professional development policy in their systems (improving professional development for school and system leaders requires a slightly different process). The steps are:

Step 1: Understand and clearly define the problem: Why is professional development not having the desired impact?

Step 2: Define policy objectives: Is the current goal of professional development policy to improve student learning of the curriculum?

Step 3: Be clear on what people need to do to improve: Is there clarity on what people need to do to ensure professional development is effective in their school?

Step 4: Structure data, monitoring and evaluation to ensure learning of what is (and is not) working and to simply reinforce what people need to do to improve.

I have tried to keep these steps simple, but they go to the heart of the problem in professional development and the necessary strategic policy changes. In this blog we will go through Step 1 and Step 2, and in the next blog we will go through Step 3 and Step 4.

Step 1: Understand and clearly define the problem: Why is professional development not having the desired impact?

This sounds obvious but it is essential for not going off-track later in policy development. The core issue facing system leaders is a simple one: the problem is that teacher professional development is not having a positive impact on student learning. We need to be clear about this. In general, teachers like professional development; they want more of it and consider it a key policy for their own personal improvement and for system improvement. So, the problem is not about engagement or low take-up; it is that professional development doesn’t improve teaching and learning.

Unfortunately, most of the policy debate dances around this issue and makes claims that the problem is really that professional development is not job-embedded or sufficiently collaborative, or is too focused on external programs and so on. This makes life difficult for system leaders and policy makers who must cut through unhelpful policy debates to focus first on what the real issue is.

So, Step 1 requires system leaders to understand and then clearly state the problem with their current professional development policy. My experience with most systems is that one or all of the following are problems:

  1. Professional development is not resulting in improved student learning outcomes (and that teachers regularly say/report that professional development is not connected to the challenges they face in the classroom)
  2. Some professional development is considered better quality than others but there is insufficient data to identify and verify which professional development programs are more and less effective across the school system
  3. Teachers regularly enjoy professional development and wish they had more time to undertake professional development but are worried about the issues in 1 and 2 above

There will probably be numerous data sets that can be used to identify these problems but precise measurement is normally difficult. That is OK; we can still improve if we know what the problem is.

Once the problem has been identified it is important to be clear and, to the extent possible, precise before moving to Step 2. Again, this sounds obvious but has real implications for policy development. As an example, I often see systems where their data clearly shows that professional development is not improving student learning in classrooms. But their documents have broad problem statements like the problem is that professional development is ineffective. This makes life harder; ineffective can mean many things and can take us anywhere. The more specific the problem statement the better we can take the next step to improve policy.

Step 2: Define policy objectives: Is the current goal of professional development policy to improve student learning of the curriculum?

Put simply, the problem is that professional development is not improving learning in classrooms. So, we need to check: what are the current objectives driving the design and implementation of professional development policy? If the objective is not to improve teaching and learning of the curriculum, then we shouldn’t expect professional development policy to improve teaching and learning in classrooms.

In Step 2, system leaders need to ask:

  1. Is the objective of professional development policy to improve student learning of the curriculum?
  2. Is this made consistently clear in policy documentation and other materials provided to schools?

As you can see, Step 2 refines the problem (and impacts the solution) by being clearer and more specific about what it means to have student learning as the objective of professional development policy.

Policy objectives will normally include improving student learning as an objective. If improving student learning is one of many objectives then that is part of the problem. We need to prioritise and be clear about that prioritisation. This can be difficult, but it is essential. Put simply, systems that succeed prioritise student learning as it is the only way to make education policy effective. And in my experience, teachers and school leaders will appreciate their moral imperative being emphasised in system policies.

But the main point of emphasising the curriculum in Step 2 is that the objective of student learning needs to be specific – it is student learning of the curriculum. We need to be honest that having improving student learning as an objective of most policies is too vague for real change. It is an umbrella term; students can learn virtually anything and it is hard to think of an activity that cannot be labelled as learning in some way (which reflects the main criticism of a lot of professional development – too vague, not specific, not connected to the classroom). So, we need to be more specific.

Now, there are huge discussions about how we should define student learning, but these discussions are the domain of curriculum policy – working out what we want our students to learn. For system reform, curriculum policy should define what students need to learn (what they need to know and be able to do) and professional development policy should build capability in teachers and leaders so they can deliver on what students need to learn.

So, to create a clear strategic objective for professional development policy does not mean we redefine what students should learn, just that the strategic objective of professional development policy be clearly defined as improving teaching and learning of the curriculum. So, this change needs to be made in a system.

This is the first – and most important – interaction between professional development policy and curriculum policy; the strategic objective of professional development policy is student learning of the curriculum. This is a much sharper strategic objective that provides clear parameters for more effective design, implementation and evaluation of professional development policy. If we are loose or ambiguous on our strategic objective, then we should not be surprised when there is significant variation within and between schools and evaluation results are ambiguous (how do you evaluate success when objectives are vague and ambiguous?).

Making the objective of professional development policy student learning of the curriculum can be a bit of a shift for systems. It can often help to work on our language. We need to replace the language of “focusing on student learning” with “focusing on student learning of the curriculum”. It may seem like a small change, but I am a huge believer that language matters. I visit too many Departments of Education, hear too many policy discussions and read too many policy and strategy documents where the curriculum is not mentioned. This creates ambiguity and ambiguity rarely leads to improvements in learning. So, if professional development policy has multiple objectives and/or is ambiguous about student learning then don’t expect improvements in teaching and learning (that is usually measured very specifically).

Student learning of the curriculum is our strategic objective and should be our language. It may sound stupid but I encourage people to just try it for a month: to say that in our organisation – be it a school, a district or regional office, a state department or wherever – that from now on we don’t say student learning; we say student learning of the curriculum. I guarantee that it will introduce more rigour and specificity to your discussions and your work (OK, I can’t guarantee it, but my experience indicates it will lead to improvement – it just forces people to be more precise).

My experience in systems that have highly effective professional development is that the professional development teachers undertake is much more focused on pedagogical content knowledge over general pedagogy; it is much more subject based than focused on general teaching. This is not an accident – it is the result of a strategic choice to prioritise the curriculum taught in schools. Once professional development is designed to improve teaching and learning of the curriculum, then subject-specific professional development is immediately prioritised over general pedagogy.

(Note: this can also be helpful for policy makers doing a review of their professional development policy. As part of the review of the objective of professional development policy, it is worth looking at the implementation of the policy and just comparing what percentage is subject-specific (or subject based) and what percentage relates to general pedagogy or other issues of schooling. I don’t have a magic number for what percentage of professional development should be subject based, but I have no doubt the great majority of professional development should be based on teaching subjects in the curriculum. We at Learning First have done some reviews (or audits if you want it to sound more formal) of professional development in systems. While the data is often poor, a simple analysis of whether professional development is subject-based or not can quickly highlight broader strategic problems with professional development policy).

The above two initial steps should have (1) clearly defined the problem in professional development that needs to be addressed and (2) ensured that the objective of professional development policy is explicitly tied to improving student learning of the curriculum.

Steps 3 and 4 focus on what people need to do to reach this strategic objective and structuring the required data, monitoring and evaluation processes. These steps will be discussed in the next blog.