Beyond PD

Teacher professional learning in high-performance systems

February 14, 2016

In any district, state or country, when children’s learning stagnates or falls, the response is universal: we must improve teaching to improve learning. All of the evidence shows that this is the right response. But it’s incredibly difficult.

We spend millions of dollars on teacher professional development, but it’s not having the desired impact on our kids’ learning. But in some systems it is working. Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems shows how British Columbia, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore improve teaching in schools. Why is professional learning having an impact in these systems? What are the steps other systems can take to refine their improvement strategies?

First, professional learning in schools must focus on an improvement cycle that begins and ends with student learning. The focus of teacher professional development should be determined by the learning needs of students in a classroom. Teachers work collaboratively to develop their instruction to meet their students’ needs and then evaluate the impact on their learning.

This improvement cycle embodies the evidence of effective professional learning, but it has not always worked in schools. It fails when used in isolation. Broader reforms are required to ensure improvement across the system.

Second, to make professional learning effective requires a reform strategy that changes:

How we hold schools accountable – increasing accountability for the quality of teaching and the development of teachers;

How we develop our school leaders – high-performing systems have all created new leadership positions in schools to develop teachers and improve professional learning; and

How we target school resources to make sure teachers have enough time to focus on professional learning. 

Over time, this blend of policies means professional learning becomes central to teachers’ jobs. It is not an add-on. It is not something done on Friday afternoons or for a few days at either end of the school year. Teacher professional learning is how educators improve student learning; it is how they improve schools; and it is how they are evaluated in their jobs.

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