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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Does teacher professional development work?

Apparently not. So concludes a pair of studies, one focused on middle school mathematics, and the other on early reading.

Results after one year of providing teachers math professional development (PD) indicate no improvement on their students' math achievement when compared to teachers who did not receive the study-provided PD.

The result is surprising and disconcerting. The professional development provided by the study emphasized fractions, decimals, percents, and ratios. Education students self-report these very topics as their number one weaknesses. Nevertheless, education students are sure to graduate and enter the classroom with their weaknesses intact, even after completing the mandated mathematics coursework.

The early reading study came to a similar conclusion.

Although there were positive impacts on teacher’s knowledge of scientifically based reading instruction and on one of the three instructional practices promoted by the study PD, neither PD intervention resulted in significantly higher student test scores at the end of the one-year treatment.

Eric A. Hanushek, from Stanford University, concluded, “ can't change ineffective teachers into effective ones.” Hilda Borko, an education professor also from Stanford, counters with, “We know teacher change takes time.”

The truth is probably a blend of both assertions. A competent, reflective teacher is quick to adopt useful new skills, approaches, or tactics. The discovery of well-designed materials and curriculum induces nearly instantaneous change. Effective teachers are always looking for new tools to add to their every growing collection. If possible, the teacher will roll out the new tool the very next day. If the teacher finds the the new tool requires a major or even minor redesign of lesson plans, materials, and handouts, well, so much for summer vacation travel plans. Being the best that they can be is a core value of effective teachers.

Both studies tested for student improvement after one year and found none. But since both studies also found that the professional development did not increase teacher math knowledge or alter teacher practices, of course there would be no gains in student test scores.

The studies noted that participating teachers were “engaged” in the professional development, thus ruling out lack of engagement as a reason for the disappointing lack of results. However, as all teachers know, teachers can fully participate in professional development workshops, and still walk out thinking, rightly or wrongly, “Well, that was a waste of time.” Engagement is one of those necessary, but not sufficient conditions.

If we agree that effective teachers will readily adopt recognizably useful skills and concepts, why is professional development looking to be yet another waste of everyone's time, effort and money? Could it be that the schools of education need to be more selective in admitting education students? As it is, once a student is admitted, a high GPA at least in education courses and graduation is all but assured. Many states grant automatic teaching credentials to graduates of state education programs. Yet the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) reports that credentials make no difference.

One of the first things researchers did with the computed teachers' effects was investigate whether they were closely related to the teacher credentials upon which achievement was traditionally regressed. The answer was generally no: credentials do not explain teacher effects for the most part...differences in certification explain only a small fraction (if any) of the variation in achievement: differences among teachers with the same certification dwarf the differences associated with certification (or the lack thereof).

A study from New York found :

This evidence suggests that classroom performance during the first two years, rather than certification status, is a more reliable indicator of a teacher's future effectiveness.

Schools and universities continue to hype, and the public continues to buy, credentialing as some indication of quality.

Could it mean that society needs to demand more of its schools of education, and that in the short term, universities must be willing to forego the tuition cash cow the schools of education represent? I know that whenever I have suggested tougher requirements for student admission, the universities invariably respond that they cannot afford the loss of tuition. Thus the vicious circle never ends.

“We must break the cycle in which we find ourselves,” said William H. Schmidt...“A weak K-12 mathematics curriculum in the U.S., taught by teachers with an inadequate mathematics background, produces high school graduates who are at a disadvantage. When some of these students become future teachers and are not given a strong background in mathematics during teacher preparation, the cycle continues,”

Professor Schmidt was referring to the results of an international study on the preparedness of mathematics teachers, a study he supervised. Research is showing that when entry level pay for teachers is raised, the quality of education applicants increases. Perhaps society needs to agree to pay teachers more. One mechanism is a ballot referendum for higher taxes to pay teachers. Oh, that bad word—taxes.

The results of these studies raise many questions, and surely one is the reasonableness of expecting significant student improvement after just one year. Even if an effective teacher instantly adopts an improved practice, is a year long enough to effect student outcomes? Maybe, as excellent tutors have experienced. When a teacher fills a student's gap in “profound understanding of fundamental mathematics (Liping Ma),” the improvement in math scores can be dramatic.

In fact, teachers generally do not wait for annual bubble tests to decide if a new tool is worth keeping. They look for immediate effects based on criteria residing in their own head and nowhere else. If efficacy is not quickly apparent, teachers will abandon a new practice as quickly as they took it up. A school year is short, not long. Teachers do not have time to spin their wheels.

Once a student decides school is “doing time” or a particular subject is beyond them, once a student shuts down, it is very difficult, even for the best teachers, to reawaken wonder, interest, curiosity and the ability to persevere through a challenge.

All the foregoing being said, any analysis of the effectiveness on professional development suffers from the scarcity of rigorous studies of professional development efficacy.

The most recent review of studies of the impact of teacher PD on student achievement revealed a total of nine studies that have rigorous designs—randomized control trials (RCTs) or certain quasi-experimental designs (QEDs)—that allow causal inferences to be made (Yoon et al. 2007).*

Even fewer studies have examined the ways teachers incorporate and evaluate what they learn from professional development.

What surprised me most was the observation of teacher instructional practices:

To measure instructional practice for treatment and control teachers, one classroom observation was conducted for each teacher after the treatment teachers in that district had had at least 5 of the 8 scheduled days of institutes and seminars. The observations produced three primary measures of instructional practice, which documented the frequency with which the teacher employed several key behaviors encouraged by the PD program.13 The first measure, Teacher elicits student thinking, encompassed such behaviors as asking other students whether they agree or disagree with
a particular student’s response and also included behaviors elicited from the students such as offering additional justifications or strategies. The second measure, Teacher uses representations, counted the number of times the teacher displayed and explained a visual representation of mathematics, such as number lines or ratio tables, as well as the number of different types of representations the teacher used. The third measure, Teacher focuses on mathematical reasoning, counted the number of times that the teacher asked questions such as Why does this procedure work? Why does my answer make sense? or Why isn’t 3/4 a reasonable answer to this problem?

On average, teachers elicit student thinking about 3 times per class period, use representations twice and focus on math reasoning once. Me, I do all that all day long, so it seems to me that the problem with math education is far more fundamental than the study was designed to evaluate.

Generally speaking, middle school teachers are classified as secondary teachers and are expected to have a bachelors degree in the subject area they teach. Because of teacher supply and demographic issues, teachers are often assigned subjects outside their field. Even so, the percentage of studied teachers with a math or math related degree barely crested double digits. On a baseline test of the math covered in the professional development, the studied teachers “had a 55% chance of getting the right answer,” compared to 93% chance for the professional development facilitators. The average seventh- grade student of these teachers scored in the 19th percentile on a test of fractions.

Middle school math is a classic illustration of the old canard, the blind leading the blind. Math instruction at the elementary level, where fractions are introduced, is even worse. On the other hand, “more qualified teachers had a tendency to gravitate to schools that served students from more privileged backgrounds.” **

I am not saying that ALL PD is worthless and I have written about effective PD. Nor am I saying that these two studies are the be all and end all.

I am pointing out flaws in the study and flaws in the conclusions. I am saying that perhaps the designers of the study misunderstand how teachers adopt and/or reject what they learn from PD. Perhaps the designers did not adequately account for a host of other variables.

I am saying that what passes for improvement in eliciting student thinking is not much, just one more question in the class period.

I am also implying that student test scores do not necessarily measure of success of PD.

*Yoon, K.S., Duncan, T., Lee, S. W.-Y., Scarloss, B., and Shapley, K. Reviewing the Evidence on How Teacher Professional Development Affects Student Achievement (Issues & Answers Report, No. 033). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest, 2007.

**J.E. Rockoff, "The Impact of Individual Teachers on Student Achievement: Evidence from Panel Data," American Economic Review, Papers and Proceedings, May 2004.

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