U.S. Is Substantially Behind Other Nations in Providing Teacher Professional Development

Every year, nine in 10 of the nation’s three million teachers participate in professional development designed to improve their content knowledge, transform their teaching, and help them respond to student needs. These activities, which can include workshops, study groups, mentoring, classroom observations, and numerous other formal and informal learning experiences, have mixed results in how they effect student achievement.
Research shows that professional learning can have a powerful effect on teacher skills and knowledge and on student learning. To be effective, however, it must be sustained, focused on important content, and embedded in the work of collaborative professional learning teams that support ongoing improvements in teachers’ practice and student achievement.
A comprehensive new report released last week by researchers from Stanford University and the National Staff Development Council (NSDC) finds that while the United States is making progress in providing support and mentoring for new teachers and focusing on bolstering content knowledge, the type of support and on-the-job training most teachers receive is episodic, often fragmented, and disconnected from real problems of practice. The report also reviews promising strategies in high-performing nations and U.S. states.
The report – Professional Learning in the Learning Profession: A Status Report on Teacher Development in the U.S. and Abroad – documents some progress but many serious problems in teacher development today:
Improvement in support for new teachers. According to the report, U.S. public schools have begun to recognize and respond to the need to provide more support for new teachers. Nationally, in 2003-04, more than two-thirds (68 percent) of public school teachers with fewer than five years of experience reported participating in a teacher induction program during the first year of teaching, and 71 percent reported being assigned some kind of mentor teacher.
Workshop overload. Research shows that professional development should not be approached in isolation as the traditional “flavor of the month” or one-shot workshop but go hand-in-hand with school improvement efforts. The report finds that teachers still take a heavy dose of workshops and do not receive effective learning opportunities in many areas in which they want help.
Little intensity, short duration. While rigorous studies indicate that intensive professional development efforts that offer an average of about 50 hours of support a year can make a significant impact on student achievement, raising test scores by an average of 21 percentage points, the majority of teachers in the United States (57 percent) receives no more than about two days (16 hours) of training in their subject areas. Fewer than one-quarter (23 percent) of all teachers receive more than 36 hours of professional learning in their subject areas.
Working in isolation. U.S. teachers report little professional collaboration in designing curriculum and sharing practices, and the collaboration that occurs tends to be weak and not focused on strengthening teaching and learning.
Major blind spots. Teachers are not getting adequate training in teaching special education or limited English proficient students. More than two-thirds of teachers nationally had not had even one day of training in supporting the learning of special education or LEP students during the previous three years, and only one-third agreed that they had been given the support they needed to teach students with special needs.
Lack of utility. Teachers give relatively high marks to content-related learning opportunities, with 59 percent saying this training was useful or very useful. But fewer than half found the professional development they received in other areas, such as classroom management, to be of much value, despite the fact that they want more support in this area.
Out-of-pocket payments. U.S. teachers, unlike many of their colleagues around the world, bear much of the cost of their professional development. While most teachers were given some time off during the work day to pursue professional learning opportunities, fewer than half received reimbursement for travel, workshop fees, or college expenses.
Variation in support and opportunity among schools and states. A lower percentage of secondary school teachers reported participating in district-planned professional development than did elementary school teachers. Among states, Arkansas, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont had significantly higher proportions of teachers participating in professional learning than the national average.
Limited influence in decision-making. In many high-achieving nations where teacher collaboration is the norm, teachers have substantial influence on school-based decisions, especially in the development of curriculum and assessment, and in the design of their own professional learning. In the United States, however, less than one-fourth of teachers feel they have great influence over school decisions and policies in seven different areas noted in the SASS surveys. A scant majority feel that they have some influence over curriculum and setting performance standards for students, though fewer than half perceived that they had some influence over the content of their in-service professional development. And very few felt they had influence over school.
Source: National Staff Development Council
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