The National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) and Learning First recently released a report entitled Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems. The authors analyze the professional learning practices of four high-performing international education systems—British Columbia, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore—and find common themes. All systems emphasize the integration of professional learning into teachers’ weekly routines. Teachers have access to effective professional learning leaders, PD is continuously evaluated for its impact on student learning and instruction, and teachers receive dedicated time to collaborate with their peers.
By contrast, the United States spends billions on professional development (PD), which tends to be ineffective. Even “job-embedded” PD is often reported as low-quality. And teachers typically lack the incentives, structure, and time to learn from their more effective peers. Perhaps most importantly, the decentralized structure of the U.S. education system—with various federal, state, and local-level governance structures—makes it nearly impossible to prescribe a national PD model from Washington, D.C. Given these differences, what lessons can Beyond PD provide for the U.S. education system?
Capitalize on teacher leadership and residency models.
In Singapore and Shanghai, teachers have clear professional career tracks and leadership opportunities. These systems tend to develop, leverage, and reward their top talent. In Singapore, for example, teachers follow one of three designated career tracks, which promote mastery in classroom teaching, school leadership, or curriculum design. And as teachers advance in mastery, they are expected to mentor their more junior colleagues and lead them through the design and delivery of content-based professional learning. The added responsibility is not without reward and recognition: teachers receive higher salaries along with additional feedback and support as they move up the ladder.
By contrast, veteran “mentor teachers” in the U.S. often provide general advice to new teachers rather than content and grade-level feedback specific to their practice. Still, the international concept has gained traction in the U.S. by other names. For instance, in some states and local education agencies (LEAs) “teacher leadership” programs allow highly effective teachers to design and lead school-based professional learning. But, with the exception of a few places (such as Iowa, Baltimore, and DC), teacher leader roles have yet to gain permanence under formalized structures tied to recognition and rewards—as they have abroad. Likewise, new teacher residency programs provide novice teachers with the opportunity to gain experience teaching under the tutelage of an effective mentor teacher in their grade and subject before taking full responsibility for a classroom. However, residency programs have not yet gained widespread adoption and questions of scale remain.
States and LEAs often struggle to connect teacher promotion with pay due to collective bargaining agreements and traditional salary schedule constraints. And they often face bureaucratic hurdles to developing or scaling residencies. To move forward, States and LEAs should work together to promote, systematize, and replicate promising teacher leadership and residency models. This includes formalizing teachers’ roles to ensure they have the time, support, and compensation to take on increased responsibility.
Assess learning communities and other PD for quality and impact.
Beyond PD emphasizes quality of teacher learning experiences over quantity and highlights learning communities as a successful strategy employed across all international systems. Their success lies in their structure and leadership, clear focus on student learning, and evaluation for impact. In Singapore, for example, groups of four to eight teachers gather weekly throughout the school year by their subject or grade level. Teachers spend the year gathering data to answer a specified research question around student learning goals and needs, led by an advanced-career teacher or school leader. Throughout the process, teachers provide feedback on the effectiveness of their group’s work, and supervisors conduct both learning community and classroom observations to evaluate changes in teacher skills and attitudes.
While professional learning communities are the second most common type of PD offered in the U.S., they often result in unstructured meetings rather than well-organized discussions grounded in content and student learning, and they are rarely assessed for impact. Understanding whether particular types of professional development, like PLCs, are worth undertaking requires developing ways to measure their quality and impact. While such measurement can be challenging, states and LEAs can learn from their international peers, as well as each other, regarding what works and what doesn’t. While LEAs and schools may have a better ability to gauge teacher needs and perceptions of quality and impact, developing measurement systems would be best led and coordinated by states.
Give all PD the time that it needs to succeed.
In Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, teachers spend fewer than 18 hours a week directly teaching their students, with dedicated time for collaborating with peers. By comparison, U.S. teachers spend 27 hours per week on direct instruction alone. American school teachers, therefore, have far less time to plan collaboratively and learn from their colleagues—putting even the most well-defined teacher leadership roles or structured learning communities at a severe disadvantage.
Of course, simply building in more collaborative time into teachers’ weekly schedules is insufficient for driving systematic improvement without also putting effective professional learning leaders and models in place. But it’s worth experimenting with. While states can provide incentives for districts to create additional teacher time, adjusting the ratio of teaching to planning hours often requires changes to collective bargaining agreements and as such, is an effort best led by LEAs.
Tying It All Together to Create Change at Home
Luckily, under the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states can use their Title II funds to establish teacher residency programs and formalized career ladders. And LEAs can use theirs to provide teachers with additional time to review and respond to student data along with high-quality personalized PD. ESSA provides a passport for both states and LEAs to apply some of these international lessons and create meaningful change in teacher professional learning at home.