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Effective Professional Learning: 10 Strategies

As my colleague Vivien Stewart previously noted in this blog, cities in Asia Society's Global Cities Education Network (GCEN) recently convened in Shanghai to share ideas on how urban school districts can scale up effective professional learning for teachers. Using Shanghai as a case study, teams of teachers, school, and district leaders from Hong Kong, Houston, Seattle, Singapore, and Shanghai identified professional development practices and policies proven to build teachers' capacity and improve student learning.  The discussion produced a core set of strategies that help define what districts can do to create an effective system of professional learning for teachers. 

1)  All teachers are involved in school-based collaboration to improve student learning.
Shanghai teachers are consistently involved in several kinds of collaborative learning groups structured within the regular workday and relentlessly focused on improving instruction.  In these groups, teachers work together to hone the quality of lessons, observe and provide feedback on each other's teaching, and consider how to integrate curricular reforms and innovations into instruction.  Although not to the same extent as in Shanghai, teacher collaboration in professional learning communities has also driven improvements in the quality of instruction in Seattle Public Schools, especially at the middle school level.

2)  The system also gives all teachers access to effective professional learning opportunities.
When districts themselves provide professional development, it should reflect a clearly articulated strategy for building teachers' capacity to improve student learning.  As part of such strategies, professional networks provide opportunities for peer-to-peer learning between teachers working in different schools, and across the entire district.  Districts can also provide evidence-based pedagogical strategies, vetted exemplars of effective practice, and other tools for improving instruction accessible by every teacher online.  To support the success of its new Power Up one-to-one computing program in the Houston Independent School District, teachers were provided with over three months of customized professional development before students ever received laptops.

3)  Every teacher is provided sufficient time during their regularly compensated working hours to engage in professional learning.
Sufficient time for professional learning is essential.  The highest performing East Asian education systems ensure that teachers have the time they need by requiring fewer student contact hours compared to teachers in US schools, leaving more time for collaborative learning.  The trade-off is often larger class sizes, which may be less palatable here, but a number of districts are experimenting with other ways to find time for teacher learning.  Contact time with students needs to be appropriately managed to avoid disadvantaging students.  The bottom line is that by whatever means they can, sufficient time must be provided by districts for teachers' own deep, continuous learning. 

4)  Well-articulated career ladders incentivize teachers' ongoing professional learning.
Shanghai and Singapore provide powerful examples of career ladders, which motivate teachers toward professional advancement and increased compensation.  In both systems, teachers have opportunities to develop their expertise and take on added responsibility for curriculum development and mentoring of younger teachers. Teachers can choose to remain in the classroom and progress in leadership roles not just in their school, but also across the district. In Shanghai, career advancement reflects, in part, evidence of effective practice in underperforming schools, often serving the most challenging students. Teachers also have opportunities to advance into school and district leadership roles as they demonstrate leadership capacity.

5)  The school system uses a process for evaluating teachers' performance and growth geared primarily toward providing feedback useful in improving instructional capacity
A common feature among the highest performing education systems in East Asia is a teacher evaluation system that uses multiple sources of information to provide a holistic understanding of the quality of teachers' work and, most importantly, information useful for improvement.  Data on student performance may be one indicator but is never the sole or even main criteria for evaluating teachers' performance.  Districts build teachers' capacity by linking the results of a teacher's evaluation to a well-articulated professional leaning plan directly connected to the school's overall strategy for improving student learning. 

6)  The school system incentivizes the recruitment, training, and retention of effective teachers new to the system.
To ensure the depth of content knowledge needed for great teaching, many of the strongest East Asian education systems prioritize recruitment of teachers with academic degrees in the subject they will teach.  The strongest systems take care to ensure that beginning teachers are well supported, as in Toronto where a comprehensive, compulsory teacher mentoring and induction system is in place for every teacher new to the system. Key components of early teacher support include placement in schools that are well connected to teacher training institutions able to provide ongoing professional learning, and schools that are well-resourced with experienced practitioners.

7)  The school system leverages partnerships with institutions of higher learning and relevant workplaces to support teachers' professional learning.
Our visit to Shanghai was hosted by Shanghai Normal University. This institution, along with others such as East China Normal University, is a key partner for Shanghai schools. They leverage existing research and produce new knowledge and understanding through school-based research targeted directly toward improvement of student learning.  Universities play a central role in providing effective professional learning opportunities, which are intentionally designed to support the district's strategy for improvement of student learning. 

8)  School and teacher leaders, middle managers, and system leaders are all engaged in regular, structured, collaborative learning with peers focused on problems of practice relevant to their position within the school system.
A citywide system fosters continuous professional learning from the classroom to the superintendent's office.  In Toronto, the whole district learns through professional learning communities at different levels within the system where educators in similar roles bring problems of practice for collaborative consideration. Districts use these multi-level learning structures to communicate up and down the system and to identify and address student issues at the appropriate level. 

 9)  The school system supports, incentivizes, and rewards teachers' efforts to thoughtfully develop and test pedagogical innovations.
School systems should not only be wise consumers of curricular and pedagogical reforms, they should be producers of innovations as well.  That comes from creating a culture where teachers' are encouraged to engage in "action research" and try new approaches to enhance student learning.  The districts' role is to vet the effectiveness of innovations and provide access to those that are proven effective to teachers throughout the system. 

10)  The system provides timely, targeted data and other information on student and school performance to identify learning problems and guide professional learning and school improvement strategies.
The Houston school system provides a powerful model where the use of data on student learning, supported by a sophisticated learning management system, provides teachers relevant, timely information critical to diagnosing learning issues and customizing instruction.  In Toronto, a key element of success, especially in raising up the achievement of low performing students, is a robust research department—something rare among city school systems.

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