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Professional Development Pays Off for i3-Funded Program

Teacher training appears to be paying off for at least one of the 92 programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Investing in Innovation grants, half of which focus on professional development.

Kindergarten students whose teachers received training from the Children's Literacy Initiative performed significantly better on reading tests than did those in a randomly selected control group whose teachers did not receive the support, according to an interim, two-year evaluation by the American Institutes for Research, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization based in Washington. In addition, standardized classroom observations indicated that kindergarten and 1st grade teachers who received the training provided higher-quality classroom environments and stronger literacy instruction. 

"This is very welcome news," said Harvard education professor Heather Hill, the  lead author of a recent Educational Researcher article lamenting that research in professional development had produced a limited amount of "credible, usable knowledge."

The Children's Literacy Initiative was one of 49 projects funded by the first round of the Investing in Innovation (i3) program, which started in 2010. In the first three years of the five-year, $21 million grant, the Initiative served 11,750 kindergarten through 3rd graders, 560 teachers and 38 principals at 38 schools in Chicago, Newark, Camden, and Philadelphia. The interim evaluation assessed two year's worth of data from students who were kindergartners in the fall of 2011 or the fall of 2012. The final evaluations of the i3 programs should be available in 2016.

The intervention provides formal instruction and classroom-based, custom-tailored coaching to all teachers in a grade, plus books and other literacy material. In addition, one teacher per grade receives additional resources and mentoring so that she, in turn, can continue to coach her peers, even when the Modeling Exemplary Literacy Instruction initiative is over.

 "This joins a number of other recent studies that have found individualized coaching to be effective in improving teaching and learning," Hill said.  "The research seems well-designed, and employs several commonly used measures of classroom practices and student literacy as outcomes, which lends credibility to the study's results. This information should prove useful to districts seeking to improve their early-grade literacy instruction state of research on professional development."

Although generally positive, the interim evaluation results did demonstrate room for improvement during the final two years of the grant. For example, kindergartners whose teachers received the training scored higher on the Predictive Assessment of Reading, an individually administered test of pre-reading skills that assessed students' word reading, vocabulary, phonemic awareness, and rapid naming fluency. But 1st graders scored about the same as the control group on the Group Reading Assessment and Diagnostic Evaluation, a group-administered test of reading skills that assessed students' word reading and meaning and comprehension. In addition, although Initiative teachers reported receiving a lot more professional development than teachers in the control group, the Initiative faced challenges when it came to training some of the participating principals because district rules limited the number of meetings they could attend outside school buildings.

However, Cameron Voss, the Initiative's interim director, pointed out that the overall findings were rare for rigorously designed studies of professional development because they found statistically significant and positive results.

"We can also see the success of our i3 project in the classrooms where we are working, where teachers tell us they are now better equipped to teach reading and writing, and students are demonstrating a love of literacy," she said.

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