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3 Top-Down Approaches to Improving Teacher Capacity

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This post is by Elizabeth Leisy Stosich, research and policy fellow at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE).

The teaching force is changing, with a larger proportion of teachers with five or fewer years of experience and a high concentration of inexperienced teachers in high-poverty schools. Some educational reformers have viewed the "greening" of the teaching force as a positive development and focused on eased entry to quickly get new teachers into classrooms. However, efforts to prepare all students for success in college, career, and life have brought attention to the advanced pedagogical, content, and cultural competence needed for teachers to be successful in meeting these ambitious goals. This has led some states to focus on how to develop, retain, and leverage the expertise of experienced educators to grow capacity within the teaching force. In this post, I argue that there are three research-based principles that should guide state and local efforts to grow educator capacity and provide examples of state efforts that reflect these principles.

Recent efforts to improve the quality of teachers and teaching practice have focused on changing entry requirements (e.g., NCLB's "highly qualified teacher" designation) and measuring the effectiveness of teachers using teacher evaluation frameworks and student performance on standardized tests. While these approaches can help identify underprepared educators, they do not support the continued development of these teachers and fail to take advantage of the existing capacity within the workforce to strengthen teachers' practice. To this end, I offer three principles to guide state and local efforts to grow educator capacity.

#1 Common professional standards can help to identify and develop highly effective teachers.

Professional standards for accomplished teaching, such as those articulated in the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, provide educators with meaningful information about what they can do to improve. Notably, Stanford researchers find that the process for working towards these standards can serve as a significant learning experience and contribute to improvements in teachers' instructional practice. In contrast, so-called "value-added" measures of teachers' contribution to students' test scores provide no information about what teachers would need to do to improve. Furthermore, research from Washington State reveals that professional standards for accomplished teaching are effective signals for differentiating more capable teachers from their less capable peers who fail to meet these standards.

#2 Teachers get better as they gain experience and have opportunities for professional learning.

Recent research indicates that teachers continue to grow more capable long after their first few years in the classroom, challenging previous claims that teachers reach a plateau of effectiveness early in their career. Teachers become more skillful in supporting student learning with increased experience, opportunities to work with more capable colleagues, and in supportive school environments. Research from Matt Kraft and John Papay demonstrates that teachers who work in supportive school environments become more effective at raising student performance over time than do teachers who work in less supportive schools. According to their findings, schools that support teachers in improving their practice have strong leaders, opportunities for collaborative learning, and a culture of mutual respect and shared commitment to student learning.

#3 Efforts to grow teacher capacity are more powerful when they take into account collective opportunities for professional learning.

As Susan Moore Johnson argues, opportunities for teachers to engage in close collaboration with colleagues is essential for ensuring that teachers' knowledge about content, students, and pedagogy is made public and can benefit teachers' colleagues. In fact, recent evidence indicates that students directly benefit when their teachers have opportunities to work with more effective colleagues. This suggests that policies designed to strengthen the teaching force may be more successful if they take a collective and collaborative approach to growing professional capacity, rather than focusing on ranking and rewarding individual educators.

What actions can state leaders take to grow educator capacity?

In a recent article, Linda Darling-Hammond, Gene Wilhoit, and Linda Pittenger proposed a bold vision for rethinking how states approach accountability and described the central role of educators in advancing this vision. As they explain, growing skilled and committed educators is a central element of any system of accountability designed to ensure that all students have opportunities to engage in meaningful learning. In response to this vision, 10 states have formed a working group that is engaged in collective learning and action to grow the capacity of educators in their states with the support of members of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, the National Center for Innovation in Education, the Alliance for Excellent Education, and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The goal of this partnership is to create opportunities for collective learning from research and state efforts to support these states' shared goals for advancing meaningful and equitable learning opportunities for all children.

I highlight how three states have made progress in growing educator capacity: West Virginia, Kentucky, and Iowa.

West Virginia has redesigned their approach to professional learning to better support teachers in meeting professional standards for teaching and advancing student learning. In 2014, West Virginia surveyed educators to learn how they viewed their professional learning experiences. Educators' responses highlighted the need for sustained opportunities for professional learning that were integrated into teachers work in their schools and personalized to meet teachers' needs. While West Virginia leaders wanted to support a more personalized and context-specific approach to professional learning, they also wanted to ensure that these learning opportunities supported teachers in meeting the state's professional standards for teaching. Thus, state leaders worked closely with educators to develop Teacher Resources for Educational Excellence (TREE), an online resource bank designed to support high-quality learning experiences for teachers that is aligned to professional standards for teaching. As a consequence, teachers can look to not only the professional standards themselves but also resources aligned with these standards to support them in improving their practice.

Similarly, Kentucky is working to grow educator capacity from within the profession by rethinking educators' opportunities for professional learning. Specifically, Kentucky is moving away from a more passive approach to professional development and towards opportunities for professional learning that are integrated into the day-to-day work of schools and focused on continuous improvement. As part of this transition, Kentucky has passed legislation that defines professional learning as a comprehensive, sustained, and intensive approach to increasing student learning that strengthens and improves educators' effectiveness in meeting individual, team, school, school district, and state goals. This legislation requires that all districts provide at least four days for professional learning and that these opportunities benefit educators at all stages of career development. The efforts of Kentucky's Department of Education reflect a commitment to encouraging both individual and collective learning among teachers and ensuring that teachers have opportunities to learn and grow throughout their career.

Iowa has been working to use opportunities for teacher leadership as a key lever for enhancing teachers' professional learning and growth. Iowa's Teacher Leadership & Compensation (TLC) System was created to reward effective teachers with leadership opportunities and higher pay, encourage greater collaboration to support the learning of all teachers, attract promising new teachers with more competitive salaries, and, ultimately, improve student learning by strengthening instruction. Specifically, the state provides grants for districts to implement approaches for growing teacher capacity that align with the goals of the TLC System. District approaches can include opportunities for teachers to serve as instructional coaches, model teachers who colleagues can visit and learn from, mentors to new or developing teachers, curriculum developers, and leaders of professional development. Notably, Iowa already had a professional development model in place that encouraged collaborative learning among teachers. However, state leaders describe fostering teacher leadership as essential for realizing the goals of their professional development model.

The efforts of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Iowa provide potential models for how states and local systems can develop the conditions, structures, and collaborative processes that encourage professional learning and growth among all educators. State policies and initiatives that create opportunities for educators to play a central role in growing capacity in the profession can be described as top-down support for bottom-up reform. As states and local systems redesign their systems of support and accountability for meaningful learning, educators must play an essential role in driving continuous improvement in teaching and learning.


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