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Rigorous Study Finds Actual Benefits From Immersive Teacher PD Program

A professional-development program oriented around an immersive civics-education unit significantly improved teachers' sense of instructional effectiveness, while also boosting students' historical-thinking skills, according to a research study to be published in Columbia University's Teachers College Record.

The study used a randomized-controlled-trial method to look at the classroom effects of Facing History and Ourselves, a teacher-training and curriculum program that uses historical case studies to help high school educators and students delve into past events and related social-justice and moral issues. It was led by researchers with the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the public policy-research group Abt Associates working in conjunction with Facing History's evaluation staff.

As the researchers note, randomized-controlled-trial studies showing a clear impact of teacher professional development on student learning have been quite rare, so their findings may prove significant for further research and development in the teacher-learning arena. Randomized-controlled-trial studies are often considered the "gold standard" in research trials.

The study involved 113 humanities teachers and more than 1,300 students in 60 mostly high-poverty high schools. The teachers were randomly divided into two groups—those who participated in the Facing History program during the study year and those who continued to use the "standard practices" in their districts for teaching language arts and history. Teachers in the Facing History group went through the program's regular PD offering, which included a week-long summer seminar as well as ongoing coaching, lesson-modeling assistance, and print and digital teaching resources. According to the study, the training was designed to help teachers "engage and foster students' civic skills and dispositions, historical thinking skills, and social and ethical reflection."

During the school year, the teachers taught a Facing History unit of at least six weeks based on a case study on the "failure of democracy in pre-World War II Germany." The teachers led their students in exploring issues such as group identity, racism, historical memory, moral judgment, and social and civic participation.

Based on follow-up surveys, the researchers found that the teachers in the Facing History group showed significantly higher levels of instructional "self-efficacy" than their counterparts in the control group. That included in the areas of creating a learner-centered classroom environment and in promoting historical understanding and civic literacy. The Facing History teachers also had a greater sense of personal accomplishment and professional support and growth.

The students in Facing History classes, meanwhile, demonstrated significantly stronger historical-thinking skills, including in analyzing evidence and cause and effect. They also reported a greater sense of "civic efficacy" and tolerance for others with different views than their own, and perceived a more open classroom climate. No effects were found, however, on students' racial attitudes, convictions about deliberation, or sense of civic responsibility.

Still, the researchers concluded that the findings provide "promising evidence that, after only one year of participating in the professional development model and with their first experience implementing the intervention, teachers were able to ... impact students' learning and growth in areas critical to participation in a democracy."

In an interview, officials with Facing History said that the group's professional-development program differs from others in being more in-depth and intellectually penetrating.

"We really value teachers' intellect," said Marc Skvirsky, Facing History's vice president and chief program officer. "The seminars bring them into deep discovery, with profound implications about we who are as humans. We also give them new pedagogical tools that can help them navigate complex issues and texts with students. It's not just a little, isolated initiative."

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