Research Findings Spur Efforts to Improve Professional Development for Rural Teachers
This post is by Haidee Williams, senior TA consultant at American Institutes for Research (AIR, @Education_AIR) and REL Southwest (@RELSouthwest) alliance liaison for the Oklahoma Rural Schools Research Alliance.
Today's post is the practitioner perspective on Monday's post: New Study Sheds Light on Rural Teachers' Professional Development Challenges.
The Oklahoma Rural Schools Research Alliance was formed in 2012 with the goal of understanding the factors that contribute to or impede progress related to rural school performance and student college and career readiness in the state's rural districts. The alliance has a variety of members with unique perspectives: they include rural educators, policymakers, university staff, Native American tribal members, and researchers. The alliance immediately identified high-quality professional development (PD) in rural schools as a major challenge.
This launched a collaborative research partnership with REL Southwest to design a study identifying current PD practices in the state with a survey asking principals about the PD practices in their schools. This was particularly important because there were no data on current teacher PD practices in Oklahoma. Through this collaborative partnership and by addressing a real need, alliance members were keenly interested in the findings in the Opportunities for Teacher Professional Development in Oklahoma Rural and Nonrural Schools report. During the 2017 in-person alliance meeting, our members reviewed the survey findings and the room instantly became alive with discussions that went well past the time people would normally go home.
As alliance members discussed the report, many of the findings confirmed their PD experiences. Some examples are the barriers to participating in PD opportunities in rural settings. They include scheduling conflicts and insufficient staff to teach the students while the teachers are attending the PD sessions. At the same time, there were some surprises. One was the finding that there were very few collaborative learning opportunities, which members have found to be an important component of quality PD. They also felt that collaborative learning opportunities should be offered in a variety of ways: in-person, virtually, and as a blend of both. Additionally, the alliance determined educational leaders should be provided with high-quality protocols or structures to support collaborative learning in their schools.
The study also found that distance from training locations continues to be a challenge for Oklahoma teachers. As one alliance member noted, "We have to rely on the strength and expertise within our district. It is just too expensive to send our teachers to the city or to bring the trainers out to us." While everyone agreed there is a lot of knowledge and capacity in each school, there is also a need to stay current with educational research and practices.
Armed with the findings from the study, the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE), which is also a member of the alliance, went straight to work to address some of the challenges that were identified. It launched an effort to increase PD quality and rigor through three complementary strategies. First, OSDE implemented research-based professional learning standards that include detailed guidance for high-quality PD. Second, they are developing a learning management system to support virtual, ongoing, job-embedded collaborative learning across the state. This system should address some of the identified distance challenges. Finally, the newly adopted teacher/leader evaluation system has a professional learning focus. This focus is guided by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the professional learning standards.
Even with these efforts, the alliance agrees there is more that needs to be done to promote high-quality professional learning. Our alliance, with its partnership between researchers, educators, and policymakers, is uniquely positioned to continue to contribute towards that goal.