To the long list of reasons to hate school release days add this: In terms of driving teacher effectiveness and student achievement, evidence is mounting that much of the professional development the calendar gets cleared for isn’t terribly effective.
Indeed, recent research shows that in order for teachers to acquire and polish a new, specific skill needed to move the needle on student achievement they need 30 to 100 hours of training — preferably in teams and some of that time in their classroom. And, particularly in light of efforts to increase student time-on-task, preferably without requiring any more school release days.
Impossible? Not if disruptive technology and data are your bread and butter.
In partnership with a company called Knowledge Delivery Systems (KDS), the Minneapolis-based online Capella University has rolled out a novel teacher professional development program that can be customized to suit the needs of individual school districts. In many cases, teachers can earn credits toward the graduate degrees that can translate to pay increases.
Because Capella’s market is largely working adults seeking to advance in their field, its School of Education offers a number of certificates and graduate degrees that prepare educators for licensure in leadership roles and specialties. Among its 11 Ph.D.s, for instance, is one in training and performance improvement.
KDS, meanwhile, creates large-scale professional development programs for educators.
Training in specific skills
The brainstorm behind the partnership: Holding teachers and principals accountable does not in and of itself improve performance. Training in specific skills — “competencies,” in educational parlance — that can be applied to concrete problems in their classrooms does.
Much like a “flipped” classroom, in the KDS-Capella program teachers take their classes online, discuss what they’re learning with one another in an online forum and work with a coach or trainer on the job to make sure they are implementing their new practices effectively.
The coursework can be “scaled up” as far as necessary, making it possible for entire districts to receive the same training. And that training can be tailored to the needs of a particular category of teacher, school or district. Assessments delivered before and after the courses to students and teachers reveal whether it’s working.
‘The teachers I talk to want to get better’
“Districts are under pressure to measure outcomes, but the real challenge is to develop those skills,” said Jim Wold, director of Capella’s Center for Teaching and Learning. “We can beat up on teachers until the cows come home, but the teachers I talk to want to get better.”
In the decade since No Child Left Behind went into effect, school systems have collected warehouses of accountability data that revealed schools that are failing large numbers of kids. Despite billions of dollars worth of carrots and sticks, however, most have failed to become more effective at reaching their most challenged students.
At the same time, researchers have been focused on teacher effectiveness. Among their findings: Scant practical skills training in college and professional development to make up for it add to the stresses of a teacher’s first years on the job. Half leave the profession within five years.
A 2007 review commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education surveyed more than 1,300 research studies of professional development. Just 10 percent focused on reading, math or science and only nine met the standard for inclusion on the federal What Works Clearinghouse, a repository for best practices.
Just a few hours won’t do it
Research by Stanford University’s School Redesign Network in 2009 found that professional development programs that are less than 14 hours long have little effect. By contrast, programs that provided 30 to 100 hours of training over six months to a year had a positive influence on student achievement.
“We’re way behind other countries that are high achieving in terms of the time and intensive opportunity for deep learning they provide,” Linda Darling-Hammond, one of the study’s authors, told Education Week at the time. “We still see teachers engage in really short one- and two-day workshops rather than ongoing, sustained support that we now have evidence changes practices and increases student achievement.”
The report also identified several factors that make training more likely to change teacher practices, including a connection to a teachers’ classroom practice, alignment with school improvement goals and features fostering teacher collaboration in an individual school.
A school or district can look at data on its students and teachers, identify needs and present them to KDS and Capella. The institutions in turn will tap experts in the relevant instructional skills or pedagogy, design 50 hours of coursework and provide three to five days of training to district staff on coaching teachers.
A cluster of expertise
Teaching, said KDS founder and CEO Alvin Crawford, “is an isolating profession.” Training a single teacher in a new technique or skill and hoping it will stick on the job is unrealistic, he said: “It really takes four national board certified teachers to start to make a cluster of expertise.”
So why would a large, urban district with a deep roster of talent turn to the private sector to buy a better mousetrap instead of building one itself?
For starters, there’s an economy of scale. Because a digital course can be given over and over again, it can save money. In Philadelphia, for example, KDS has taught the same course to 1,000 teachers at once, according to Crawford.
And there’s plenty of needed professional development right now that’s not state-specific. With the arrival of the Common Core Standards in most states, educators at all grade levels and in several subject areas are scrambling to figure out how to teach the new, more complex material.
The two programs have students and faculty all over the country. KDS has worked with a number of large districts, including Chicago, New York City and Clark County, Nev.
Credits toward a graduate degree
Second, because participants can earn graduate credit at Capella, it’s likely to prove attractive to educators who are working toward a degree that will translate into a pay hike or an administrative credential. Up to 12 credits may be earned, saving a degree candidate $3,000 and nine months.
And because many of the Ph.D.-holders Capella has educated have gone on to superintendent jobs and other leadership positions, they are likely to find the partners’ pitch for the program’s quality more credible.
“Everyone’s focused on accountability,” said Crawford. “What’s missing is a system of support. It’s important to measure, but it’s also important to develop.”