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Professional Development

“Professional Development”: Be Wary

by Jay Mathews, The Washington Post, 9/14/15

Teacher development is built mostly on good intentions and false assumptions.

I used to speak at professional-development sessions for teachers, but I eventually

realized I was wasting their time. Like most professional-development presentations, my speeches were not integrated with a research-tested approach to improve teaching. That meant whatever I said was unlikely to help them much, if at all.

My embarrassment has been reawakened by a new study delving deep into the uselessness of professional development. The study by the teacher-training and research group TNTP, titled “The Mirage,” reveals that teachers who are improving have the same professional-development experiences as those who aren’t. What they have learned is not having the effect it should….

TNTP found in its survey of teachers that “only about 40% reported that most of their professional-development activities were a good use of their time.” …

The 10,507 teachers surveyed by TNTP said they spent on average about 19 full school days a year, about 10% of the total available time, on such activities. Yet “no type, amount, or combination of development activities appears more likely than any other to help teachers improve substantially,” the study said. Just about 30% of the teachers showed any improvement, as measured by classroom observers and student test scores.

Fifty percent of teachers who showed improvement said their professional development was “targeted to support my specific learning context,” but 48% of teachers who showed no improvement said the same thing. Forty-one percent of the former group said the “individual teacher is responsible for development.” So did 40% of the latter group.

The TNTP researchers said they found a few “consistent, small, but statistically significant relationships associated with more teacher improvement.” For example, teachers who were improving were almost twice as likely to rate their own performance as the same as their formal evaluation, while those not improving were almost twice as likely to rate their performance as better than their evaluators said….

In the TNTP study, just 1 in 5 teachers said they often received follow-up support and tailored coaching opportunities. Only 1 in 10 reported frequent opportunities for practicing new skills. Most said that they wanted to observe other excellent teachers but that they did so less than twice a year….

Teacher development at the moment is “built mostly on good intentions and false assumptions,” the study said….

Jay Mathews is an educator columnist for the Post and creator of the “Challenge Index”—a ranking of top US high schools based on the availability of AP and IB courses.

See also in ClassWise:

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Your Best Improvement Tool: Video

“Teachers On Screen,” by Scott Elliott, The Indianapolis Star, 7/2/13

 Teachers who want to be great need to observe their own classrooms.

As a video played showing first-year [Arlington HS, Indianapolis IN] English teacher Katie Bonfiglio at work, Spanish teacher Patrice Patton watched in awe.

“Wow, I’ve never seen those kids behave like that in my class,” Patton gushed, as she watched a room of typically restless ninth-grade boys fully engaged in a discussion.

That’s just the reaction Paul Chin, Arlington’s assistant principal, was hoping for when he asked Bonfiglio if he could show her recorded lesson to 15 of her colleagues….

It was brave of Bonfiglio to agree, Chin thought, and the fresh-out-of-college teacher admitted the idea was daunting at first. But afterward, she found the discussion with her peers so eye-opening she made changes to some of her other teaching routines….

With a nationwide push underway to dramatically improve teacher training and evaluation, the teacher video critiques that emerged at Arlington High School this year could conceivably be the rule in years to come rather than the exception….

“Digital video may be more valuable than an observer’s notes for allowing a teacher to ‘see’ the strengths and weaknesses in their practice,” [Harvard researcher] Thomas Kane said. “Someone cannot remember what they did not notice in the first place.”…

For Marcus Robinson, the CEO of Tindley Accelerated Schools, videotaping teachers started out as just a way to solve a nagging student-teacher classroom conflict.

Tindley runs two charter schools and last summer began managing Arlington after the state took the school over from Indianapolis Public Schools, citing six years of low test scores….

“Teachers who want to be great can be helped by observing what is working in their classroom and what’s not, with some serious coaching about what they can do to get better,” Robinson said.

When Tindley took over Arlington, one of the first things Robinson did was order cameras installed in every classroom…. Chin relies on a bank of videos…to show Arlington teachers examples of techniques done well….

Chin and Annette De La Llana, an instructional coach, began by watching [first-year teacher] Brittany Scherer teach the classic Harper Lee novel To Kill a Mockingbird on video…. Chin says [Scherer] has been a quick learner…but she has things to work on, such as “ratio.”

Ratio is a term…to describe how much talking the teacher does compared with the students…. The more Scherer can shift the conversation so the students take on a bigger share of the “cognitive demand” of talking with each other about the book, the better.

Scherer is the first to point this out to Chin and De la Llana on the video…. “I call on the same three students always,” she said. “It’s hard to remember who you called on last when you’re teaching….”

As they watch more video, Chin notes that Scherer sometimes answers her own questions if none of the students speak up. He puts up a video of [another] teacher…and points out three ways he shifts the ratio to the students in that situation — he feigns ignorance of the answers to his own questions, he rephrases the question or he takes a student answer and asks, “what’s next?”

Scherer took those ideas back to her classroom. The next day, she begins a discussion by “cold calling” five students who didn’t raise their hands in the first two minutes….

Kane, the Harvard researcher, believes video can be so powerful that…he’s pushing for all teachers to record themselves teaching and submit video as part of their performance reviews…. Teachers’ weaknesses show up even in their best lessons, Kane has found….

One fan of video is [Indiana] Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, who said she had to submit videos of herself teaching to earn National Board certification, a challenging credential that requires an intensive review of teaching practice.

The key, Ritz said, is that video prompts a discussion between teachers and administrators who oversee their work….

Scott Elliott is an education reporter for The Indianapolis Star.

See also in ClassWise: “I Lie About My Teaching”


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I Lie About My Teaching

By Ben Orlin, The Atlantic, 7/29/14

I liked Devon. We were all first and second-year teachers in that seminar—peers, in theory—but my colleague Devon struck me as a cut above. I’d gripe about a classroom problem, and without judgment, he’d outline a thoughtful solution, as if my blundering incompetence was perhaps a matter of personal taste, and he didn’t wish to impose his own sensibilities. When it fell upon us each to share a four-minute video of our teaching, I looked forward to Devon’s. I expected a model classroom, his students as well-behaved as churchgoers.

Instead, the first half of Devon’s four-minute clip showed him fiddling with an overhead projector; in the second half, he was trotting blandly through homework corrections. The kids rocked side to side, listless. For all his genuine wisdom, Devon looked a little green, a little lost.

He looked, in short, like me.

Teachers self-promote. In that, we’re no different than everyone else: proudly framing our breakthroughs, hiding our blunders in locked drawers, forever perfecting our oral résumés. This isn’t all bad. My colleagues probably have more to learn from my good habits (like the way I use pair work) than my bad ones (like my sloppy system of homework corrections), so I might as well share what’s useful. In an often-frustrating profession, we’re nourished by tales of triumph….

But sometimes, the classrooms we describe bear little resemblance to the classrooms where we actually teach….

Each of us mingles the good with the bad. One student may experience the epiphany of a lifetime, while her neighbor drifts quietly off to sleep. In the classroom, it’s never pure gold or pure tin; we’re all muddled alloys.

I taught once alongside a first-year teacher, Lauren, who didn’t grasp this. As a result, she compared herself unfavorably to everyone else. Every Friday, when we adjourned to the bar down the street, she’d decry her own flaws, meticulously documenting her mistakes for us, castigating herself to no end. The kids liked her. The teachers liked her. From what I’d seen, she taught as well as any first-year could. But she saw her own shortcomings too vividly and couldn’t help reporting them to anyone who’d listen.

She was fired three months into the year. You talk enough dirt about yourself and people will start to believe it.

Omission is the nature of storytelling; describing a complex space—like a classroom—requires a certain amount of simplification. Most of us prefer to leave out the failures…. Some, perhaps as a defensive posture, do the opposite: Instead of overlooking their flaws and miscues, they dwell on them, as Lauren did. The result is that two classes, equally well taught, may come across like wine and vinegar, depending on how their stories are told.

Take the first year I taught psychology. I taught one section; my colleague Erin taught the other.

[Erin would] glow about her class. Kids often approached her in the afternoons to follow up on questions, and to thank her for teaching their favorite course. Her students kept illustrated vocab journals totaling hundreds of words. They drew posters of neurons, crafted behaviorist training regimes, and designed imaginative “sixth senses” for the human body. Erin’s mentor teacher visited monthly and dubbed it an “amazing class” with “incredible teaching.”…

I’ll admit that I bombed the semester. I lectured every day from text-filled overhead slides. Several of my strongest students told me they hated the class and begged for alternative work. I wasted three weeks on a narrow, confining research assignment, demanding heavy work with little payoff. One student openly plagiarized another. I wound up failing several students who, in hindsight, should have passed. Yet I know that this apparent train wreck of a class was, in truth, no worse than Erin’s.

That’s because I made Erin up. The two classes described above were the same class: mine. Each description is true, and neither, of course, is wholly honest.

I’m as guilty as anyone of distorting my teaching. When talking to other teachers, I often play up the progressive elements: Student-led discussions. Creative projects. Guided discovery activities. I mumble through the minor, inconvenient fact that my pedagogy is, at its core, deeply traditional…. Not only does this thwart other teachers in their attempts to honestly evaluate my approach, but…I can’t grow properly unless I see my own work with eyes that are sympathetic, but clear and unyielding.

I had a private theme song my first year teaching: “Wear and Tear,” by Pete Yorn…. The chorus ended with a simple line that…captured the essence of a year I spent making mistake after rookie mistake: Can I say what I do?

It’s no easy task for teachers. But we owe it to ourselves to tell the most honest stories that we can. I’ll only advance as a teacher, and offer something of value to those around me, if I’m able to say what I do.

Ben Orlin is a high school teacher and tutor in Oakland CA.

See also in ClassWise: “JK Rowling on the Benefits of Failure.”

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