Doing teacher training right

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1. (c) Strategies for teaching specific math content.

What distinguishes effective teachers from ineffective teachers, researchers have found, is the depth of their content knowledge and the specific strategies they use to teach it.

But most professional development focuses on general teaching methods, such as classroom management or small-group work, says Lee Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Such training may be useful, he says, but by itself is unlikely to overcome deficits in student achievement.

Shulman believes some general approaches should be avoided. He says, for example, that there is little evidence that professional development based on brain research has any practical application for teachers in the classroom. Also, he says, research supporting the idea that every student has a distinct learning style is very weak. “It’s another thing I wouldn’t waste my money on.”

2. (b) Devote all the time to reading.

It takes at least 10 to 12 high-quality workshops to change teaching practice significantly in any subject area, according to Bruce Joyce, director of Booksend Laboratories, a consortium of staff development researchers and providers based in St. Simons Island, Georgia.

That figure is based on his own experience as a researcher and staff developer for 40 years, and that of his colleagues at Booksend. Nothing in the professional literature contradicts him, he says. Joyce concedes that somebody somewhere may have changed practice with fewer sessions, “but they’re a hell of a lot better than we are.”

3. (a) 10 percent

This figure comes from studies by Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers. First, they gave intensive training to 75 teachers. As training ended, they visited each teacher’s classroom to ensure that he or she understood the new methods and was able to use them.

Teachers then were divided into two groups of equal skill. Over the next several months, Joyce and Showers visited one group to observe lessons and offer feedback; they ignored the other.

Six months later, 75 to 80 percent of the teachers who received follow-up help were using the new strategies, compared to only 10 percent in the other group. Subsequent research echoed these findings.

It’s not that teachers are lazy or unmotivated, Joyce says. Rather, they need help in solving unexpected problems. Without it, they give up and go back to what they’ve always done—”even if it doesn’t work.”

On-going classroom coaching from a trainer can strain a school’s budget. But Joyce and Showers later found that training teachers to do their own follow-up with each other was nearly as effective. At a minimum, pairs of teachers need to meet weekly to plan lessons that incorporate the new strategies, the researchers say.

4. (b) Provide high-quality, in-depth training to fewer teachers.

The U.S. Department of Education made that recommendation after studying the impact of the federal Eisenhower grants for professional development in math and science. In a study of 10 districts receiving grants from 1996 to 1999, researchers found that the average teacher participated in professional development activities that lasted less than a week. They also found that teaching practice changed little during that time.

However, teachers who did change their practice were more likely to have had high-quality professional development—for instance, the strategies taught were content-specific; teachers participated with colleagues from the same school; and training was on-going.

5. (c) Teachers trusted each other.

Teachers who trust each other are more willing to engage in the teamwork it takes to improve instruction, according to the Consortium. Where trust is absent, teachers are less likely to admit weaknesses and accept constructive criticism from peers, researchers found.