Which school do you want to support?
Most of the learning that occurs in school happens through interaction between students and their teachers. The most direct way to improve learning is to improve teaching.
California has developed the California Standards for the Teaching Profession to provide a common definition of what quality teaching looks like. They cover six areas of teaching quality:
These standards are intended to guide teachers in their work. Some principals and teacher leaders use these standards as guidance to help teachers improve.
Often, efforts to help teachers improve take the form of professional development programs -- which is basically education jargon for "training," used especially when the training is mandatory or not paid for by the teacher.
At their best, professional development ("PD") programs prepare teachers to address the challenges of their work. Ask any teacher. They will have a lot to say about what makes for "Good PD." Or read this 90-page state-sponsored report: Greatness By Design [PDF]. Boston College professor Andy Hargreaves describes great teaching as a function of “Professional Capital,” which involves more than individual skill.
Not all training is good, of course. At worst, meaningless professional development programs distract from the real work of teaching children.
In most districts, teachers can invest in their own career advancement by earning formal credit or advanced degrees through evening or summer programs. About half of California’s teachers obtain a master’s degree, at least partly for economic reasons: incentives for coursework are built into the typical district’s salary schedule. By earning additional college credits, teachers qualify for additional pay. In many districts, teachers with a master’s degree receive an extra annual salary bump that some estimate at about $9,000.
Step and column
up it goes
the research shows
As budgets came under pressure in the great recession, this automatic pay differential became a point of focus for districts looking for ways to bring cost expansion under control. Do students learn more from teachers who invest their time and money to enroll in graduate programs and earn advanced degrees? Perhaps not: In a speech before the American Enterprise Institute former US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said "Districts currently pay about $8 billion each year to teachers because they have masters' degrees, even though there is little evidence teachers with masters degrees improve student achievement more than other teachers‐‐with the possible exception of teachers who earn masters in math and science." Harvard researchers found similar results in this study, which suggests that Masters Degrees probably make no difference. The same study indicated that National Board Certification probably does make a difference, but mostly for math and science teachers.
Of course, technology is changing the way that busy people learn things they are motivated to know. This includes teachers. The internet is bursting with teacher-generated lesson plans on sites like EdModo, HotChalk and TeachersPayTeachers. Edutopia.org tends to review them from time to time. For teachers working on their classroom skills, an inconspicuously perched smartphone camera is quietly proving a major tool for self-critique and peer review. Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, used inexpensive video equipment to collect useful clips of experienced teachers to help describe techniques for keeping students' attention and motivation.
Teachers generally live very different lives from their students. Especially in high-poverty schools, it can be hard for teachers to understand the home and family conditions that kids return to when school lets out. The misunderstandings can be two-way, too: it can be hard for parents to believe that teachers understand or care about their kids' life beyond the classroom.
Some school districts address this divide head-on by investing in parent-teacher home visits, enabling teachers to visit students' homes and meet their families. The program, which has been around for decades, is well-defined, easy to try out, and rarely sparks opposition. Home visits are voluntary for both parents and teachers, and teachers are compensated for their time. The program is popular with teachers and families, and seems to produce some lasting results. It is especially potent as a way to improve attendance. (For more, see the Ed100 blog post on this topic.)
This seems a reasonable moment to re-emphasize a recurring theme: there's no magic here. Public education is complicated, personal, human work, conducted at enormous scale. It is not easy to move such a system forward. Silver bullets are shiny, but costly, and when inspected they generally show their tarnish.
If formal training generally falls short, how do most teachers learn their craft? The next lesson examines the subject of teacher collaboration.
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