Can Professional Development for Teachers Improve the Reading skills of Mississippi students?

Mississippi’s focus on professional development has led to an increase in teacher knowledge, but it is unclear if this will improve student outcomes.
Blog Post
May 5, 2017

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the reading rates of Mississippi K-3 students are well below the national average. Between 2007 and 2013 the maximum percentage of fourth grade students reading at or above the basic level was only 55 percent. In 2013, Mississippi joined 14 other states and DC by restricting third graders who are reading at the lowest level on a statewide assessment from moving on to fourth grade unless they qualify for an exemption by passing the Literacy-Based Promotion Act. The goal was to improve elementary school students’ reading scores across the state.

In response to the act, the Mississippi Department of Education implemented an approach to improve the early literacy knowledge of K-3 educators through the combination of a new professional development program and literacy coaching. The Mississippi Department of Education began offering early literacy professional development to all teachers, coaches, and administrators of K-3 students using the Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling program. The professional development was delivered using a combination of online modules and in-person workshops and covered topics such as phonological awareness, approaches to vocabulary instruction, teaching reading to English language learners, and strategies for teaching reading comprehension.

For the schools with the highest percentage of students with the lowest achievement levels on literacy assessments, the professional development was mandatory for teachers of K-3 students. These schools were also provided with literacy coaches to help teachers improve their instruction. The coaches spent about two to three days per week in each school they assisted.

To determine if the K-3 teachers’ literacy knowledge improved after professional development and coaching, the Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast (REL Southeast) developed a survey that consisted of 31 knowledge and application questions about vocabulary, teaching and pedagogy, phonics, and other skills. The survey, combined with teacher evaluations conducted by the literacy coaches, allowed the researchers to determine how teacher knowledge and practice related to early literacy changed in response to the professional development and coaching.

The results were generally positive. The study found that average teacher literacy knowledge increased from the 48th percentile to the 59th percentile after the professional development was provided. The study also found that higher levels of professional development completion correlated with increased teacher knowledge. In other words, educators who had not begun the program scored in the 54th percentile, those in progress scored in the 60th, and those who had completed the program scored in the 65th percentile. But these are relatively small improvements; the average score before and after the professional development was only about one additional correct answer on the survey.

There were bigger gains for coaching. At schools receiving literacy coaching, K-3 teachers appeared to improve the quality of their early literacy instruction:

  • The average rating of quality of literacy instruction increased from the 31st percentile to the 58th percentile;

  • The average rating of student engagement during literacy instruction increased from the 37th percentile to the 53rd percentile; and

  • The average rating of overall teaching competencies (an average of 30 items related to planning, management, instruction, monitoring of student learning, and personal characteristics) increased from the 30th percentile to the 44th percentile.

There are, however, some limitations to the findings. The literacy coaches may have been biased toward seeing improvements in teacher instruction. Most importantly, while those teachers who participated in the professional development and coaching saw an increase in their instructional knowledge and skills, it is not clear if this translated to improved student outcomes. Finally, because of the study design, it’s unclear precisely what role the professional development and coaching played in the improved levels of teacher knowledge and instruction. While the researchers did control for “typical growth among teachers who had not started the professional development program,” there could be other unknown factors that led to the improvement such as experience or education.

Despite the fact that districts spend on average about $18,000 per year per teacher on professional development, we still don’t know exactly what sort of professional development leads to substantial teaching improvements. What we do know is that professional development is more likely to be successful if the training is sustained, relevant to the daily work of teachers, and involves collaboration among colleagues. We also know that professional development needs to move away from the “Sit and Get” approach where teachers are passive consumers of information and toward an approach that prioritizes active learning among colleagues. Regardless, Mississippi’s recent focus on professional development and literacy coaching shows the state is taking a small step in the right direction.

For more on efforts to improve the birth-through-third grade workforce, check out New America’s Thriving Workforce, Thriving Early Learners series.