New America Weekly

Will D.C. Public Schools' Big Bet on Teacher Development Pay Off?

Weekly Article
U.S. Department of Education / CC2.0
Sept. 22, 2016

Professionals—lawyers, journalists, you name it—are expected to continually update their knowledge, practice their craft, and improve their performance. Trial lawyers, for example, are expected to learn the ins and outs of every new case and the myriad laws and regulations governing each. They study up and practice their argument before trial. And they’re judged and promoted, at least in part, on how well they try each client’s case. Laws and regulations evolve, and attorneys must keep pace.  

By that same logic, there has been much effort nationwide to improve teachers’ “professional development” (PD) and with it their students’ learning—particularly with the rise of new academic standards for students. And teachers are increasingly evaluated on how well they deliver new content. Teachers, however, tend to be dissatisfied with how PD activities, even those that are meant to be collaborative, are implemented. Perhaps unsurprisingly, little evidence shows that the substantial federal, state, and district investments in PD have paid off in teacher and student learning.

And so, this school year, the District of Columbia Public Schools is taking a rather different approach to teacher development. If it works, it could be a big win for students and their learning of the most challenging concepts required by the new standards.

Launched last month, DCPS’ new Learning Together to Advance Our Practice (LEAP) initiative plans to engage “core content teachers” in professional learning with a team of teachers from  the same grade span and subject area. Each team is led by a “LEAP leader”—a teacher leader, instructional coach, department chair, or assistant principal—designated by their school principal as having subject expertise and demonstrable effectiveness. While efforts to improve teacher PD, either at DCPS or around the country, aren’t new, efforts to help teachers deliver challenging content required by new standards using evidence-based approaches are. Few U.S. education systems have focused on building teachers’ cumulative content knowledge and skills in delivering the content effectively using methods grounded in research.   

The weekly LEAP PD cycle consists of three parts: a 90-minute seminar, a 15-minute observation, and a 30-45-minute debrief session. In the seminars, LEAP leaders guide teachers in learning content-specific strategies for delivering the new academic standards to their students. For instance, middle school English Language Arts teachers will engage in seminars related to helping students unpack text complexity. Each seminar provides teachers with opportunities to practice applying their learning to upcoming lessons and to share feedback with their peers. In the days following each seminar, LEAP leaders conduct brief, announced observations of individual teachers as they incorporate the recently-practiced strategies in their lessons. As a final step, teachers receive feedback from their LEAP team leader based on the observation; prioritize one area to focus on for the following week; make revisions to their lesson plans accordingly; and then practice the skill with their LEAP leader again before implementing.

This varies from the typical PD experience, in which teachers rarely engage with content directly relevant to their classroom practice. What’s more, the majority of PD is one-size-fits all; treats teachers as passive receptacles for information; and offers few, if any, opportunities for teachers to apply their learning through practice or receive ongoing feedback.

At face value, DCPS’ new PD initiative seems like it could be different. Though there is little evidence in favor of or against the utility of PD, there are a few well-designed studies that identify certain aspects present in effective teacher PD. These studies show that effective PD tends to be relevant to teachers’ subject area and daily practice; ongoing rather than one-shot; and active and collaborative. And recent evidence shows that teachers who received frequent subject-specific feedback on their teaching of new academic standards were more likely to bolster student achievement than those who didn’t. That is, as designed, LEAP aligns with what research says is most likely to improve teacher practice and student learning.

Still, as with most PD programs—evidence-based or not—the rubber will meet the road in how it is implemented. While DCPS has provided its schools with comprehensive guidance on how to operationalize LEAP, such as the recommended ratio of teachers to each LEAP leader and best practices for scheduling observations, a few key questions remain. Research shows that good teaching requires three types of knowledge: knowledge of the content to be taught; knowledge of general instructional strategies; and knowledge of strategies for teaching the specific content most effectively (i.e., “pedagogical content knowledge”). But many LEAP leaders are assistant principals. These leaders may or may not have sufficient content expertise, as it is unclear whether and how LEAP leaders were required to initially demonstrate such expertise, or their ability to develop teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge.

Furthermore, DCPS has yet to communicate how the content-specific formative feedback teachers receive as part of LEAP will align with the evaluative feedback they receive from their principal as part of IMPACT, DCPS’ formal teacher evaluation system. While principals will have access to the formative feedback teachers receive, there is no requirement that they communicate with LEAP leaders to ensure teachers receive a consistent, not conflicting, message about their development priorities.

Luckily, DCPS plans to find out just how well its new initiative is playing out in schools. The district will assess LEAP's outcomes using a variety of measures, including educator surveys and classroom observation scores. DCPS is holding itself accountable as it tries to improve teacher development. Given most districts’ failure to assess the quality and impact of teacher PD, this is an accomplishment worth touting in and of itself.

* Per DCPS’ guidance, LEAP will engage teachers of English Language Arts (ELA), math, social studies, and science in high schools and teachers of ELA, math, and early childhood in elementary and middle schools. The program will also include special education and English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers across the grade spans.