Nothing in public education has as much impact on student success as the classroom teacher. One study found that in 1 year, the most effective teachers could boost the scores of their low-achieving students an average of 39 percentile points compared to similar low-achieving students who had ineffective teachers. ¹ So districts wanting to make an impact on equity issues are smart to focus their efforts on the professional development of their teachers. Unfortunately, a frustrating fact of professional development is that programs don’t often result in meaningful changes in teacher practices.
Part of the problem is professional development’s reliance on an ineffective model of teacher change. The model goes like this: Training makes teachers (or administrators) aware of a problem or practice and they take that awareness back to their classrooms (schools) and make changes to their pedagogy. BUT, research going back decades shows that this is not at all how the model plays out. The actual model ends with “they take that awareness back to their classrooms (schools).” That’s it. Nothing more happens. If districts want to see change, they must require teachers and administrators to implement changes and then hold them accountable for doing so. While awareness of a problem or a strategy to ameliorate a problem is an important step in achieving equity, if the strategy stops with awareness, change will not occur. It is only by making the meaningful changes (and seeing the outcomes) that beliefs and attitudes change to match the new paradigm and the new practice becomes institutionalized.²
The pioneer of this research, Thomas Guskey, noted that his model of teacher change debunked the psychological beliefs at the time (the 1980s) which held that getting people aware and enthused about something would lead to changes in practice and therefore changes in learning outcomes. Although Guskey’s research is nearly 40 old, many districts still operate on this flawed model. Guskey also noted that “student learning outcomes” was broadly construed to mean not just improved cognitive results and achievement but also affective variables such as student motivation for learning, student involvement in class, and student attitudes toward school, themselves, their teachers, and other students.
Guskey noted a few other important things in his research:
- Most teachers want to be better at what they do,
- Most teachers are looking for concrete, applicable strategies³ ,
- Teacher change is slow and incremental and resists the radical,
- Teachers need regular feedback on student learning outcomes, and
- There must be continued support and follow-up after professional development.²
Other change theorists from the field of family therapy point out that disequilibrium – a disruption of some sort that produces chaos — can create a sense of urgency and leverage for change. 4 So, you know — something like a Pandemic in which a lot of stuff is thrown into flux. Or whatever.
The implications of for Equity are this: the design of professional development for teachers and other staff must include concrete practices that can be applied in classrooms and monitored by building leaders. And teachers must be required to implement those practices, with accountability measures if they do not. Administration should assume positive intent and seek to build a culture of growth that both holds high expectations for staff and comes alongside them to coach them to greater capacity, but also refuses to tolerate inequitable behaviors and practices. Teachers should have ample feedback on student outcomes of various types so they can measure the success of what they are doing, and ample opportunity to talk through what they are experiencing as they implement new practices.
We have to require change to enact change. As Henry Nouwen once put it, “You don’t think your way into a new kind of living, you live your way into a new kind of thinking.”
¹ Sanders, W. L., & Rivers, J. C. (1996). Cumulative and residual effects of teachers on future student academic achievement. Knoxville: University of Tennessee.
² Guskey, T. “Staff Development and Teacher Change.” Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1985. http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el_198504_guskey.pdf
³ Guskey, T. “Professional Development and Teacher Change.” Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, Vol 8 No. ¾, 2002.
4 Satir Model of Stages of Significant Change. http://dhemery.com/articles/managing_yourself_through_change/