Friday, September 25, 2020

More districts should seize the opportunity to improve professional learning for teachers

This year, even classroom veterans may feel like first-year teachers again. 

Whether they’re learning to manage classes over videoconference, teaching some students in person and others over video stream simultaneously, or cycling different groups of students through hybrid remote learning, their jobs have likely changed dramatically.

Remote learning requires teachers to confront new challenges, like assessing the impact of instructional time students lost last spring and supporting students with disabilities or those with mental health needs that might have grown worse after the pandemic. And it’s forcing teachers to rethink the ways they give feedback on student work, track discipline and attendance, and encourage their students to direct their own learning.

All of this puts new demands on teacher professional learning—an area of the American public education system that wasn’t working very well before the pandemic.

Districts have an urgent need to find new ways to help teachers learn on the job and hone their craft. They also have new opportunities to do this differently. It's both easier and less intrusive for veteran teachers or school and district leaders to observe digital classrooms. Since far more teacher professional development is happening virtually, school systems have new opportunities to bring in the best providers or forge new collaborations across district lines. 

In our review of 106 school district fall reopening plans, less than half (48 percent) have publicly committed to increasing time for professional development and planning during this school year. About a third of the districts we reviewed (35 percent) plan to provide coaching to teachers during remote learning.

Our nationwide scan found some promising efforts by school districts to support professional learning despite massive logistical hurdles and a tangle of red tape. But we also see significant missed opportunities to improve support for teachers. School systems owe it to their teachers and students to push further, building systems that will help teachers meet the current crisis and adjust course as they go—and possibly build stronger professional learning systems for the future.

A missed opportunity to prepare

Just over half (58 percent) of the 106 districts in CRPE’s analysis communicated in reopening plans that they provided professional development over the summer that was designed to help teachers prepare for virtual learning this fall. 

Some districts rethought summer training to help their teachers prepare to work in new ways. Tennessee’s Shelby County Schools transformed its summer training so teachers could experience a remote learning environment similar to what they would eventually provide for their students. The district also published detailed guide of what teachers could expect in the year to come—including informal observations of their classrooms by school and district leaders, who would provide “specific, actionable feedback.”

But other districts missed a critical opportunity to prepare their teachers for a school year filled with challenges they’d never faced before, such as supporting independent work time for students they can’t supervise in the same room. All of the remote learning plans in our database provide some time for independent learning, but Mesa Public Schools in Arizona is the only district we reviewed that communicated a detailed plan for training teachers to build students’ remote learning study skills and goal-setting.

Few public details, some promising practices

While districts do not always share plans for teacher development with parents and the public (our information is gathered from district websites and other public sources), given the unusual nature of this moment, we would hope to see more transparency about the steps they have taken to help their staff prepare for a difficult and logistically complicated year. 

A handful of districts in our review provided specific detail on how they would support teachers with strategies that included setting aside time for planning, creating structures for collaboration, and developing remote coaching programs to help teachers adjust to new teaching demands. 

About three-quarters of the 106 districts in our review (73 percent) returned to school remotely this fall—meaning their teachers are undertaking a radical shift in teaching and learning. Yet district plans provide little detail about how they help teachers adapt to new technology and adjust pedagogy to a virtual environment, especially for vulnerable learners. The few districts that do outline detailed plans demonstrate a level of responsiveness that others can learn from.

Some districts explain how they are providing new forms of remote professional development, like individualized training and more collaboration time, for them to grapple with new tools and brainstorm with colleagues.

Remote coaching: The 35 percent of districts that identified strategies for coaching teachers in the school year include some robust plans to coach teachers under unprecedented conditions. Milwaukee Public Schools offers an extensive list of virtual professional development available to teachers throughout the year, which will be supported by coaching. In North Dakota, Bismarck Public Schools’ distance learning plan includes instructional coaches who delineate learning targets for remote instruction and "work with teacher leaders to develop capacity in planning and delivering quality distance learning."

Self-paced professional development modules: Teachers are coming to remote instruction with varying levels of comfort and need. Some districts recognize these different starting points by offering differentiated training that teachers can review at their own pace. Austin Integrated School District rolled out nearly 500 hours of virtual training over the summer, which included a combination of live and taped sessions. These offer flexibility, but they can leave teachers at sea when they are not combined with coaching or teacher-to-teacher collaboration.

Planning and collaboration: Teachers will need time to make sense of new curricula, technology, and student needs—and to make necessary adjustments as the year unfolds. Some districts are creating structures to ensure teachers have time to brainstorm and share strategies with their colleagues. For example, San Francisco Unified has scheduled grade-specific virtual professional learning communities. The district also created a platform to compile crowdsourced lessons, videos, and other instructional resources.

Four-day schedule: Several districts in our database are moving to a four-day week (something that rural districts have experimented with for decades, with mixed results) to make sure teachers have time for planning and collaboration. These districts, which include Baltimore County Public Schools, pause scheduled lessons for one day a week. Teachers use mornings on these days to check in with individual students and work with small groups who need extra support, and reserve the afternoons for training, planning, and collaboration.

This could represent an important scheduling innovation that creates space for one-on-one interactions with students and more collaboration among teachers—activities that often happen before or after classes when everyone is on campus together. But it could also rob some students of valuable instructional time, and create one day a week where caregivers are forced to take on more responsibility for keeping students engaged in school work. The details of how schools and teachers execute these plans matter.

Labor talks limit teacher learning time

Adding time for teacher training and collaboration underscores a tension districts needed to navigate as they planned for the coming school year—since that time would either add to teacher workloads or compete with instructional time for students. In either case, some districts worked out these changes at the bargaining table with their teachers unions.

A recent analysis of spring labor agreements by Annie Hemphill of Michigan State University and Bradley Marianno of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas found that changes to professional development and teacher collaboration were among the most common ways that districts renegotiated contracts in response to COVID-19. Of 101 large urban school districts examined, 25 modified collective bargaining agreements in response to the crisis, and nearly 72 percent of those addressed professional learning in some way.

However, the majority of these negotiations made professional development on virtual teaching optional. One district—Hawaii—further stipulated that teachers would not be penalized for not completing their annual professional development hour requirements for the 2019–20 school year. Similarly, many of the agreements on teacher collaboration made staff or faculty meetings optional.

Hemphill and Marianno’s analysis also found that some negotiations went further, restricting professional development expectations. A few patterns emerged, where agreements might:

  • specify the required time allotted for professional development or specify that the required work hours for a given day could include professional development 
  • reduce other professional development requirements to focus professional development specific to remote learning 
  • secure protections for professional development to precede the rollout of newly adopted online learning platforms

Another review of 124 district policies and labor agreements by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) found only a quarter of districts in their sample explicitly incorporated collaboration time into teachers’ weekly planning time for the 2020–21 school year. Of those who do, about half allocate 45 minutes or less per week to this practice.

Source: National Council of Teacher Quality, Supporting Teachers Through Mentoring and Collaboration, July 2020.

Just 29 of the 74 districts that NCTQ has reviewed so far mention teacher evaluation in the context of school closures, and only 18 of those 29 plan to evaluate teachers this year—the rest have decided not to evaluate or are still in discussion. 

Sadly, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) bargained away professional development last spring. LAUSD and its union determined that required professional development "shall be limited to Distance Learning strategies and use of technology during the month of April. Any required professional development shall be no longer than one hour and will take the place of any faculty/department/grade level meeting scheduled for the same week." 

Other districts show how enterprising leaders have worked with, and around, their local unions.

At Providence Public Schools in Rhode Island, school leaders reported that their teachers did not have sufficient time for collaboration and lacked training in blended learning. In response, their fall reopening plan publicly committed to working with the Providence Teachers Union to offer a five-day “Reopening Strong” Summer Institute and adjust the 2020–21 school day schedule to enable weekly grade-level, content-specific collaborative planning time, or professional development during early release.

Beverly Public Schools, in the Boston suburbs, required all Kindergarten through 8th grade teachers to attend weekly content planning and grade-level meetings and asked high school teachers to hold weekly department planning meetings. Whole school staff meetings will occur once per week for K–8 teachers and twice per week for high school teachers.

After Guilford County Public Schools, in Central North Carolina, had to cut five teacher summer professional development days in response to a state legislatured mandate to increase student instructional time, it instead offered 200 virtual professional learning sessions and encouraged teachers to attend. The district has since reported that 2,386 teachers participated in more than 7,300 training opportunities over the summer.

Districts must rethink how they support teachers or face big risks

We certainly do not have all the details on what districts are doing to support their staff in support of their students. However, in some big-city school districts like LAUSD, teachers are actually getting less professional development, coaching, or feedback than they would receive under normal circumstances. 

The shift of schools from the classroom to the cloud means teaching and learning are no longer confined to school buildings or geographic areas. Professional learning for teachers shouldn’t be either.

Districts that are committed to rethinking professional learning for their teachers need to let go of the assumption that they alone must serve as the virtual learning expert. Districts should partner with other school systems that are working to solve similar problems, and help their teachers connect with peers who are tackling similar issues with remote learning, or using the same curriculum. They can draw on new and existing organizations, like Cadence Learning, that offer training, coaching, and access to master teachers who can help educators succeed in an online environment. And they should use the opportunity to send top administrators or master teachers into as many online classes as possible to provide coaching and tips to teachers navigating the shift to virtual learning.

The costs of getting this wrong could have long-term implications for school systems, beyond adding new bumps and hurdles to an already fraught and logistically complicated school year.  A third of teachers report that they may leave their jobs this year. Creating new opportunities for teachers not just to adapt to the new reality, but to learn and grow in their current jobs, is worth the effort.

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