What does good professional development for teaching language look like?

Research published in AERA Open examines the features needed for effective teacher professional development (PD) aimed at preparing teachers to support their pupils in mastering language expectations across the curriculum.

Eva Kalinowski and colleagues conducted a systematic review of studies of PD programmes, published between 2002 and 2015, which aimed to support teachers to improve their pupils’ academic language ability in different subject areas. Of the 38 studies they reviewed, all but one were carried out in the US. Eighteen studies used quantitative data only, three used a mainly qualitative approach, and 17 used mixed methods.

Although the researchers were unable to conclude which elements actually influenced the effectiveness of the programmes analysed, they found that all of the studies were effective to some extent, and shared many characteristics considered to be important in successful teacher PD across different subject areas. The forms of PD likely to show some effect for teachers and pupils in this area:

  • were long-term intensive programmes that included multiple learning opportunities aimed at elaborating and practising newly learned knowledge and strategies
  • provided practical assistance
  • enabled and encouraged teachers to work together
  • considered teachers’ needs as well as pupils’ learning processes and languages spoken at home.

Source: Effective professional development for teachers to foster students’ academic language proficiency across the curriculum: A systematic review (February 2-19), AERA Open.

Professional development and early childhood education and care

A meta-analysis published in Review of Educational Research summarises findings from studies that evaluated the effects of in-service training for early childhood teachers on the quality of early childhood education and care (ECEC) and child outcomes. Overall, data from 36 studies with 2,891 teachers was included in the analysis. For studies to qualify, child care quality had to be measured externally with certified raters at the classroom level.

The analysis, carried out by Franziska Egert and colleagues, revealed that at the teacher level, in-service training had a positive effect on the quality of ECEC, with an effect size of +0.68. Furthermore, a subset of nine studies (including 486 teachers and 4,504 children) that provided data on both quality ratings and child development were analysed, and they showed a small effect at the child level (effect size = + 0.14) and a medium effect at the corresponding classroom level (effect size = +0.45).

Source: Impact of In-Service Professional Development Programs for Early Childhood Teachers on Quality Ratings and Child Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis, Review of Educational Research, 88:3 401 – 433.

Examining the impact of content-intensive teacher professional development

A new evaluation report by Michael S Garet and colleagues, published by the US Institute of Education Sciences, examines the impact of providing elementary (primary) school teachers with content-focused maths continuing professional development (CPD) on their knowledge, teaching, and students’ achievement.

The study’s CPD had three components totalling 93 hours. The core of the CPD was Intel Math, an 80-hour workshop delivered in the summer of 2013 that focused on deepening teachers’ knowledge of grades K–8 mathematics (Years 1 to 9). Two additional CPD components totalling 13 hours were delivered during the 2013–14 school year.

The study’s sample included grade 4 (Year 5) teachers from 94 schools in six US school districts and five states that were randomly assigned within schools to either a treatment group that received the study CPD or a control group that did not receive the study CPD.
Key findings were as follows:

  • The CPD had a positive impact on teacher knowledge. On average, treatment teachers’ maths knowledge scores on a study-administered maths assessment were 21 percentile points higher than control teachers’ scores in spring 2014, after the CPD was completed.
  • The CPD had a positive impact on some aspects of teaching practice, particularly Richness of Mathematics, which emphasises the conceptual aspects of maths, such as the use and quality of mathematical explanations.
  • Despite the CPD’s generally positive impact on teacher outcomes, the CPD did not have a positive impact on student achievement. On average, treatment teachers’ students scored 2 percentile points lower than control teachers’ students in spring 2014 on both a study-administered maths assessment aligned with the content of the CPD and the state maths assessment. This difference was statistically significant for the state maths assessment but not for the study-administered assessment.

Source: Focusing on Mathematical Knowledge: The Impact of Content-Intensive Teacher Professional Development (2016), Institute of Education Sciences

Using research to improve teaching practice

The Education Endowment Foundation has reported on two studies that looked at using education research to improve teaching practice.

Research into Practice was a pilot intervention aimed at supporting teachers to use evidence-based teaching and learning strategies to improve student progress. The project ran for a year in ten primary schools in Rochdale (north-west England). It involved professional development sessions and direct consultant support to help teachers:

  • Have more positive views about the use of research for improving teaching and learning;
  • Apply education research findings in the classroom and at a strategic level; and
  • Establish a stronger culture of evidence-based inquiry and practice.

There were some positive changes in teachers’ attitudes toward research. However, there was no evidence that teachers were more likely to use research evidence to inform their teaching practice.
The Research Champions project used a senior teacher based at one of five schools to work with research leads, other teachers, and senior leaders to promote engagement with research evidence. There were “audits” of school research needs, research symposia for teachers, periodic research and development forums, and personalised support. However, there was no evidence that teachers’ attitudes toward research, or their use of research, changed during the intervention.

Source: Research into Practice – Evidence-informed CPD in Rochdale and Research Champions (2016), Education Endowment Foundation.

Targeting EALs with science

A recent large-scale randomised controlled trial, published in the American Educational Research Journal, has examined the impact of a science curriculum with a focus on pupils with English as an Additional Language (EALs).

The study was implemented in 66 schools (33 treatment and 33 control) across three school districts in one south-eastern US state. During the 2012–2013 school year, the project involved 258 teachers (123 treatment and 135 control) and a total of 6,673 students. The trial evaluated P-SELL, a science curricular and professional development intervention for fifth-grade students with a focus on EALs.

The P-SELL curriculum’s approach aligns with state science standards and high-stakes science assessments administered at fifth grade. It is based on an inquiry-oriented approach and addresses the learning needs of EALs by providing guidance and scaffolding for English language development. Teachers are supported with a teacher’s guide and professional development workshops. The workshops incorporated critical features of effective professional development: content focus, active learning, coherence, sufficient duration, and collective participation.

The study used both the high-stakes state science assessment as an outcome measure and a researcher-developed science assessment that was administered at the beginning and end of the year and allowed for a pre-measure of science achievement. The study examined the effect of the intervention on science achievement for all students and for students of varying levels of English proficiency (EAL, recently reclassified EAL, former EAL, and non-EAL).

The results found significant and meaningfully sized average intervention effects on the researcher-developed science assessment scores (effect size = +0.25) and the state science assessment scale scores (+0.15). The P-SELL intervention had significant and meaningfully sized effects for EALs (+0.35) on the researcher-developed assessment. The intervention effects were positive but not statistically significant for EALs (+0.12) on the state science assessment, although other subcategories (non-EALs and former EALs) were positive and significant. This is the first year of a three year study, and future years will provide information on the long-term impact of the teachers’ professional development.

Source: Impact of a Large-Scale Science Intervention Focused on English Language Learners (2016), American Educational Research Journal.

Is professional development better than being dismissed?

The last issue of Best Evidence in Brief reported on a study in which low-performing teachers were dismissed. A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research reports on an experiment where low-performing teachers were provided with coaching from higher-performing peers.

The experiment took place in Tennessee in 14 elementary and middle schools. Tennessee teachers are observed in the classroom many times each year, and scored on 19 specific skills (eg, questioning, lesson structure and pacing, and managing student behaviour). Schools were randomly assigned to a treatment condition or business-as-usual control group. In the treatment schools, low-performing “target” teachers were matched with high-performing teachers, based on the outcomes of their classroom observations. The high-performing teachers were chosen based on their high scores in skills for which the low-performing teachers had received a low score. The pairs were encouraged to work together on these skills, as well as more generally on observing each other’s teaching, discussing strategies for improvement, and following up on each other’s commitments throughout the year.

After a year, students in treatment schools (whether taught by target or non-target teachers) showed a small improvement (effect size +0.06) on maths and English tests, when compared with students in control schools. Gains by students taught by target teachers were higher (+0.12). These improvements persisted and grew. In the following year, the effect for target teachers was a marginally significant +0.25.

Source: Learning Job Skills from Colleagues at Work: Evidence from a Field Experiment Using Teacher Performance Data (2016), The National Bureau of Economic Research.