Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

4 Places Around the World Where Teacher PD is a Top Priority

March 31, 2016

Shanghai and British Columbia are a continent and a culture apart. But the bustling Chinese city and the rugged Canadian province share a common bond: exceptional educational achievement. Students in both places score at the highest levels on the Programme for International Student Assessment, a test on which the U.S. most recently ranked 17th in reading and 27th in math.

How do they do it? They start with a belief that student learning starts with teacher learning.

Along with teachers in Singapore and Hong Kong, two other locations singled out by professional development (PD) expert Ben Jensen in a recent paper on the topic (“Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Countries”), educators in Shanghai and British Columbia are highly trained and very well supported. They are given more time, better resources, and greater opportunities for in-class coaching and collaboration than anywhere else in the world.

Jensen, the founder and CEO of Learning First, a policy and research organization that works to improve student learning, draws more than a semantic difference between “professional development” and “professional learning,” the former being workshops that are too often detached from teachers’ actual experience, the latter being relevant lessons and coaching embedded into a teacher’s daily life.

The PD obligation in Shanghai is a big one – teachers must have 240 hours of PD for the first five years of their careers and 540 more hours to be considered for promotion. All teachers are assigned mentors, even those who have been at the job for decades. The message is not so much that they need help but that all professionals—at all stages of their careers—has something new to learn, whether it’s fresh insights or just reinforcement. New teachers in Shanghai are assigned two mentors—one to coach them in content, the other to help them boost their pedagogical skills.

School and district leaders habitually blame a lack of time and resources for the absence of good professional development. They could well argue that teachers in Shanghai spend just 10 to 12 hours a week teaching, compared to 27 hours weekly for the average U.S. teacher. But Jensen also shows that it’s not so much the quantity of time that makes for effective PD as it is the quality of that time.

In British Columbia, teachers devote just one or two periods a week to PD. But, according to Jensen, they use those hours particularly well. Most teacher learning takes place in inquiry-based groups that meet a couple of times a week and research just one or two projects during the school year. The lessons are embedded in teachers’ daily work, and teachers have time to improve throughout the week. This approach, Jensen says, encourages the kind of deep learning that changes teaching practice in a sustained way.

In all of these high-performing countries, the attitude toward PD is markedly different than it has long been in the U.S. Singapore requires teachers to spend 100 hours a year improving their game, yet those teachers, says Jensen, see the mandate as “a privilege to be sought after rather than a requirement to be endured.” PD is embedded in day-to-day practice; it is deemed essential, and as a result, it is respected. “It’s not an add-on,” Jensen writes. “It’s not something done Friday afternoons or during a few days at the end of school year.”

Across all four systems, Jensen says, professional learning is central to teachers’ jobs. Singapore is known for very rigorous teacher education and a highly structured career ladder, with different pathways tied to performance and requirements for individualized training. The country has invested substantially in making teachers professional learning leaders. “While this is an expensive policy, requiring concessions in other areas,” Jensen writes, “it is nonetheless an effective one.”

Hong Kong, meanwhile, builds teachers’ capacity in lesson observation, using a “learning study” method adapted from a program in Japan that requires intense and repeated observation of one particular lesson.

And while these high-performing systems differ in many ways, all put a premium on collaborative professional learning that’s built into teachers’ daily lives, and they have freed up teacher time to make it possible. They also embrace the science of improvement: they assess student learning to identify the next stage of learning, develop the teaching practices that provide for that next stage, and evaluate the impact of the new practices, continuously repeating the cycle so that teachers are improving again and again. In other words, teachers are not just instructors; they are researchers.

But improvement cycles, Jensen reminds us, can’t work in isolation. High-performing systems link improvement cycles to leadership structures, the allocation of resources, and measures of evaluation and accountability. In this way, Jensen says, “they transform the improvement cycle into a culture of continuous professional learning that, in time, turns schools into true learning organizations.”

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