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.”