There has been a common narrative that teachers are either great teachers or struggling teachers,” says Matthew Kraft.
The assistant professor of education and economics at Brown University in Rhode Island, US, doesn’t buy into that way of thinking; rather, he feels that with the right professional development, all teachers are able to improve. The trouble is, he argues, teachers don’t often receive decent professional development and what they do get tends to be infrequent.
“Professional development has struggled to deliver things that translate into meaningful changes in teacher practice,” he explains. “Teachers go and tick the box to say they have been to the workshop, but what they have learned doesn’t necessarily apply to them.”
With the rise of research schools, increased use of the Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit and the emergence of grassroots, teacher-led CPD movements, things are improving. But Kraft feels that too many schools still fail to make the most of one of the easiest tools at their disposal: collaborative approaches. He has published papers on individualised coaching and teacher-led instructional teams (often referred to as teaching and learning communities or TLCs in the UK), and both should be a regular feature at schools, he says.
Kraft’s research is motivated by his own experiences as a school teacher (he taught before entering academia) and the struggles he faced trying to figure out how to improve his practice.
“[There were a] lack of any high-quality professional development opportunities, so I was left to proactively seek out mentors and to develop my curricular materials on my own, rather than having support or regular feedback to help me improve,” recalls Kraft. “As a young and highly motivated teacher, I could invest the time and energy to do that, but that certainly would not have been sustainable as I started a family and had kids.”
School environment is key
He believes there is an assumption in teaching that if you cannot stand on your own after the first few years, then you are simply a bad teacher. This is wrong, he says – teachers need assistance for much longer.
Recent proposals by the Department for Education have highlighted a similar story in the UK. Its consultation, “Strengthening qualified teacher status and improving career progression for teachers”, suggested extending the current induction period for teachers to two years. It also suggested introducing an “early career content framework”, setting out the key skills that new practitioners would be expected to acquire during that time.
Kraft argues that the attention to CPD should last much longer. He says that while large-scale datasets and empirical methods have shown that teachers do develop rapidly in the early stage of their careers, growth can and does continue throughout a career if a teacher is provided with opportunities to work in school environments among supportive colleagues, with high-quality feedback and where there is a common commitment to professional collaboration.
“You can have a fantastic teacher,” explains Kraft, “but if you place them in a school where there is inconsistent leadership and mistrust among their peers, they are likely to struggle.”
A longer-term, and better, CPD intervention programme is needed for all teachers, he argues. So what might that look like? Kraft points to teacher-coaching models as one of the most promising alternatives to traditional CPD.
The programme involves individual teachers working one-on-one with an “expert” teacher to help them develop their practice through highly specific feedback.
“Coaching is likely to be a more effective form of professional development compared with traditional efforts because it is individualised, sustained, intensive, focused and context-based,” he says. “Rigorous experimental evaluations of teacher-coaching document the positive effects they have on teachers’ instructional practices and their students’ achievement.”
He concedes, though, that the idea might not appeal to all teachers, owing to the necessary challenge inherent in the process.
“It’s going to expose potential weaknesses the teacher has, and that can be frightening and discomforting,” he says.
Kraft also notes potential issues that any school system of coaching would have to watch out for: “There may be teachers who are just looking to go through the motions – ‘Tell me X, Y and Z and I’ll do X, Y and Z.’”
Overcoming those challenges is about ensuring robust processes that are well communicated, so that everyone knows why something is being done and can see the evidence that suggests it works; that criticism is constructive, not vindictive; and that going through the motions would be cheating yourself and denying pupils a better teacher.
“I would argue that the vast majority of teachers gain satisfaction from achieving success for their students, and programmes that would allow them to have more success are going to be worth their time,” says Kraft.
He also recommends that coaching models should remain school-based: attempts to scale them up across multiple schools or districts tend not to work so well, he argues. One key finding from a meta-analysis he completed on a collection of 60 teacher-coaching studies was that “scaling up” the model to district or state level was challenging and costly.
“We don’t have a lot of information or evidence about how to recruit, select, develop and train high-quality coaches,” says Kraft. “So we see a consistent pattern that the larger the coaching programmes get, the smaller the impact they have on teachers’ practices and students’ outcomes.”
Alongside coaching, Kraft recommends schools also implement instructional teams – small groups of professionals coming together to share and discuss their practice – which have become increasingly common in urban schools in the US.
“When instructional teams have a clear goal and purpose, one that is valued by the team members, and that are supported and supervised by effective school leadership, they can be productive,” he says. “In addition to helping teachers to develop their skills, they allow teachers to work together to jointly address the learning needs of individual students and coordinate efforts.”
In both this and the coaching model, Kraft stresses that schools need to know their staff well and be able to pinpoint areas of excellent practice and those in need of greater support.
“I think the systems that teachers work in matter,” he says. “If we are able to identify specific practices that some teachers excel at and others are only developing in, we can pair those teachers up and they can exchange practices, observe each other, and there is already a lot of opportunity for growth.”
That requires an honest teaching community that understands the processes and trusts in them to enable better teaching. In a system of high accountability and performance-related pay, that is a difficult ask, but there is now enough evidence out there about both coaching and instructional teams to sway any doubting teachers, insists Kraft.
Get these two areas right and you may not solve all your CPD problems, he admits, but you will at least be doing everything that we do know works in helping teachers to become the best that they can be.
“There is no silver bullet to improve teacher effectiveness at large,” says Kraft. “But schools vastly underutilise the expertise that already exists in the building.”
Jay Birch is a freelance journalist