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A Conversation on Professional Development

by Fred D. Baldwin

Professional development—improving the ability of teachers to teach—is one critical element in improving student performance. For a perspective on the importance of professional development, Appalachia magazine interviewed Susan Loucks-Horsley, director of professional development at the National Research Council's Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education. Loucks-Horsley is also program director for science and mathematics at WestEd, a laboratory for educational research, and directs the Professional Development Project for the National Institute for Science Education. She is the senior author of Designing Professional Development for Teachers of Science and Mathematics, as well as many other papers and reports.

Q. Dr. Loucks-Horsley, why are good teachers so important? There was a time when people thought it was primarily the family context in which a child grows up that determines learning, but we have enough research now to know that teachers make a great deal of difference as well. I think we all know this from our own personal experiences, and research confirms that a teacher can make an enormous amount of difference in educating a child.

Q. How serious are deficiencies in teachers' professional development? There are horrifying statistics on the percentage of teachers who don't have even a minor in their teaching field. When I taught 20 years ago, you could get away with being a chapter ahead of the students because the material you were teaching required little more than rote learning. Now if the teacher doesn't understand the content, the students are really losing.

Q. Is this a more serious problem in rural areas? It's a particular problem in a rural area, where teachers have to teach a lot of subjects. If you have a degree in physics, you may never be able to teach physics because there aren't enough students to fill a class. But you're probably going to be called on to teach all the sciences. Few teachers have a deep enough understanding of all the sciences to help students learn them.

Q. What other problems do rural teachers face? Isolation is another very large factor. There may be one science teacher in a school, or one biology teacher. One of the ways we learn is by working with colleagues. Also, in many rural settings, parents and communities have lower aspirations for their children, whether it's because their own opportunities have been narrow or because they don't want their children to go away from home.

On the positive side, there's a sense of community, and people take responsibility for nurturing young people who are close by. And, quite frankly, rural youth are protected from some of the horrors of many urban settings.

Q. Why are so many teachers not well prepared? The programs for teacher preparation are not always up-to-date and rigorous. Often teachers don't have enough work in classrooms before they're certified or have a deep enough knowledge of content. It's very common for the first university courses in a discipline—for example, Biology 101—to be very basic and rule-oriented. So teachers who go no further don't appreciate or understand the "big ideas" in the discipline. Also, they haven't learned their content in the way they need to be teaching it to meet current standards.

Q. What should people who are not professional educators know about these standards? First, how important it is to have standards. It's having high expectations, setting the bar high. Second, they're for all students. We once were more focused on educating people who were going into science and mathematics. Now we're clear that to be a productive citizen, you have to know science and math.

Q. How do recent standards differ from earlier ones? The standards that have been written since 1989 by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and [in science] the National Research Council are quite unlike what came before. They say very broadly what students need to know and be able to do, while leaving such questions as what should be taught in the second grade and what in the third grade much more to local prerogative. They also address what teachers need to know and be able to do, how teachers need to teach, and how schools and the larger system need to support this. They're not letting anyone off the hook.

Q. What progress is being made? In fact, just about every state has written standards in science and mathematics, and the overwhelming majority of them reflect the national standards. That's one mark of progress.

We're also making a lot of progress in aligning different policies, both in states and in districts. One of the learnings from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study [a 1995–96 study that compared math and science achievement of students in 41 nations] was that our system lacked coherence. There were assessments; there were curriculums; there were special programs for teacher education. Very few of them were aligned with each other. Since standards have been set, there has been more alignment of these critical components.

Q. Should strategies for change focus on increasing content knowledge, improving pedagogical technique, or providing more resources? I don't really like to separate developing content understanding and developing pedagogical skills. To think about developing pedagogical skills without content is like making a really elegant basket with nothing in it.

But I don't want the need for teachers to know more content to translate into, "They have to go back to college and take courses." Teachers can strengthen their grasp of content and how to teach it through the kind of on-the-job learning that business and industry do. You don't need to pull teachers out of classrooms for them to learn. We can do a lot in the school and in the classroom—coaching, action research, study groups built around what teachers are teaching and what they are struggling with. We have to develop respect for internal expertise, make sure teachers have the opportunity to work with each other, and not rely on the "expert." People need help when they need help, not when an "expert" is available.

Q. And as for resources? Often it's a matter of reallocating the resources we already have rather than needing more. However, I am concerned that we need to be looking beyond the textbooks that people have traditionally bought and relied on. Areas that are impoverished, which a lot of rural areas are, have less opportunity to replace their current textbooks.

Developing internal expertise can't be resource-free. For example, when you have peer coaching going on, people have to have time to talk to each other. But this and other forms of "on-the-job" professional development are less expensive than others.

Q. What changes in laws and policies would be especially helpful? Teacher certification and recertification policies are critical. Those requirements have to be aligned with standards, so that when teachers come out of teacher preparation programs they know what they need to know and can teach effectively.

I also think that states need to look very carefully at their testing. Assessment in many places drives instruction, instructional materials; it drives what teachers do on a day-by-day, hour-by-hour, and minute-by-minute basis. When those assessments are not measuring important learning outcomes, then you're sending the wrong messages.

Q. When can we expect to start seeing improved results on student tests? Policy makers have to take into consideration that it takes time for change to occur. When a teacher does something new, it may take at least a year to work the bugs out. That doesn't mean that teachers shouldn't be accountable for student learning, but we need to set up more benchmarks along the way, such as change in teacher knowledge, then change in teaching practices. Requiring instantaneous change in learning outcomes is going to sink more reform than it supports.

Q. Anything else you'd like to add? Just a footnote. In the various projects that I'm involved with, I come into contact with wonderful people from the Appalachian area who are working very, very hard and making progress. We need to talk about supporting the progress that's being made. I'm very optimistic.

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.