Using Evidence to Improve Teacher Development

At the SEAMEO STEM Education Centre, we strongly advocate that policymakers and education leaders use evidence to determine which approach to take when making decisions about interventions to improve the schools.  We believe that our children and our teachers deserve the best that we know how to do. And that means paying attention to evidence about what works.  The development of organizations committed to producing systematic reviews of research has made it much easier to find the evidence so there is no longer any excuse for failing to do so.  As a first step toward developing an evidence-based culture in Thailand, the Centre sponsored a roundtable that brought policymakers and researchers from across the region together to discuss the implications of the evidence about effective approaches to teacher development. Dr. Heather Hill from Harvard University in the USA, an expert on teacher development in mathematics, kicked off the meeting with a review of what we know about what works in pre-service and in-service education for teachers.

 

Experts at the roundtable then discussed the implications of Dr. Hill’s presentation and the findings from three other major reports on teacher development. Among the research findings that were discussed were the following:

 

  1. The most effective professional development programs for teachers have a specific subject focus, incorporate lesson enactment in the training, include initial face-to-face training, and link teacher participation to career incentives; as a consequence they are positively associated with student test score gains (Popova et al., 2018).
  2. Qualitative evidence suggests that follow-up visits after professional development reinforce teachers’ skills and are critical to effective professional development programs (Popova et al., 2018).
  3. The most successful professional development programs offer teachers opportunities to practice new pedagogical skills (Hill, 2021)
  4. The most successful programs focus on effective pedagogy rather than just the content knowledge of teachers (Hill, 2021)
  5. The value of instructional coaches depends on how well they facilitate teacher enactment. Coaches in effective PD programs collaborated with teachers on lesson planning and often co-taught lessons rather than just observing and giving teachers feedback (Kennedy, 2016; Corcoran, 2008).
  6. Effective professional learning communities provide teachers with opportunities to observe new practices, process new understandings, challenge problematic beliefs, and focus on analyzing the impact of teaching on student learning (Timperley et al., 2007).
  7. Effective school leaders promote professional learning opportunities for teachers, coach teachers on effective pedagogy, and focus on improving student outcomes. They support the implementation of new classroom practices; focus on developing a learning culture in the school; provide a clear vision of the school’s goals and monitor achievement of the goals; and promote distributed leadership and develop the leadership of others.

 

Dr. Hill also noted that we know much less about what works effectively in pre-service education. This is because linking the experiences in a pre-service program with the actual teaching practice of graduates requires long-term studies to track the graduates and intensive fieldwork, and such studies are expensive. However, it would be worthwhile to conduct studies of components of pre-service programs to describe the kinds of experiences novice teachers are actually having in the program and during their practicum.  Such studies could examine what difference it makes if mentor teachers are trained, if pre-service students are prepared to use high-impact practices, if novice teachers have the opportunity to teach whole classes, if pedagogical rehearsals are conducted in pre-service classes, and if faculty have K-12 teaching experience. Descriptive studies could lead to design experiments in which we tried new approaches to preparing teachers. These design experiments would provide us with a knowledge base for reforms at scale. Rather than just guessing about what might work or adopting someone’s untested theory, we should proceed carefully to redesign the pre-service programs so that our universities produce the teachers that our schools need.

 

In the past Thai policymakers have largely ignored the evidence about what works best.  As a consequence, over half of Thai students fail to acquire the basic skills that are essential to economic success.  Many leave school after 9 years ill-equipped for anything except manual labor.  We owe it to our children to provide them with better learning opportunities. There is a lot of discussion about school reform in Thailand.  Commissions and committees meet and make recommendations based on the beliefs of their members and in the schools, nothing much changes. Both national and international assessments of Thai students show that little has changed over the past decade. The first step toward improvement might be to pay more attention to the evidence about what works.  The roundtable might represent a fresh start to policy-making for education in Thailand.

 

– Dr. Kessara Amornvuthivorn, Program Director of SEAMEO STEM-ED

Thomas B. Corcoran, Senior Advisor to the Director of the SEAMEO STEM-ED

References

Corcoran, T. B. (2008).  The El Paso Staff Developers.  New York: CPRE.

Hill, H. (2021) Teacher Development: What Works.  A presentation prepared for the SEAMEO STEM Education Roundtable, Bangkok, Thailand, May 10, 2021.

Kennedy, M. M. (2016). How does professional development improve teaching?. Review of educational research, 86(4), 945-980.

Popova, A., Evans, D., Breeding, M. E., & Arancibia, V. (2018). Teacher professional development around the world: The gap between evidence and practice. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper, (8572).

Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H., & Fung, I. (2008). Teacher professional learning and development (Vol. 18). International Academy of Education.

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