Proceedings from a Working Meeting on School Readiness Research: Guiding the Synthesis of Early Childhood Research. Ensuring Effective Professional Development to Promote Child Outcomes

12/15/2009

One of the critical issues in the area of professional development involves the tension between professional development that is focused implementing a specific curriculum and professional development that focuses on effective practices more generally.  Currently, most professional development is about a curriculum that may or may not encompass instructional practices that address all domains of development or that reflect state-of-the art knowledge about effective practices.  An alternative approach to professional development is to start with the outcomes that we would like children to achieve, then identify teacher practices that have been shown to foster those outcomes, and finally build systems that support those practices. This series of steps places less emphasis on particular curricula, and instead focuses on developing supports for teachers around classroom practices, regardless of curriculum.

The challenge is to determine how to build systems that scaffold implementation in real world settings. All of the research suggests that professional development on an approach or curriculum does not guarantee that practitioners will consistently be on model when using the approach in their classrooms.  One possibility discussed is to design professional development that is staged, to provide new layers of support as teachers become more skilled at implementing practices.

In general, despite increasing knowledge about effective instructional practices, this knowledge needs to be absorbed and reflected in the professional development provided to teachers.  Continued work is needed to identify approaches for teaching teachers those skills and how to use them.   In the field, the varied strategies have been used in teacher training and professional development, including one-time workshops, formal coursework, teacher-accessed web-based support, individualized web-mediated coaching, and intensive in-person coaching.  The research shows that all of these methods have achieved mixed success in impacting teaching practices and child outcomes.

In their review, Klein and Gomby (2008) reported that training to implement curricula is associated with improvements in implementation and teacher's classroom instructional practices. Specifically, they concluded from their review that coaching and mentoring were associated with improved implementation. Furthermore, some studies found that teachers who received professional development had improved classroom practice and also had children with improved outcomes. Based on their review, the Klein and Gomby suggested that, in order for professional development to impact child outcomes, teachers must deliver the curriculum as intended, the whole curriculum must be delivered, and children must attend the program with enough regularity to benefit from the intervention.

Coaching appears to be an especially promising approach for producing positive changes in teachers and improvements in child outcomes; however, a series of questions remain about coaching: 1) How are coaches trained?; 2) What is the coach doing that impacts the teacher?; 3) How is the teacher changing his/her practice as a result of the coaching?; and 4) How does this change in practice lead to child outcomes?  The QUINCE studies, for which findings had not yet been released at the time of this review, will begin to answer some of these questions. Other newly funded efforts (e.g., the Head Start University Partnership Research Grants funded in 2008 examine strategies for developing teacher effectiveness) will also contribute to this body of literature.

Among the studies that were the focus of this meeting, a number of challenges were articulated that limit the capacity of the field to identify effective professional development approaches. For example, there is no common vocabulary or set of expectations for describing professional development. Many studies lack basic descriptive information about the professional development activities that were implemented, which makes it difficult to compare approaches across studies and offers little information on how to move the field forward. Additionally, delivering multiple professional development strategies as part of a single package, such as combining group training sessions with one-on-one coaching, without adequate descriptions of the components or a planned variation approach to their study makes it impossible to disentangle the components or isolate the effects of any one strategy.

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