Evaluating Professional Development Programs

At a recent Board of Education Student Achievement Committee meeting, Board members questioned a contract renewal because of a lack of data demonstrating its effectiveness. The SDP contracts out (way too many) and supplies in-house (way too few) a number of professional development programs. For English Learners, for example, QTEL (Quality Teaching for English Learners) serves content-area teachers struggling to accommodate math, science, social studies, and language arts instruction to the needs of English Learners at all levels. The William Penn Foundation is supporting an initiative in Northeast Philadelphia designed to assist teachers in pushing in for ESOL instruction. Many schools, including those with large numbers of ELs, employ the services of Children’s Literacy Initiative to support and expand literacy instruction. And individual 440 offices, such as Multilingual, Curriculum or Special Education, provide some professional development opportunities for teachers of English Learners around the city. What characteristics should be included in the design of teacher development programs and their evaluation? I will use the case of QTEL, since this is an EL-specific professional development program, to illustrate the discussion, but many of these principles and concerns could apply to many PD programs.

First, a program that offers intensive, in-person, and long-term learning opportunities is crucial. No one-shot workshops can bring about significant change in teacher practice. QTEL, as one example, includes an intensive and highly interactive and participatory summer institute that introduces QTEL principles, followed by monthly sessions in the school year, classroom visits, and, ultimately, team planning for and delivery of professional development to colleagues in participants’ schools. Throughout this time, QTEL principles are applied in the classroom, as well as during mini-lessons presented during the sessions. Teachers who register for QTEL acknowledge the need to commit to a rigorous and long-term program.

PD that provides opportunities for coaching by mentors and peers is crucial in bringing about a change in practice. In QTEL sessions, peers provide feedback on demo lessons, lesson plans and materials, colleagues from the same school collaborate on planning and cross- observation, and OMCP staff may visit and provide feedback on accommodated lessons in participants’ own classrooms (subject to staffing adequacy)..

Next, it is essential that a PD program include a number of colleagues at a single school. These colleagues can work together in learning during the PD sessions and in planning PD for their own colleagues. They share knowledge of individual students, as well as the challenges and gifts of their school, as related to Els and their needs. This team approach allows for cross-fertilization of ideas and provides support as teachers change and adapt their practices.

Professional development that is focused and tied to individuals’ areas of specialization is also welcome for many teachers. QTEL, for one, offers an opportunity for math specialists (or history, or science, or language arts) from across the city to share best practices, concerns, and questions. QTEL presenters for the summer session are content-area specialists who have adapted instruction for ELs in their individual disciplines. When mini-lessons or materials adaptations are presented during PD sessions, content-area colleagues and these summer institute experts can provide specialized, discipline-specific feedback.

We should support PD programs linked to current theoretical frameworks and research in the specific field. QTEL designer, Aida Walqui, bases the program on research stretching from the 1980s to the present in content-area language instruction, disciplinary literacy, social learning, and second language acquisition, among other sources. These theoretical underpinnings are demonstrated through hands-on and interactive PD sessions, along with materials that participants read and examine.

Furthermore, a PD program that fills a need expressed by teachers, students and school administrators can attract motivated PD participants anxious to improve and to better meet their students’ needs. The YS consent decree in the 1980s called for sheltered instruction for ELs, yet little was done in the SDP until quite recently to provide the kind of training that disciplinary specialists need to shelter instruction for ELs. Teachers expressed frustration, fear of failure, and concern that ELs were being “left behind.” The success with which QTEL has attracted participants demonstrates the perceived need among content-area teachers.

Data that can be easily collected for annual reports on the effectiveness of any PD program are

  • numbers of participants annually, their attendance and perseverance in the program, and the number of total hours of “seat time.” Other numbers to crunch for QTEL specifically could include the number of sheltered classes throughout the city that are peopled by QTEL-trained teachers.
  • Surveys of PD participants on the degree to which they are implementing new practices can provide additional insight to accompany data on classroom performance collected during classroom observations by fellow participants and central office staff over time.
  • Participants’ reflective diary studies and/or annotated, self-evaluative lesson plans based on new practices can also provide evidence of changes in teaching practice.
  • Where possible, surveys of students on the degree to which content-area instruction is made comprehensible, and they, thus, experience success, provides another side of the story.
  • Evidence of student work, annotated to demonstrate how principles from the PD program informed the design and evaluation of assignments, could also provide insight.
  • It would be difficult, if not impossible, to link a PD program such as QTEL to general standardized tests in the content area (there is none for history, for ex.and none that an EL can reasonably access), but improvements in ACCESS test scores (the test for English Learners), which is heavily focused on content-area language, could provide valuable data.
  • Of course, the quality of individual teachers’ performances (motivation and work ethic), the degree to which QTEL is implemented with fidelity in various schools, and the quality of individual presenters and the QTEL institute sessions must always be considered in making a complete evaluation. There is, in the results of any PD program, much variability that must be considered.In requesting data for any application for a contract or contract renewal for professional development, the above-outlined considerations on data collection and on program design, should be institutionalized. ALL programs should be held accountable!