Earlier this month, a report from The New Teacher Project found that most professional development programs for teachers don’t achieve their intended goal of improving instruction and boosting student performance.
As districts roll out a combination of new standards, assessments, and tech-driven instructional approaches, teachers have called for more training and support. But the study’s findings, as well as long-standing gripes from teachers about the quality of most training, have thrown into question how much many current approaches have to offer. And professional development is expensive to boot: The same study found an average cost of $18,000 per teacher, a particularly significant expenditure for cash-strapped districts.
Some districts, however, have begun to turn to digital options, which can offer savings as well as customization for individual districts' needs. Many programs allow district and school leaders to build digital learning pathways to address specific standards or areas of academic weakness within their schools, and some even allow administrators to create personalized tracks for each teacher. Those benefits have created a growing market for digital teacher training, with big players like Microsoft and newcomers like Bloomboard entering the field. But administrators who've used digital PD systems also caution that the focus should remain on what their teachers need beyond the technological capabilities.
For Port Arthur Independent School District in southeast Texas, digital professional development has allowed a focus on one of the district’s greatest areas of concerns: new teachers. The district is in the midst of an overhaul to address its academic struggles. As it navigates that upheaval, supporting brand new teachers has become a key part of its turnaround effort.
“A lot of our teachers who were coming from universities and colleges just didn’t know how to set up a room, how to do classroom management,” said Superintendent Mark Porterie. The district provided support at discrete times throughout the year, but that one-shot approach wasn’t working. “They needed someone to help them throughout the year.”
In response, Porterie and his deputies have designed a program in collaboration with digital professional development provider Knowledge Deliver Systems that focuses specifically on what new teachers need to know before they enter a classroom and what information they’ll need as they go through the first year or two of teaching.
"It covers every area of concern a new teacher could face,” said Emily Moore, a former Port Arthur principal who has helped with the implementation of the new professional development system. “If you’re teaching a concept and you’re struggling with, you have an online coach. You have a form you can type out, 'Hey I’m struggling with this idea.'"
KDS has also offered an extra layer of feedback and support in a system often more focused on accountability. Porterie hopes that support piece will also improve teacher retention.
"To be in a classroom year after year and have students not succeeding, it’s depressing," he said. The online coaching and supportive tools have helped teachers grapple with the stress of having to make big strides in student performance.
But the district didn't just use KDS as a technological fix. When they adopted the new system, district leaders also made big changes in their human support systems as well. The rollout of the new system helped shift district leaders’ thinking, as well, incorporating a larger focus on giving teachers what they need to know to succeed rather than punishing them for not already knowing it.
But Moore also oversaw the establishement of more in-person support networks for teachers, including professional learning communities that unite teachers from across the district and from all different backgrounds for support.
Porterie also cautions that KDS may not be the fix for every district. It addressed a specific need that Port Arthur uncovered during conversations that the superintendent had with groups of local teachers at the end of last year. Other leaders will need to engage in the same process of listening and exploration that Port Arthur did as part of its overhaul.
“Sometimes, you have to let the people in the trenches tell you what they need,” Porterie said. “When someone says they need help, it behooves all of us to get busy and help.”
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