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Getting Teacher Development Right

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Teachers are being challenged to transform educational outcomes, often under difficult conditions. They are asked to teach in increasingly multicultural classrooms. They must place greater emphasis on integrating students with special learning needs, both special difficulties and special talents, in their classes. They need to make more effective use of information and communication technologies for teaching. They are required to engage more in planning within evaluative and accountability frameworks. And they are asked to do more to involve parents in schools. No matter how good the pre-service education for teachers is, it cannot be expected to prepare teachers for all the challenges they will face throughout their careers.

All this underlines the need to better support and encourage teacher participation in continued professional development and to ensure that professional development really matches teachers' needs. Our research at the OECD identifies several aspects as central to success:

First, well-structured and resourced induction programs can support new teachers in their transition to full teaching responsibilities before they obtain all the rights and responsibilities of full-time professional teachers. In countries such as Finland, once teachers have completed their pre-service education and begun their teaching, they begin one or two years of heavily supervised teaching. During this period, the beginning teacher typically receives a reduced workload, mentoring by master teachers and continued formal instruction.

Second, effective professional development needs to be ongoing, include training, practice and feedback, and provide adequate time and follow-up support. Successful programs involve teachers in learning activities that are similar to those they will use with their students, and encourage the development of teachers' learning communities.

Third, teacher development needs to be linked with wider goals of school and system development, and with appraisal and feedback practices and school evaluation.

And finally, there is need to re-examine structures and practices that inhibit inter-disciplinary practice and to provide more room for teachers to take time to learn deeply, and employ inquiry- and group-based approaches, especially in the core areas of curriculum and assessment.

In some countries, mentoring and ongoing professional development already plays an important role. In the Chinese province of Shanghai, each teacher is expected to engage in 240 hours of professional development within five years. Singapore provides teachers with an entitlement of 100 hours of professional development per year to keep up with the rapid changes occurring in the world and to be able to improve their practice. More generally, data from the OECD's Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) survey show that across countries almost 90 percent of teachers participated in some form of professional development over an 18-month period and, on average, spent just under one day per month in professional development. However, there is considerable variation in the incidence and intensity of teacher participation in professional development both across and within countries.

Teachers consider better and more targeted professional development as an important lever towards improvement. TALIS data show that teachers' participation in professional development goes hand-in-hand with their mastery of a wider array of methods to use in the classroom, even if it is not clear to what extent professional development triggers or responds to the adoption of new techniques. Our data also identify close associations between professional development and a positive school climate, teaching beliefs, co-operation between teachers and teacher job satisfaction.

However, schools and systems need to better match the costs and benefits of, and supply and demand for, professional development. TALIS data show that, across countries, relatively few teachers participate in the kinds of professional development that they believe has the largest impact on their work, namely qualification programs and individual and collaborative research, even if those who do commit considerable time and money to these courses consider them effective. Conversely, the types of activities that teachers consider less effective, namely one-off education conferences and seminars, show comparatively high participation rates.

But it is not just a question of producing more of the same professional development. Teachers consistently report that their greatest need for professional development is in learning how to handle differences in student learning styles and backgrounds, using information and communication technologies effectively, and improving student behavior. These responses provide some direction on where future efforts should focus, and suggest that a sound assessment of provision and support of development is important.

Of course, a certain level of unsatisfied demand is to be expected; it is only natural that a certain proportion of teachers will, at some time, not feel fully equipped to carry out their work effectively. Nonetheless, the extent of unsatisfied demand appears large, and in some countries the great majority of teachers report that they need more professional development than they receive. The extent to which this undermines the effectiveness of these teachers is difficult to assess; but it is equally difficult to imagine that such deficits are not to some extent detrimental to effective teaching and learning. The cost of providing additional professional development needs to be seen in relation to the cost of not providing it, in terms of lost opportunities for students to learn. The fact that a sizeable proportion of teachers underwrite the cost of their professional development is evidence that many teachers are contributing their share of the cost of advancing their career.

Teachers themselves can also do more, and should be encouraged to do more, to share their expertise and experience systematically in ways that go beyond the mere exchange of information. Teachers report relatively infrequent collaboration with colleagues within the school, beyond a mere exchange of information and ideas; direct professional collaboration to enhance student learning is rarer. Understanding that collaboration takes time, some countries are providing teachers with some scheduled time or salary supplement to encourage them to engage in such co-operation.

Teachers who exchange ideas and information and co-ordinate their practices with other teachers also report more positive teacher-student relations at their school. Thus, it may be reasonable to encourage teachers' co-operation in conjunction with improving teacher-student relations, as these are two sides of a positive school culture. School leaders can do a lot to provide the time, opportunity and structure for encouraging collaboration and sharing of practice within their schools. Positive teacher-student relations are not only a significant predictor of student achievement, they are also closely related to individual teachers' job satisfaction and self-efficacy. This finding emphasizes the role of teachers' positive evaluations of the school environment for effective education and teacher well-being. Efforts to improve school climate are particularly important in larger public schools attended by students with low average ability.

In sum, the transformation of today's teaching force requires smarter development of professionals. The significant rewards that come with better educational outcomes show that getting this right is worth it.