A longer version of this article first appeared in The Hechinger Report
Jandella Faulkner crouches beside a table of busy third graders in Jennifer Larsen’s class at Edison Elementary School in Long Beach. The students have pencils in hand, outlines spread around them, and a story about penguins and otters in progress.
Faulkner stands to call across the room: “Loving how this group is already talking, Ms. Larsen.” Then she swoops down on another table of young authors.
Faulkner is training a select group of teachers at Edison in a new literacy curriculum called Write From The Beginning. It’s part of a district-wide training system that relies on teachers working with each other to improve classroom practices. With Faulkner’s help, Larsen and a few other teachers will train their colleagues at the school on how to use Write From The Beginning in their own classrooms.
Many American school districts rely heavily on outside experts, professional conferences and travelling consultants to train teachers. New York City, the nation’s largest school district, spent about $100 million last year on professional development consultants.
In most cases, there’s little evidence to show whether the outside groups are helping schools improve, says Pamela Grossman, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education.
“There is a lot of money spent on professional development that does not really support teachers in learning how to improve,” Grossman says.
Long Beach creates its own training teams.
“Our system is really invested in building internal capacity,” says Jill Baker, the district’s assistant superintendent for elementary and K-8, and chief academic officer. “What that means is teachers become leaders and trainers. We’re not bringing someone in from the outside. We’re teaching teachers within to go back to their school sites to train others.”
Professional development is seen as a critical component of many education reform initiatives.
National studies show that good training programs are especially important in high-poverty districts like Long Beach, according to Learning Forward, a national nonprofit organization focused on teacher education.
With some 84,000 students, Long Beach is California’s third-largest district. Most of the students are from families of color. Some 70 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch, an indication that families live at or below the poverty level.
Education experts say that good, independent research on what constitutes professional development for teachers is relatively scarce. Even so, more than $1 billion is spent on teachers’ on-the-job training each year in the United States, according to an analysis of data collected by the U.S. Department of Education.
The Long Beach district is “ahead of the curve,” said Grossman, the Stanford professor.
“A model where coaches are familiar with the schools, the districts and the curriculum?and are therefore able to offer fairly tailored coaching?has a better chance of moving practice along.”
Long Beach administrators credit the Write From The Beginning curriculum?and the teacher training that accompanies it?with turning around dismal test scores at many of the participating schools. District figures show that schools scoring at or below 20 percent proficiency in state writing tests have boosted their numbers above 50 percent since 2007. Some once-struggling schools have posted writing test results above 80 percent.
The district has been a winner, and a five-time finalist, of the prestigious Broad Prize, given by the California-based Broad Foundation to recognize urban school districts that improve student academic performance and narrow achievement gaps between poor and more affluent students.
The Broad Foundation cited the district’s professional development program as an essential element in Long Beach’s ability to outperform other high-poverty school districts in student achievement. (Disclaimer: the Broad Foundation is among the funders of The Hechinger Report.)
Cheryl Hubert of Starr King Elementary, another site coach, says being a teacher in the local trenches gives her more credibility with her peers than some outside consultant who parachutes in. “They know who I am,” Hubert says. “They feel more comfortable with me than someone from a business [where they] think, what are they selling?”
Larsen says the curriculum and the coaching have made her both a better writer, and a better writing teacher. “I’m more aware when I’m reading aloud to the kids of all the great descriptions and the vivid language in every text,” Larsen says. “When I model writing for them, I express myself better.”
Coaches and teachers get paid for the time they spend on professional development, but Quinn and others describe it as “minimal compensation.” Meanwhile, the budget woes and accompanying teacher layoffs of recent years mean that Larsen, Gaytan and Quinn face classrooms of 30 children every day instead of 20.
“Whereas the majority of our staff wants to participate in the professional development, there is a lot of burnout,” Quinn says. “My workload has increased, my accountability has increased, but my discretionary time has not increased. So it becomes very difficult.”
Lindsay teacher Shauna Hutchinson says the fat curriculum binder looked overwhelming at first. “But once you went to training they broke it down for you,” she says.
Long Beach spends $5.4 million a year on professional development, less than 1 percent of the district’s $691 million budget. Professional development was cut nearly in half during and after the recession. In fiscal year 2006-07, 4,546 employees attended 11,763 training sessions. In fiscal 2011-12, 1,945 employees attended 6,982 sessions.
In response, Baker says the district has focused teacher training on areas that can have the most impact on how students learn. These include writing, mathematics and school behavior programs. There is less opportunity for individual teachers to select workshops or training programs in other areas such as creative arts and social studies.
“We’ve had to take a lot of things that we liked to do in the past and really narrow it down to what your students are showing us they need,” Baker says. “Professional development for teachers, and for principals as well, has been at the core of the work that we’ve done that has garnered results. “It’s part of the district culture, and it continues to work over time.”
Stephen Smith is the Executive Editor and Host of American RadioWorks, a documentary series from American Public Media.