Worse yet, the costs associated with this attrition are not merely monetary in nature. Student achievement also takes a significant hit at schools that struggle to retain teachers. A recent study conducted by the University of Michigan’s Matthew Ronfeldt, Stanford University’s Susanna Loeb, and the University of Virginia’s Jim Wyckoff showed that higher teacher turnover is strongly correlated to poorer academic performance. These researchers found that students in schools with higher turnover scored lower in both ELA and math, and they stressed that this effect is particularly strong in schools with high concentrations of minority students.
Meanwhile, student engagement – which is the noncognitive measure most directly linked to academic achievement – is also impacted. Among the more than 600,000 American students surveyed in a landmark 2013 Gallup study, only 55% said they were engaged in the learning process, while 28% were ‘not engaged’ (i.e. mentally checked out) and 17% were ‘actively disengaged’ (i.e. feeling negatively about school and likely to spread that negativity).
Not surprisingly, this same study also found that student engagement is strongly correlated to teacher performance. In fact, students who agreed with the following two statements were 30 times more likely to be engaged at school versus those who disagreed:
1. My school is committed to building the strengths of each student.
2. I have at least one teacher who makes me excited about the future.
As for other academic stakeholders in the public system, the picture isn’t much prettier. Most school leaders and administrators feel trapped in a bad policy context and an associated web of system obligations and employment agreements that make change hard to imagine. Similarly, many parents feel disempowered when they realize how little influence they have over shaping school policy, since the bulk of power rests in the hands of a detached cabal of national officials.
It should come as no surprise then to discover that public confidence in the system has eroded significantly. According to the aforementioned Gallup study, 68% of Americans favor the idea of charter schools that operate independently of many state regulations, implying widespread recognition that the task of building a great learning environment depends primarily on the efforts of local school leaders and teachers themselves.
The evidence overwhelmingly confirms that our educational model founded upon strict accountability has failed to produce the kind of broad-based positive change we've sought.
An overreliance on standardization has only served to narrow our focus, stifle innovation, widen achievement gaps, and promote an academic culture rooted in fear. We’ve inadvertently demoralized those teachers who remain in the system by too often making them responsible for outcomes over which they have limited control – and then setting them up as scapegoats if they fail to achieve those outcomes. Meanwhile, a large body of research suggests that our increased emphasis on rigorous academic-content standards has borne scant relevance to student learning and achievement.
At this point, it is only reasonable to infer that the education system as it’s currently conceived is incapable of equitably delivering the kind of preparation our young people need to thrive. Heightened levels of youth stress and anxiety, persistent economic inequality, disengagement of young people from the democratic process, and a general decaying of hope are further indicators that we, the adults creating this system, have not yet gotten it right.
Which begs the question: what exactly is it about our accountability-obsessed policy that has proven untenable?
Here again, the answer lies in the false premise that must necessarily inform such a policy, which is that schools are places of uniformity. Such a premise is indicative of the politically expedient (but hopelessly misguided) notion that we can effectively address some 50+ million opportunities by means of a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach.
But schools are not matters of uniformity; they are matters of diversity.
Just as Jacobs taught us about city life, the folding, unfolding, and refolding of an educational journey cannot be predicted. It cannot be managed by fiat. There's no perfect template for an effective student; no cookie-cutter model that can be applied across all academic institutions.
Instead, the order of a school naturally emerges from the diverse network of interpersonal exchanges made therein. Schools are vibrant living systems, not products of a grand, utopian scheme devised by a small group of overeager planners. Their identity is not a fixed ideal, but rather a fluid agreement that constantly evolves according to the connections which define it at any given moment.
As a culture, we would do well to move beyond the obsession of how should a school function, and instead consider how might a school function? How might a student progress? What possibilities might exist? What connections might be made?
A school that works becomes an enormous laboratory of open exploration, trial and error, failure and success. Accordingly, good educational policy will focus that exploration; it will not inhibit it.
And so, the question becomes: how can we begin to conceive of schools not in terms of needs we already know, but in terms of diversities whose connections we do not yet know?
In a system committed to dynamic possibilities versus permanent design, policymakers must adopt a more passive, ‘lighter touch’ approach. Their main responsibility must become that of cultivating environments which help schools operate as fertile places for private initiatives, unofficial plans, and personalized opportunities to flourish.
In such a system, the mantle of leadership must necessarily shift from a narrow, centralized team of detached academics to a wide, decentralized network of connected experts.
But who exactly are these new experts?
They are those individuals who possess a deep well of practical experience in the field of education; committed practitioners who have developed domain-specific expertise through ongoing hours of explicit, deliberate and sustained practice; local specialists who are uniquely poised to spot emerging patterns and adapt to shifting contexts within a school environment.
In other words, they are teachers.
There is a growing acceptance among all academic stakeholders that teachers should be the ones who accept the primary leadership role as we transition to a more adaptive model for engaging and developing our youth. Almost all professional fields (medicine, law, accounting, etc.) are strictly directed by internal practitioners versus external managers, and education should embrace a similar organizational approach to support meaningful and sustainable change.
In fact, federal planners are already aware this imperative. The Common Core, for instance, was specifically designed with the intent of providing teachers full discretion and autonomy over how they would choose to instruct their students. As specifically stated in the 2013 guidance offered by the Common Core State Standards Initiative, “The Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.” Unfortunately, the rigid adherence to a standardized description of outcomes unintentionally castrated this noble ambition, as teachers were ultimately de-incentivized to actually embrace full autonomy. Nevertheless, the seed of formative evolution was there.
Moreover, merely offering the carrot of ‘increased teacher autonomy’ by means of a higher standards was an ill-fated plan from the start. Just as advocating more rigorous content standards didn’t magically translate into improved student learning and achievement, neither did it translate into more effective teaching. As one prominent advocate of the Common Core optimistically put it, “By raising standards and making the state assessments tougher, we hope that teachers will raise their expectations for students, and pitch their instruction at a higher level.” Unfortunately, hope is a poor strategy.
What is missing from this equation is a bridge; a conduit; an evidenced-based framework through which teachers can confidently implement an adaptive, personalized approach to instruction. Not a prescriptive set of instructions aimed at marginalizing diversity (and ultimately serving to lessen the relevance of teachers altogether), but a descriptive foundation of pedagogical catalysts designed to champion diversity and empower teachers.
Although it’s not consistently defined and/or understood, the enduring attitude of our high-stakes accountability era is that student achievement is ultimately what matters most in a school (which is something we certainly agree with). And for the most part, it’s widely agreed upon that investing in professional development for teachers is the best way to advance student achievement, both as a means of boosting the pedagogical skills of experienced teachers as well as better supporting new and inexperienced teachers.
And, to a much greater degree than most people realize, this investment is being made.
Even by the most conservative of estimates, American public schools are believed to spend in excess of $18 billion per year on professional development, which equates to an average of $5,600+ in annual spending per teacher. In reality, this figure is probably much higher. For example, in a 2015 report released by the national nonprofit organization TNTP, the public districts they studied (which comprised over 20,000 teachers) spent an estimated average of $18,000 per teacher per year on development efforts – the equivalent of 6 to 9 percent of their annual operating budgets.
There is no question that schools are deeply invested – both philosophically and economically – in helping their teachers succeed at one of the most difficult jobs on the planet. Unfortunately, this investment does not appear to be paying off.
Even though over 90% of teachers commit to participating in professional development each year, which in many cases is quite time-intensive (for instance, the teachers in the aforementioned TNTP study spent an average of 19 full school days – nearly 10 percent of a typical school year – participating in development activities), the majority reportedly do not believe this effort is useful to their practice.
And the research certainly validates this belief. For example, even though sweeping initiatives like the Common Core have advocated for a new paradigm of education that focuses less on rote memorization and more on critical-thinking skills, numerous studies have shown that classroom instruction remains alarmingly weak in the latter area.
In reality, most teachers are simply ‘marching in place’ when it comes to their development. And so, the real issue isn’t that teachers aren’t provided with sufficient professional development opportunities, but that the typical offerings are largely ineffective at changing teacher practice.
At present, most professional development misses the mark. One-time workshops are the most prevalent model for delivering professional skills training, and yet they have an abysmal track record for changing teacher practice. Studies have found that if training merely describes a skill to teachers, as traditional workshops do, only about 10 percent will effectively transfer that skill to practice. Meanwhile, the rest of the teachers will leave the training completely unchanged.
Such professional development operates under the faulty assumption that the only challenge facing teachers is a lack of awareness about effective teaching practices. Accordingly (as the misguided logic goes), once this awareness gap is corrected, teacher behavior with automatically change. Unfortunately, transfer is not automatic, and most teachers suffer from an ‘implementation dip’ once they try to apply a newly learned skill in practice. In other words, just as we can’t simply ‘pour’ knowledge into the heads of students, neither can we with teachers.
In order to meet the increasingly rigorous demands of education, and earn a better yield on the massive investment we are making in teacher development, schools cannot simply do more of the same. They must seek out a better approach to professional learning that drives measurable changes in teacher practice and student achievement.
It’s an undeniable truth that teaching is an inherently complex and nuanced endeavor, and professional development must recognize this. Moreover, the false belief that teachers can succeed with a simple inventory of rigid tactics must be abandoned alongside the notion that schools are places of uniformity. If we accept that schools are places of diversity – subject to an ‘intricate ballet’ of frequent and unpredictable reshaping by the erratic forces of ‘interpersonal dynamism’ – teachers will have to become comfortable with changing the tire while the car is running so to speak; creating their own innovations in instruction while at the same time teaching to higher standards.
In other words, teachers must become agentic. They must accept increased autonomy over the instruction process, and equip themselves with the foundational type of knowledge, skills and dispositions that have been consistently demonstrated to help teachers support students across varying contexts. This likely means acquiring a working understanding of established and emerging science around effective pedagogy, as well as developing an adaptive, personalized approach to instruction by means of iterative experimentation and continuous learning.
One way to conceptualize this philosophical shift is to consider the work of researcher Judith Little, who describes the role of the modern teacher as comprising two distinct functions: 1) the teacher as a technician and 2) the teacher as an intellectual.
From the ‘teacher as a technician’ standpoint, Little believes that professional development should: 1) expose teachers to various pedagogical strategies and the research base behind them; and 2) support teachers as they implement the research-based strategies in their classroom, recognizing that implementation is the most difficult learning stage for teachers.
Meanwhile, for schools to effectively support the ‘teacher as an intellectual’, they must simultaneously: 1) provide time and resources for teachers to collaboratively think through and create innovative teaching methods; and 2) provide a support system for teachers to test those innovations in practice through a process of ongoing assessment and refinement.
In this era of accountability, professional development can no longer just be about exposing teachers to a concept and/or providing basic knowledge about teaching methodologies. Instead, professional development must aim to change teacher practice in a way that measurably impacts student learning.
In view of that, we have created a dynamic new program called The Learning Blueprint. Developed and led by leading science of learning expert Dr. Jared Cooney Horvath, The Learning Blueprint is designed to bridge the gap between the status quo and the new mandate for teacher development, while simultaneously equipping local learning communities with the capacity to embrace a more diverse, broadscale vision for education.
The Learning Blueprint delivers a proven, sustainable solution to academic communities that value learning, innovation, high-achievement, and whole-child development. Over the course of one-to-three years, participating cohorts will build a foundation of research-based knowledge, create shared plans for success, embed high-impact learning strategies, and develop an internal system for collecting and evaluating evidence to inform future decisions.
Rather than a prescriptive half-day workshop or a one-size-fits-all solution, The Learning Blueprint is an iterative process of targeted improvement. Through ongoing cycles of knowledge-building and evidence-gathering, academic communities will identify and personalize those practices which deliver maximum impact.
Over time, teaching cohorts will become experts in independently accessing, interpreting, and translating scientific research to guide their professional development. Not only will this support collective teacher efficacy, but it will obviate the need for schools to rely on outside voices to decipher a once off-limit academic canon.
At its core, The Learning Blueprint is designed to bring the Science of Learning to all relevant stakeholders, including teachers, students, parents and leadership. The purpose is to establish a functional commonality of language, concepts and goals – an imperative first-step to affecting any sort of shared cultural change.
Pertaining to teachers, the thrust is not only to deliver the latest and most impactful applications from the Learning Sciences, but also to introduce an adaptive, easy-to-implement framework called ‘Micro Projects’ that professional learning teams can use to test, assess, document and share pedagogical strategies and evidence. Ultimately, this self-reinforcing process will lead to the development of an internal database of contextual, high-impact PL sessions created by teachers for teachers.
With regard to students, the thrust is to equip them with the only multi-functional, ‘future-proof’ skill we have ever discovered in the lab: learning. Once students understand and internalize the learning process, they can begin to co-construct development opportunities and assume personal agency over their academic (and post-academic) pathways.
As for parents and school leadership, the thrust is to bring them onboard in a practical (albeit less-intensive) manner that will help them meaningfully collaborate with other stakeholders as well as cultivate supportive environments in which students and teachers can thrive.
There is a growing base of research that demonstrates the immense value of establishing a school culture rooted in learning and pedagogical innovation.
For example, in a 2019 study evaluating educational policy, students who attended high-schools with a rigorous learning focus exhibited more refined critical-thinking skills, demonstrated greater competency in many deeper-learning domains, and achieved higher rates of graduation and four-year college enrollment versus those students who attended comparison schools. Similarly, numerous large-scale studies have shown that students who receive explicit instruction in metacognition and the learning process outperform control groups in many key areas including academic achievement, long-term memory retention, self-efficacy, and internal motivation.
Regarding The Learning Blueprint specifically, the impact we’ve observed among participating schools has emphatically validated these studies. Over the past four years, our program has been delivered to dozens of schools, hundreds of teachers and thousands of students across Australia, America and Hong Kong, and the results have been remarkable.
For instance, from 2017-2019, the teachers at Genazzano FCJ College in Melbourne, Australia participated in The Learning Blueprint. Genazzano is a private all-girls Catholic school serving ~1,000 P-12 students. During this period, the median student ATAR score increased from 85.5 to 90.0, while the percentage of students who’s score exceeded 90.0 rose from 36% to 50% (the highest in school history). Meanwhile, the teachers collectively demonstrated a significant increase in their ability to independently gather pedagogical evidence and apply key Science of Learning concepts to their practice.
Similarly, The Learning Blueprint was delivered from 2016-19 at St. James Parish in Ballarat, Australia, a low-SES school serving ~200 P-5 students. During this period, student NAPLAN reading scores rose from 358 to 466 (the highest in school history), while reading, writing and numeracy growth significantly outpaced national averages.
Teachers, students, parents and school administrators alike have spoken glowingly about the program:
Click below to review additional case studies that demonstrate the remarkable impact The Learning Blueprint has delivered across a diversity of learning environments and communities.
ATAR = Australian Tertiary Admission Rank; NAPLAN = National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy
Ultimately, the success of any program is contingent upon the buy-in and dedication of the participants, and fortunately most academic stakeholders are excited to commit to any program that holds the promise of better student outcomes. However, as we’ve established, commitment alone is not in-and-of-itself enough to produce meaningful results.
Accordingly, we’ve identified a handful of key reasons why The Learning Blueprint has been so successful in driving measurable change among committed learning communities.
RIGOROUS BASIS IN THE SCIENCE OF LEARNING
Most educational professionals would be shocked to discover the paucity of rigorous scientific analysis that informs most teacher development programs. For example, in one of the largest and most inclusive research syntheses ever conducted on effective teacher development, only nine of the more than 1,3oo cited studies met even the minimum standards of credible evidence as set by What Works Clearinghouse, the arm of the U.S. Department of Education charged with providing scientific evidence about ‘what works’ in education.
Practitioners at all levels must demand better evidence from consultants and purveyors of new academic strategies and practices, especially given the major financial investment being made in this area. Stories about what happened one time in a single school or district may be interesting, but they do not justify broader implementation.
If we ever expect teachers to ‘take ownership’ over their craft and embrace a true leadership role in education (as opposed to merely paying lip service to these high-minded ideas), it is imperative that we equip them with a solid foundation of evidence-based knowledge upon which they can reliably begin to construct – and adapt – a personalized approach to success.
As such, The Learning Blueprint maintains a rigorous commitment to instilling foundations of learning. This means well-characterized, well-replicated concepts supported by a wealth of brain and behavioral research.
Teachers who complete our program come away with a proven, enduring approach to pedagogy that will serve them across a diverse range of academic contexts. This is how we effectively support teachers in their capacity to operate as ‘technicians’.
PRACTICAL MECHANISM FOR PEDAGOGICAL INNOVATION
To help schools move beyond the ineffective ‘workshop’ model of teacher development, The Learning Blueprint delivers a practical, cost-effective framework that internal learning teams can use to drive higher student achievement and support professional growth. Through an easy-to-use mechanism called ‘Micro Projects’, teachers will engage in an iterative cycle of testing, assessing, documenting and sharing pedagogical strategies and evidence.
The specific texture of implementation will be unique to each school depending upon specific goals and constraints (and we can certainly help learning teams devise a model that best suits their individual context), but the ultimate output will be the development of an internal database of high-impact PL sessions created by teachers for teachers.
Community-driven learning models like this have been demonstrated to effectively change teacher practice because they address many of the shortcomings that derail other forms of teacher development:
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