Using Evidence for Teacher Development Policy
At the SEAMEO STEM Education Centre, we strongly advocate that policymakers and education leaders use evidence to determine which approach to take when making decisions about interventions to improve the schools. We believe that our children and our teachers deserve the best that we know how to do.
As a first step toward developing an evidence-based culture in Thailand, last week the Centre, with support from Chevron Corporation, hosted a roundtable that brought policymakers and researchers from across the region together to discuss the implications of the evidence about effective approaches to teacher development. Dr. Heather Hill from Harvard University in the USA, an expert on teacher development, kicked off the meeting with a review of what we know about what works in pre-service and in-service education for teachers.
Experts at the roundtable discussed the implications of Dr. Hill’s presentation and the findings from three other major reports on teacher development. Among the findings that were discussed were the following:
a. The most effective professional development programs for teachers have a specific subject focus, incorporate lesson enactment in the training, include initial face-to-face training, and link teacher participation to career incentives; as a consequence, they are positively associated with student test score gains (Popova et al., 2018).
b. Qualitative evidence suggests that follow-up visits to reinforce teachers’ skills are important to effective professional development programs (Popova et al., 2018).
c. The most successful professional development programs offer teachers opportunities to practice new pedagogical skills (Hill, 2021)
d. The most successful programs focus on effective pedagogy rather than just the content knowledge of teachers (Hill, 2021)
e. The most successful programs offer content knowledge but under a broader goal such as helping teachers learning how to provoke student thinking (Kennedy, 2016).
f. The value of coaches depends on how well they facilitate teacher enactment. Coaches in effective PD programs collaborated with teachers on lesson planning providing a model of strategic planning (Kennedy, 2016).
g. Effective professional learning communities provide teachers with opportunities to process new understandings, challenge problematic beliefs, and focus on analyzing the impact of teaching on student learning (Timperley et al., 2007).
h. Effective school leaders promote professional learning opportunities for teachers and focus on their impact on student outcomes. These leaders 1. support the implementation of new classroom practices; 2. focus on developing a learning culture within the school; 3. Provide clear visions and targets for student outcomes and monitor achievement of the targets; and 4. promote distributed leadership and develop the leadership of others (Timperley et al., 2007).
What do these findings imply for Thai policies? Unfortunately, most teacher professional development programs in Thailand are not well aligned with the above findings. They are heavily focused on memorizing content and theories and less on instructional practices. However, it should be noted that the policy on professional learning communities which Thai Ministry of Education adopted 3 years ago can be an effective approach if it focuses on analyzing the impact of teaching on student learning. The findings also reinforce the important role of school leaders in building a learning culture within the schools. In such culture teachers focus on implementing new classroom practices in order to improve student outcomes and continuously monitor student achievement against set targets. In addition, a number of scholars share a common view that close follow up and support to ensure that teachers implement effective teaching skills are critical to a successful professional development program. And importantly, schemes that link teacher participation in professional development programs with career incentives have been found effective.
Dr. Hill also noted that we know much less about what works effectively in pre-service education. This is because linking the experiences in a pre-service program with the actual teaching practice of graduates requires long-term studies of five years or more and intensive fieldwork, and such studies are expensive. However, it would be worthwhile to conduct studies of components of pre-service programs to see what kinds of experiences novice teachers are actually having in class and during their practicum. Studies that examine what difference it makes if mentors are trained, what is the impact of including pedagogical rehearsals in pre-service classes, and what pre-service students do during their practicums? Such descriptive studies could lead to design experiments in which we tried new approaches to preparing teachers. These design experiments would provide a knowledge base for reforms at scale. Rather than just guessing about what might work or adopting someone’s untested theory, we should proceed carefully to redesign the pre-service programs so that our universities produce the teachers that our schools need.
In the past policymakers have largely ignored the evidence about what works best. As a consequence, half of Thai students fail to acquire the basic skills that are essential to economic success. Many leave school after 9 years ill-equipped for anything except manual labor. We owe it to our children to provide them with better learning opportunities. There is a lot of discussion about school reform in Thailand. Commissions and committees meet and make recommendations based on the beliefs of their members and nothing much changes. Both the national and international assessments of Thai students show that little has changed over the past decade. The first step toward improvement might be to pay attention to the evidence about what works. The roundtable might represent a fresh start to policy-making for education in Thailand.