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Helping educators improve their craft
By / February 24, 2016 /   Loading Disqus...

Rhode Island maintains significant and worrisome differences in student outcomes.  Within our state, we see wide gaps in academic proficiency across the kindergarten through twelfth grade spectrum that correlate closely with demographic factors like race and income.  And across our state, we see gaps in important measures like on-time high school graduation between Rhode Island and its New England peers.


We believe strongly that all children can achieve at extraordinarily high levels.  That’s why we’re committed to investing in programs that are actively working to close these gaps and put all children on a path to success in college and in their careers of their choices.

In support of this mission, we have identified three major areas of investment.  First, we invest in evidence-based programs proven to close gaps in student outcomes.  Second, we invest in new models and innovative approaches to supporting student success.  And third, we invest in the professional development of teachers and school leaders. 

This blog post is the first in a series designed to explore and unpack each of these strategies further.  And while we’ll explore the first two further in future posts, I am taking the liberty of going out of order to start with our third strategy first: professional development. 

Why Professional Development? 

So, why do we choose to pursue professional development as one of our key strategies for grantmaking?  

First, we believe that great teachers and great school leaders make all the difference.  Researchers have demonstrated that great teaching also matters for students – a lot.  While lots of factors play a role in determining student outcomes, studies have consistently found that the quality of classroom instruction – more than other variables – is the single most important in-school determinant of student achievement.   In 2011, Harvard University economists Raj Chetty, John Friedman and Jonah Rockoff studied data from 2.5 million students over a 20-year period and founded that exposure to a great teacher makes a child more likely to go to college, earn a higher income, and less likely to become a teenage parent.  

We also know this intuitively: great teaching stays with students for a lifetime.  Whether it’s an elementary school music teacher who sparks a lifelong love of piano or a high school teacher whose exploration of Shakespeare unlocks lasting life lessons, great teaching is one of those truly unparalleled human experiences. 

Great teaching requires great amounts of support for our educators.  Leading classrooms and leading schools is difficult work.  And yet we know that schools and school districts nationally invest a lot of time and money on professional development but often get mixed results in return.  According to one study, only 30% of teachers report that the professional development they regularly receive actually helps them improve their practice.  

In sum: while we know few things matter more in a school than excellent leadership at the classroom and building level, our field still struggles with finding effective ways to support our educators.  That’s why we’re committed to playing a helpful role. 

Rhode Island’s context

Several factors complicate the pursuit of this strategy.  First, unlike some of our other investments, the field has few tools that help draw direct connections between the professional development of teachers and school leaders and student level outcomes.  (According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, a review of over 1,300 studies of professional development for teachers found that only nine actually met rigorous evidence standards for determining causal effects on student outcomes.)  Secondly, the span of professional development type activities available to teachers is wide, ranging from pre-service to in-service professional development opportunities and from one-hour workshops to year-long, job-embedded coaching.  Finding the right point in the spectrum for intervention can be a challenge.  And, from a practical standpoint, we find that there are relatively few organizations in our state solely dedicated to helping teachers and school leaders improve their craft over time.


So what kinds of qualities do we look for when we support professional development opportunities for teachers and school leaders?  Well, we certainly don’t claim to have all the answers – as mentioned earlier, the research on what constitutes meaningful, effective professional development is frustratingly thin.  But here are some of the elements, based on the research available, that we look for when making investments in educator development:


  • Practice-based.  Teaching can be a messy, joyous, unpredictable endeavor.  For those new to the profession, its one best learned in practice, not from a text book.  And yet our traditional teacher and school leader preparatory programs still offer few opportunities for educators to gain hands-on practice in the field. 


    We invest in programs that give educators a chance to learn from their more seasoned peers in real life settings.  One example of this is the Center for Leadership & Educational Equity’s Principal Residency Network.  The PRN is Rhode Island’s only residency model school leader preparation program.  Aspiring principals spend their year shadowing veteran principal and blend their learning of theory within the context of the real life situations school leaders encounter every day. 


  • Job-embedded.  Conferences can be a great way to hear from an inspiring speaker and recharge one’s batteries, but we believe that for teachers to test new methods and acquire new skills, professional development needs to be delivered in an on-the-job context.  That’s why we invest in programs that deliver professional development as closest to the classroom as possible.


    In 2015, we helped to support Warwick Public Schools in their work to bring a full-time math coach to several of their elementary schools.  Rather than require teachers to receive professional development from a PowerPoint in a seminar, Warwick is placing a coach in classrooms to model great lessons and engage teachers in cycles of observation and feedback.


  • Collaborative.  When it comes to professional development, we know that context matters.  The culture and climate of a building is a critically important factor in ensuring that a school functions as a learning community for adults and students alike.  Teachers and principals alike need to work hard to develop a culture where all educators recognize that they are on a shared journey of continuous improvement.


    Professional development can also be a great opportunity for educators to share learning and best practices across our traditional distinctions.  The work of the Learning Community Charter School’s Teaching Studio serves as a great example of this collaborative professional development in action.  Through the Teaching Studio, the highly successful Learning Community Charter School is working closely with a cohort of five schools from Woonsocket and Smithfield to help each school strengthen its reading instruction.


  • Focus on Diversity. Rhode Island, like many states, faces a mismatch between an increasingly diverse student body and a nearly all white teaching force.  Specifically, while nearly 35% of Rhode Island’s students identify as people of color, only 5% of our teachers identify also identify as people of color.

That’s a big gap, and one that’s troubling for several reasons.  First, researchers have suggested that students of color do better academically when they are taught by teachers of color.  And equally importantly, we know that students from all backgrounds need and deserve role models that reflect their backgrounds and life experiences.  

That’s why we’re interested in investing in programs that are working hard to ensure Rhode Island’s teaching workforce is as diverse as our student body.  One example is Teach for America – Rhode Island, which is working hard to ensure that Rhode Island’s newest teachers represent an increasingly diverse group of educators.  Teach For America – Rhode Island recruits 25 new teachers every year to serve in Rhode Island’s urban schools, half of which identify as teachers of color. 

These are just a few examples of schools and organizations in Rhode Island that are leading the way with forward-thinking approaches to professional development.  Districts like Chariho have adopted a cohort-based approach to developing teachers’ ability to offer personalized and blended instruction.  Charter schools like the International Charter School are working hand-in-hand with traditional public schools in Pawtucket and South Kingstown as those districts launch new dual-language immersion programs.  And we’d be remiss not to mention the Highlander Institute, whose Fuse Fellows are leading systems change at the building and district level throughout our state.  In short, there’s lots of great work going on in the professional development of Rhode Island’s educators and we’re honored to be able to play a supportive role. 

Practice-based, job-embedded, collaborative in spirit and working towards a more diverse field of educators – these are some of the characteristics we think make for great professional development opportunities.  What do you think makes for excellent professional development?  We want to hear from you!  We look forward, in 2016, to working side-by-side with teachers and school districts alike as they rethink their traditional methods of delivering professional development activities. 

Rhode Island is home to nearly 16,000 teachers, 300 school leaders and approximately 142,000 students.  It’s impossible to imagine the sheer number of magical moments that take place in schools and classrooms across our state on a daily basis.  We salute Rhode Island’s educators and stand proud of our commitment to investing in their continued development. 

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