Scaling quality education calls for scaling effective teacher professional development

A teacher (L) leads a discussion during classes at a government high school in Muntinlupa, Metro Manila February 17, 2011. The Philippines plans to add two years of schooling to its basic education to try to reclaim a lost advantage over its Asian neighbours, but without a broad overhaul and more funding, the extra time will achieve little. REUTERS/Erik de Castro (PHILIPPINES - Tags: EDUCATION POLITICS)

January 24th marks the annual International Day of Education—a moment to reaffirm our global commitment to the rights of every child to a quality education. Teachers are perhaps the most important actor in a child’s education—a significant body of research demonstrates that high-quality teaching is one of the biggest factors impacting student learning. In the United States, for example, studies have found that the differences between a good and a bad teacher can equate to a full year of learning for a student. Quality teaching also can play a role in improving equity, as “several years of outstanding teaching may in fact offset learning deficits of disadvantaged students.”

This means that the quality and effectiveness of education, training, and continuous professional development for teachers and other members of the education workforce should be a top priority for those working to strengthen quality learning opportunities for all. The outsized impact of teachers on student learning makes it clear that successfully improving learning outcomes at scale will require reckoning with how to scale teacher professional development (TPD) in an effective, efficient, and equitable way. As a global education community, we need to learn more about how to sustainably scale quality teacher training opportunities; otherwise, we risk stymying efforts to scale improved learning outcomes more generally.

Addressing challenges in scaling effective teacher professional development

There is a marked gap between what evidence suggests makes for effective teacher professional development and the realities of many TPD programs around the world. A compounding challenge is that many elements of quality professional development that lead to impact at a small-scale can present real challenges when implemented at large scale. Analysis of good practices in delivering effective TPD reveals common issues when scaling and potential ways to address them:

  • Costs. Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest challenges faced is costs. More traditional methods of implementing and scaling teacher training—such as centralized seminar-style courses—are often less expensive than more personalized and intensive approaches that have demonstrated stronger impact. Further, we know that costs of delivery often increase when scaling to remote or disadvantaged regions. On face value, many models may be considered simply too expensive for large scale. However, cost-effectiveness, not cost alone, must be considered, as it is pointless to invest scarce resources to scale a program that has little effect. In some cases, implementing a cost-effective model more slowly (such as in stages) might make more sense than rapidly implementing less effective training for all.
  • Maintenance of quality. Another critical challenge is the maintenance of quality at large scale (an issue which certainly transcends teacher training). This challenge is seen across numerous TPD models, from the dilution of quality frequently observed at each level of a training cascade, to the challenge of finding qualified and motivated coaches and matching them with teachers at large scale. As a result, many teacher training models have demonstrated diminishing returns as they expand, facing challenges that were much less evident when working at smaller scale. One key component to maintaining quality during scaling is building ongoing and rigorous monitoring into TPD at every stage, assessing not just teacher knowledge acquisition or the number of individuals trained, but also the transfer of knowledge to practice in the classroom and the effects on student learning outcomes. This data should be used not just for accountability, but also for identifying challenges and informing decisions about how to address them.
  • Identification and training of high-quality trainers, facilitators, and coaches. A third challenge is identifying and training the individuals who will implement the training itself. Just as the quality of teachers impacts student learning outcomes, the quality of the trainers, facilitators, and coaches strongly impacts the effectiveness of training and professional development. This requires careful consideration of the selection criteria, recruitment process, and training of these personnel when designing a training program and planning for scale, including a clear understanding of the knowledge and skills the trainers or coaches must have to effectively train others (an area where more research is needed.)
  • Contextualization and addressing variation across contexts. A further challenge is balancing the need to adapt the training content and approach to the local context, while still maintaining essential elements. Evidence shows TPD programs should have the flexibility to address variations in participants’ experiences; however, this personalization also presents challenges at large scale. For example, engaging teachers in course content design can be costlier at large scale, and some of the economies of scale of a standardized curriculum are lost. As such, balancing fidelity to the “non-negotiables” of the training while building in opportunities for adaptation must be carefully considered, including exploring innovative and cost-effective methods for keeping teachers directly engaged and tailoring content to address their needs.

Case of the Philippines: Early Language, Literacy, and Numeracy Digital

There are numerous models and approaches to teacher training and professional development—ranging from coaching to professional learning communities to digital courses—and these models are not mutually exclusive. One method for mitigating the potential challenges of sustainably scaling specific models is to pursue a mixed-model approach, combining lower cost and more scalable components with more intensive and potentially higher impact elements.

One example of a mixed-model, technology-mediated approach to transforming TPD is in the Philippines, where local NGO FIT-ED and the Philippine Department of Education are collaborating to scale a blended teacher professional development program for K-3 teachers in more than 36,000 public elementary schools across the country. The program, Early Language, Literacy and Numeracy (ELLN) Digital, has two components: (1) interactive multimedia courseware designed for self-study offline and (2) school-based, face-to-face collaborative learning groups. Perhaps the most innovative aspect is how the Department of Education has introduced rapid cycles of learning to test and gather quick information on the scaling process, to ensure that ELLN Digital continues to be effective as it reaches more and more teachers.

As part of the Millions Learning Real-time Scaling Labs, the Center for Universal Education at Brookings is collaborating with the Teacher Professional Development at Scale (TPD@Scale) Coalition for the Global South, through direct engagement with FIT-ED, the Coalition’s Secretariat, to draw key insights and recommendations from the experience of scaling ELLN Digital in the Philippines. Some of the insights shared in this blog have been informed by the important work of the Coalition, including a forthcoming landscape review on TPD programs at scale in the global south.

There is much to learn about this process of introducing a change into the existing system—in this case quality TPD—with the intention that it becomes the “new normal” sustained by an ecosystem of local actors. We expect further insights from the TPD@Scale Coalition’s work will be useful for other countries looking to improve the quality of their TPD programs, as well as to inform efforts to scale education innovations more broadly. Increasing the number of well-trained and supported teachers who can deliver new content, knowledge, and approaches is mission critical to realizing International Day of Education’s goal of ensuring a quality education for all.

Note: This work was carried out with the aid of a grant from the International Development Research Centre, Canada to the Foundation for Information Technology Education and Development (FIT-ED). The views expressed in this work are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the International Development Research Centre, Canada or its Board of Governors; or the Foundation for Information Technology Education and Development.