Ed Prof challenges professional development conventions

Ivan Cheng, who spent more than two decades teaching math in Los Angeles schools, is one of a growing number of researchers who believe conventional methods for making teachers better doesn't necessarily help their students.

A professor of secondary education at California State University, Northridge, and a principal in a federal project looking for new ways to connect at-risk eighth graders with algebra, Cheng points to the billions of dollars spent on traditional professional development programs that have produced few results.

Filling in the deficits of knowledge and skill can make teachers more learned and expert, he explained in a recent interview, but it doesn't necessarily translate into student success.

A better approach, he says, is to empower teachers to apply what they learn from trial and error in the classroom and then to share that experience with their colleagues in an ongoing dialogue that pools and leverages the pedagogy.

In essence, he says, teachers provide their own professional development.

This is a pretty big paradigm shift," he said. "The conventional wisdom is that teachers deliver instruction to kids, so if we want better instruction, we need to fix the teachers. While there is some validity to that, the research shows that really has very little impact."

He is getting a big chance to put the theories into practice as a key component of a $6 million middle-school algebra project that is expected to encompass about 10,000 California students in more than a dozen school districts statewide.

The project, largely funded by U. S. Department of Education's Investing in Innovation program, is itself a challenge to educational norms, with its focus on the growing number of disadvantaged students left behind at this critical stage of math instruction.

The program has three parts - professional development for teachers; a summer academy for incoming eighth graders who have fallen behind; and a project-based curriculum linking academics with real world opportunities.

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Editor's Note: This is one in a series of reports on an effort by California educators led by the Alliance for Regional Collaboration to Heighten Educational Success to improve at-risk eighth grade sucess in algebra. An initial profile ran in December and can be found here: http://bit.ly/I6zECM.

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The teacher coaching component, which Cheng is helping to lead, focuses on the collaborative model.

"Teacher collaboration is, to me, the lever that will bring about education reform," he said. "Teachers working in isolation are unable to connect the dots without the bigger picture. They are trapped in their own world of what they know and are not exposed to the additional ideas of their colleagues."

He is not the first to make this observation and is quick to note the body of supportive research that goes back decades - including a 1999 paper from Stanford professor Linda Darling Hammond:

"Teachers learn well just as students do - by studying, doing and reflecting; by collaborating with other teachers; by looking closely at students and their work; and by sharing what they see," she wrote.

But Cheng is advancing the premise with empirical research that includes a study on teacher collaboration funded with a $1 million grant from the California Postsecondary Education Commission that began in 2009 and will conclude in 2013.

Here, the definition of "collaboration" is very different from what is typically practiced by most school districts, which follow a structured format almost as an exercise. Instead, he explained, teacher engagement is driven by the need to produce the next day's lesson plan.

"This is much more motivational," he said. "What's different here is that I'm not getting teachers to collaborate to improve teachers. I'm getting them to collaborate to help students do better."

Partners in the algebra project include the Alliance for Regional Collaboration to Heighten Educational Success, based in Sacramento; the California Academic Partnership Program - a collaborative of all of the state's educational sectors that is administered by the California State University; and the California Education Round Table.

After months of planning and conducting a pilot program at a Sacramento charter, Cheng and his group are beginning the professional development component.

A group of 15 "coaches," who have been introduced to the program's goals and principals, will begin working with about 36 classroom teachers.

Cheng doesn't like using the term "coach" in this context because it denotes status. The term "partner teacher" might be more expressive of the role.

"We're trying to come up with a better term," he said. "This isn't the same as athletic coaching nor is it the same as someone with greater expertise trying to help someone else get to a better place. In our definition, this is a partner that can help ask the right questions, brainstorm and support the teachers they are working with."

There is an emphasis on risk-taking and experimentation. Teachers and their partners will be encouraged to create open relationships where, Cheng said, "ideas can collide."

Such environments doubtless will result in teachers using a wide variety of methods and tactics in the classroom - variables that in the end seem to conflict with one of the major goals of the federal i3 grant, that results can be replicated.

While awarding the first round of i3 funding, federal officials had been careful to enforce clinical requirements around how the programs would be carried out, how control groups would be used and later how results would be evaluated.

In the end, federal officials and program managers agreed to accommodate the free-flowing collaborative approach given that the open environment would be consistently applied.

"The curriculum in itself was not going to do the trick," he said. "If curriculum were the solution, we would be there already. Think about it, over the past few decades how much curricula have been developed and there has only been success in small pockets."

It takes Cheng goes back to one of his fundamental beliefs: teachers must concentrate on getting through to the kids, not getting through the curriculum.

"Most of the time, teachers look at the curriculum and think, How do I get through this?'" he said. "We turn that upside-down by saying, How do I get through to the kids using the curriculum?'"

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