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Presentation by Grover J. (Russ) Whitehurst, Assistant Secretary, Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, on Research on Teacher Preparation and Professional Development at the White House Conference on Preparing Quality Teachers

My assignment for this conference was to examine and report on research related to the preparation and professional development of teachers. That is a big topic and there are many ways to organize the scholarship and frame the discussion. I decided to focus on research most relevant to policy. I'm using the word policy to mean a governmental plan stipulating goals and acceptable procedures for pursuing those goals.

The most recent and impactive statement of government policy on the preparation and professional development of teachers is the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), signed into law by the President on January 8th of this year.

Title I of ESEA addresses the goal of enhancing academic achievement for disadvantaged children. With respect to teachers, it requires that states, beginning this coming school year, must prepare and widely disseminate a report that includes information on the quality of teachers and the percentage of classes being taught by highly qualified teachers in each public school in the state. The framers of this bill defined a "highly qualified teacher" as someone with a bachelor's degree who is licensed to teach on the basis of full state certification or passing the state licensure exam. The bar is raised beyond simple licensure or certification for new teachers: At the elementary school level, a highly qualified new teacher must have passed a test of subject knowledge and teaching skills in reading, writing, mathematics. At the middle and secondary school level, a highly qualified new teacher must have passed a rigorous exam or have the equivalent of an undergraduate major in each of the subjects he or she teaches. A goal of the bill is for disadvantaged students to have equal access to high quality teachers.

While Title I of ESEA approaches the goal of placing highly qualified teachers in the classroom by mandating pre-service credentials, Title II addresses the same goal by funding in-service professional development for teachers. Many forms and functions of professional development are allowed under Title II. One focus is on increasing teachers' knowledge of the academic subjects they teach through intensive, classroom-focused training. Another focus is on obtaining alignment between professional development activities and student academic achievement standards, state assessments, and state and local curricula.

What do these requirements within ESEA suggest with regard to the framers' assumptions about teacher preparation and professional development, and to what degree are those assumptions supported by research?

These are assumptions I've extracted from the ESEA provisions:

  1. Teachers matter (otherwise why focus on teachers at all)
  2. Teachers vary in their quality (otherwise why distinguish highly qualified teachers from others)
  3. Quality is affected by
    1. General knowledge and ability (otherwise why require a bachelor's degree)
    2. Certification and licensure (otherwise why make that a defining feature of being highly qualified)
    3. Experience (otherwise why distinguish beginning from experienced teachers)
    4. Subject matter knowledge (otherwise why require that beginning teachers have demonstrated through their college major or an examination that they have knowledge of the subject matter they teach)
    5. Intensive and focused in-service training (otherwise why provide funds to support such activities)
    6. Alignment between teacher training and standards-based reforms (otherwise why require evidence of such alignment in state applications for funding)

Before I describe what research tells us about these assumptions, we need to take a brief side trip into the world of methodology. It is typical in science that a given problem is addressed with multiple methods. The individual methods often ask and answer slightly different questions. In the early stages of research on a topic, the inconsistencies and ambiguities that result from different methods can be frustrating. Witness, for example, the recent flurry of conflicting studies and conclusions on the value of mammography in the prevention of breast cancer. However, conflicting studies and interpretations often spur the next round of investigations, and over time the evidence converges and generates consensus.

Research on teacher preparation and professional development is a long way from the stage of converging evidence and professional consensus. Several approaches to studying the topic are used, and like the proverbial blind men examining different parts of an elephant, each generates a different perspective. I will provide some background knowledge on the different methodological tools as I address the principal policy issues.