It is important to gain an understanding of how to best deliver professional learning opportunities to pre-k teachers because the variety of pre-k programs across and within states makes the delivery of professional development a challenge. Programs such as Head Start and publicly-funded pre-k may have different standards than privately-run programs, so teachers bring different competencies, knowledge and experiences to the classroom. Creating a consistent professional development environment at scale—one that meets all these teachers’ needs—can be difficult. Successful models allocate sufficient time and resources to professional development and focus on evidence-based teaching practices and strategies that will most likely result in positive changes in the classroom.
To cite one example from the report, the Franklin-McKinley School District in San Jose offers a professional development model, called Early Learning Social Emotional Engagement. Under this model, teachers in the pre-k, Transitional Kindergarten, kindergarten and Head Start programs learn how to incorporate socio-emotional skills into their classroom experience: for example, a teacher might learn how to explicitly acknowledge and promote “friendship skills” in their interactions with students, complimenting children for sharing or taking turns. Other elements of the professional development model include methods to promote literacy, to engage families, to create professional learning communities, and to develop leadership skills.
In this model, the teachers must provide buy-in for the training and have it incorporated into their jobs. Teachers can also decide whether they want follow-up coaching, and in which specific topics, such as literacy or family engagement. Program participants understand that the movement from learning a skill to applying it in the classroom takes time, so the model provides ongoing coaching and evidence-based content, and it collects data to help direct improvement and show the teachers where progress is occurring.
From the five models examined in the study, the New America Foundation draws five conclusions:
Education professionals must understand that high-quality professional development requires an investment of time and money. As one researcher put it, “helping teachers change their behavior is a lot harder than helping children change theirs.” Even then, it may take a few years to see the full impact on students. Meanwhile, there are costs associated with individual coaching, with technology, with making time available for teachers to participate in training, and for evaluation of the program’s effectiveness; school systems have to be ready to manage these costs, but fortunately there currently is federal funding available under the “Every Student Succeeds Act” to support professional development.
It is crucial to get teachers and administrators to see the value of professional development early in the process. “Creating a culture of professional learning in a program can be difficult, particularly when trusting relationships have not been established between teachers, coaches, administrators, and program developers. Teachers need to know that they can take risks and try out new techniques in a safe and supportive learning environment. When trust is established and good relationships are formed, professional learning programs are often filled with excitement and idea sharing.”
Give teachers the opportunity to take ownership of the learning process and assume leadership roles. Teachers can share what they learn with teachers who don’t participate, and create an environment of sustainability.
“Coach the coaches. … Coaches of pre-K teachers not only need to be experts in how young children learn, but they also need to know how to teach adults.” Particularly as coaches are given the autonomy to approach different situations and work closely with teachers, they need to have the necessary skills and knowledge to best serve the teachers.
Utilize the latest research on professional development and evaluate the program for continuous improvement. Effective programs keep the teachers’ needs in mind, and recognize that the teachers are adult learners as well as teachers. Keeping up to date with best practices will make the program outcomes more effective for teachers and ultimately for their students. At the same time, regular evaluation will lead to an iterative process of improvement, and enable the programs to replicate what works.