Despite multiple studies pointing to teacher professional development as being the most decisive factor in student achievement, funding for such programs can still be hard to find, and there are plenty of different opinions on what types of program are most beneficial.
Last month, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a grant program that will award $10 million to professional development providers around training for “high-quality” curricula. The grants will focus on training to help teachers use existing resources and materials more effectively and adjust them to their own needs rather than developing new curricula from scratch.
As is its policy, the Foundation is concentrating on “supporting service development and refinement in middle and high schools serving student populations that are at least 50% Black, Latino, emerging multilingual or English learner (EL)–designated, and/or low-income.” Only projects in California, Florida, Georgia, New York, and North Carolina will be funded unless applicants submit proposals together with a local education agency serving at least 50,000 students.
This strategy represents a welcome shift from the Gates Foundation’s focus on teacher evaluation, and the focus on curriculum is based in part on a paper released in 2017 (“Teaching Our Teachers: A Better Way—Continuous improvement in teacher preparation”) by Education First, a consulting group partly funded by the Gates Foundation, which relies on experts from Australia, Brazil, Finland, and the U.S.
Although the paper focused on preparation in the U.S., one of its main points is that Singapore and Finland base most of their teacher preparation around evaluated curriculum, unlike the U.S. As usual, there was a presumption that if it works in Finland and Singapore, we should be doing it here, but that doesn’t take into account the decentralized education system in the U.S. and the diversity of the U.S. student population.
The report recommended that teacher trainers use their states’ and districts’ curriculum guides in their teaching programs and train teachers to choose good materials from a diverse selection.
Basing teacher preparation around high-quality teaching materials will be a great help to many educators, especially those with less experience, but it will not lead to the teacher development that is so crucial to the success of our students.
Professional development should be based on a broad range of topics and options to enable teachers to become the best they can. A broad choice of quality professional development helps school districts retain good teachers, enables them to use new teaching methods and technology, and helps them to become even better.
Although this contribution from the Gates Foundation should be welcomed, our public education system should not be relying on a private foundation to point the direction of its teacher development policy.