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Discussion: From Professional Development to Student Outcomes

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posted by: Brian Drayton on April 23, 1998 at 2:48PM
subject: summary and farewell
This conversation has explored what it takes to make rigorous sense of
the relationship between professional development and student outcomes.
We all agree that improved student learning is the primary goal of our
teacher PD work. We are also very aware of the systemic context in
which all our interventions, and our measurements, are embedded. In the
shifting landscape of American education (part of the shifting
landscape of American society), we are faced with the task of
establishing as best we can some coherent model of how to improve what
happens in schools, yet this challenge seems dauntingly complex. There
are interventions at every point simultaneously: how can we describe the
relations we see between the patterns of interlocked kaleidoscopes?

Research on educational reform serves multiple purposes, and the demands
of one constituency will often be in tension with those of others.
These tensions require painful decisions by researchers. The tensions
and compromises in methodology and theoretical grounding are just in the
nature of the work. A careful researcher may accept the policy need
for provisional answers, while knowing that reliable understanding over
the long term depends on an awareness of all the begged questions, and a
fierce dialogue about how to address them. A critical question is how
to recognize the needs of policy makers for quick approximate answers,
while demanding respect and resources for the longer-term, more
painstaking research that rigor and real accountability require.

We hear evidence of work and thought at both levels in the posts to this
discussion group. Nadler, Chval, and Kalyani sketch some of the ways
that they are seeking to document provisional results. Such formative
answers, while preliminary, speak to pressing needs of some
constituencies -- the state, the school district, and the professional
developers themselves. We may not be able to connect the effects of a
particular workshop or seminar to specific student outcomes, but we can
learn how better to describe teacher change, and in the course of that
to take data on changes in the classroom, including student attitude and
performance. We can report these results, but we must also frame them
to make as clear as we can the open questions that still beg for
resolution. Box, McCary, and others point out especially the need to
understand the alignment and interaction of simultaneous interventions
in curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment.

St. John points out that we can begin to build a bridge between our
longing for rigorous research, with the demands for information, signs
of progress, and hints of results which press on us all from parents,
policy-makers, administrators, and our own concerns. We can do this by
conceptualizing in concrete detail our model of student learning and of
teacher learning; by recognizing the many ways in which practice and
intent do (and don't) relate; and by recognizing that we may first see
diffuse effects, long before we can accurately explain them. A change
in teacher competence may not translate directly into better student
performance on a standardized test, but it may result from changes in
administrative policy, in curriculum materials, in the availability of
resources, and in expectations of students and of teachers. Thus there
may be a broad climatic shift which supports more inquiry-based learning
at a higher level, and *that* results in some important student gains.

The upshot is that our researchers are balancing many tasks, because
they must respond to the need for accountability while they are faced
every day with the unanswered questions of the field -- they must help
us all make sense of our work and our interventions, while dealing with
so many uncontrollable variables

Chomsky once wrote that the questions in a field of study can be divided
into mysteries and problems. Mysteries are questions we can't imagine
how answer, yet. Problems are questions we know how to answer.
Progress comes when we can move a question from the "mystery" category
into the "problems" category, as new data and better theory accumulate.
In studying educational change, we are surrounded by a large number of
mysteries and problems, and we can't always figure out which category a
question belongs in.
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