Breaking the mold in teacher professional development

This is part of a blog series that focuses on the way in which the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation uses impact investing to solve some of the most sticky problems in education. You can find the full series here.

Jami O’Toole: Giving teachers help when they need it

Teachers have an extraordinarily challenging job. Not only are they expected to get each student to learn increasingly complex, and challenging content, they teach our children social and life skills, and act as mentors to students. They also bear the responsibility of providing evidence to parents, administrators, and taxpayers, that they are doing their job well and that their students are truly learning. No small feat.

To succeed in these responsibilities, teachers need a wide range of skills. Only a fraction of these skills is addressed in formal teacher preparation programs. While in-service professional development can be helpful, it is often time consuming and isn’t tailored to the specific challenges each teacher faces. If we expect our teachers to meet the unique need of each student in their classrooms, shouldn’t teachers receive professional development that meets their specific needs?

At the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, we believe teachers should receive high quality, relevant, and effective professional development that helps them tackle the specific teaching challenges they face in their classrooms. That is why we invested in BetterLesson. They partner with each teacher to provide personal coaching to identify the barriers that the teacher’s students face in learning, create strategies to remove the barriers, and collect data to determine which strategies work. They recognize that time spent on professional development is time a teacher isn’t spending with students. Therefore, BetterLesson doesn’t expect teachers to sit in day-long professional development sessions. They have created a virtual coaching program and technology platform that allows teachers to get the help they need when they need it.

Alex Grodd: Changing the professional development narrative

BetterLesson is built on the conviction that all students not only deserve a high-quality education, but also one that will prepare them to effectively engage in an ever-changing world.  Data clearly shows high-quality teachers are the most important asset to deliver these results.  Unfortunately, we are not adequately preparing and supporting our teachers

Districts spend over $18B a year on professional development with largely no return on that investment. The vast majority of U.S. teachers are frustrated with the top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to professional development that is generally divorced from their day-to-day practice. Assemblies, workshops and conferences fail to address the unique needs of their classrooms and students.

At BetterLesson, we are working to change this narrative by partnering with districts to implement job-embedded, truly personalized professional development platform that excites teachers and enhances student outcomes.  

There are four key components of our Personalized Professional Development platform:

  • Design and Planning: We take the time to work with district, schools, and teacher to establish goals and design a plan to achieve them
  • Individualized Coaching: We pair each teacher with an expert coach for bi-weekly virtual coaching sessions and we help teachers identify resources and strategies to try in their classrooms
  • Growth Portfolios: We provide a visual record showcasing teacher progress via a simple easy-to-use app
  • Impact Analysis: We evaluate the effectiveness of our tools and services in meeting the defined goals by providing insight in to the improvement strategies implemented and gains achieved

After pairing teachers up with an expert coach based on their unique instructional profiles, the first thing they do is map out an individualized learning path comprised of relevant teaching challenges.  From there, each teacher will spend the school year tackling these challenges by trying out high-impact strategies and measuring their impact on student learning.  They will meet with their coach every two weeks via Skype or Google hangout to discuss strategy implementation, review data and identify changes in practice.

We’re extremely proud of the impact we’re having across the country. And we’re even more enthused about our ability to continue to scale the platform, grow our reach, and truly change the narrative around how we support our partners’ most important asset.

We’re currently working with teachers in 40 districts across the country to help transform their practice.  In Manassas City, Virginia, a district comprised of 60 percent free/reduced lunch students and 30 percent ELL, we are working with 73 teachers to help them leverage their new 1:1 technology infrastructure.

“What BetterLesson is doing for us is to help us start thinking about each individual teacher, what they need for their professional learning development and where they’re moving throughout the year,” says Dr. Melissa Saunders, the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Manassas City Public Schools.

“What I am most impressed with,” Dr. Saunders continues, “is BetterLesson’s ability to build genuine relationships with our school enabling them to provide targeted professional services matching our unique needs and existing vision for personalized learning. In particular, I have found our ongoing partnership to be exactly what our school system needs to promote a “grow from within” approach for our emerging blended learning environment.”

We’re extremely proud of the impact we’re having across the country.  And we’re even more enthused about our ability to continue to scale the platform, grow our reach, and truly change the narrative around how we support our partners’ most important asset.

Alex Grodd, Founder & CEO of BetterLesson, is a Teach For America alum who taught 6th grade English at Roxbury Preparatory Charter School. He founded BetterLesson to address the challenges he faced in the classroom.

Other blogs in this series:

Teaching to student learning not a pre-defined plan

Creating fireworks: Sparking student imagination through company connections

Using data to run great schools

Ed tech: Filling a market gap for English Language Learner educators

Early impact investing lessons in ed tech

Putting the ‘impact’ back in impact investing