Teacher training key to reform

The debate on how to best improve student achievement continues in communities and school systems, among state and national lawmakers and in the media. Is class size the answer? How does technology figure in? What about charter schools?

However, in these discussions, a critical piece often is missing or glossed over during the conversation — teacher quality and how we should go about improving the quality of teaching in every single classroom.

Research supports that a key factor in a student’s academic success is the classroom teacher. That is why a growing number of school districts, including Gwinnett County Public Schools and others in the metro area, are implementing effective solutions to improve teacher quality.

The focus must be on helping struggling teachers become better teachers and helping good teachers become great educators.

I am proud of the investment our school district has made in professional development. Our commitment to improving the quality of teachers is making a difference and was noted by The Broad Foundation when it selected our district as the 2010 winner of The Broad Prize for Urban Education, the nation’s largest and most prestigious education award.

The value of professional development is far-reaching and is not confined to just one teacher or one classroom.

It occurs throughout the school, every day, and even touches other schools. It takes place during meetings where successful teachers share best practices.

You find it as teachers work in collaborative teams across grade levels. We see it in classrooms when teachers are supported by coaches and participate in other forms of just-in-time learning. And it occurs in conversations with supervisors in which teachers receive valuable feedback on how they can improve their instruction.

Professional development also occurs when educators have access to the latest research and best practices of other school systems.

This week, close to 3,000 educators from around the world were in Atlanta as part of the Learning Forward (formerly the National Staff Development Council) Annual Conference.

However, it is not enough to set aside a day or two each year — or even each month — for professional learning. That only gets things started. The true difference and the most powerful improvements occur when professional development is embedded into the daily work of every educator. That must be our goal.

While motivated and committed school and district leaders are taking key steps every day to advance this vision, others play a key role as well. State policymakers share the responsibility of ensuring a quality and effective education for every child.

Rather than reducing support for professional development, we should work together to encourage policies that reward school systems and educators who use professional learning to advance the quality of instruction and who demonstrate the impact of professional learning in terms of improved student achievement.

As discussions continue on how to improve Georgia’s schools and how to help students reach their potential, we cannot underestimate the power of caring, dedicated and highly effective teachers.

An investment in their professional development is a strategy that will help ensure all students experience great teaching every day.

J. Alvin Wilbanks is CEO and superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools.

Stephanie Hirsh is executive director of Learning Forward.