All About Adolescent Literacy

All about adolescent literacy. Resources for parents and educators of kids in grades 4-12.
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Professional Development: The Route to Reform

A discussion of factors — sustained deep learning, connection to actual classroom instruction, and collaboration with peers — that can help educators teach literacy within their content area.

The importance of teacher quality

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige recognized the value of well-prepared teachers: "We know that being a highly qualified teacher matters because the academic achievement levels of students who are taught by good teachers increase at greater rates than the levels of those who are taught by other teachers" (U.S. Department of Education 2003). In making such claims, Paige drew upon research that documents how well-prepared teachers raise the achievement of all students, not just those who were already doing well (Babu and Medro, 2003; Sanders and Rivers, 1996).

The term "highly-qualified teacher," used by Paige and many others, entered the language of education with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. According to NCLB, highly-qualified teachers have a BA degree, full state certification, and knowledge of the subject(s) they teach. Teachers can demonstrate subject-matter knowledge with a major — or credits equivalent to a major — in the subject they teach, a passing grade in a state test, or a graduate degree.

For teachers in middle and high schools, however, literacy is not, for the most part, an area of expertise. Those who can be described as highly qualified in math, social studies, English, or science rarely have any significant training in literacy instruction. Traditionally teacher preparation programs include little (if any) course work in literacy, so it is possible for teachers to be identified as highly-qualified even though they were not prepared to address the challenges of adolescent literacy. Many content-area teachers describe themselves as not prepared to teach literacy within their content area (Phillips, 2002). Ironically, many secondary school teachers resist the work of reading specialists in their schools (Darwin, 2002).

The centrality of professional development

Because middle and high school teachers who are highly qualified in some ways can lack fundamental knowledge about literacy development, professional development must be at the center of any reform effort that seeks broad improvement in adolescent literacy. Without additional training, teachers at the secondary level remain largely unable to take up the task of enhancing adolescent literacy. Given the demonstrated impact of professional development upon student achievement, investing in professional development is both the most cost-effective and systematic way to address the challenges of adolescent literacy at the national level (Greenwald et al., 1996).

The quality of professional development is, of course, a key concern. All professional development is not created equal, and much of what is described as professional development is not sustained or in-depth enough to foster significant and lasting teacher learning. Because research shows that student achievement depends upon teachers learning from professional development, it is important for high quality professional development in adolescent literacy to be the standard (Pang and Kamil, 2003).

High-quality professional development

Research on professional development has focused on both teacher learning and student learning. Like all learning, teacher learning occurs over time, and the diagram below shows how effective professional development moves teachers, over time, from little or no knowledge to expertise.

Unfortunately much professional development is concentrated at the level of "first exposure" and comes in the form of a single workshop or presentation on a given teaching strategy. "Deep learning," by contrast, involves extended engagement with new ideas and strategies, such as reading and discussing a text or participating in a demonstration. At the "first exposure" stage, teachers can be described as having knowledge about a given approach but limited capacity to implement it. By contrast, when teachers are able to practice approaches with support from a mentor or coach who can offer suggestions and encouragement, they are able to implement newly-acquired strategies effectively. After teachers have had opportunities for supported practice, they then engage in refined and expanded learning, which is characterized by a comfortable incorporation of new approaches into regular classroom practices. Professional development reaches its ultimate stage when teachers feel comfortable supporting others in learning a new approach.

Time is not, of course, the only important feature of professional development. The remainder of this section will discuss other aspects of all effective professional development. The next section will consider features specific to professional development focused on adolescent literacy.

Involvement and commitment of all stakeholders

Teachers and staff who will take part in or who are affected by a program of professional development should be part of the planning process, particularly as fundamental decisions are being made. Teacher knowledge about students can help make needs clear-in a needs assessment, for instance-and faculties who are involved in planning professional development are much more likely to "buy into" the content of the ensuing program. Rather than bringing an outside expert to deliver strategies that will then be implemented by individual teachers in the privacy of their own classrooms, teachers and administrators should work together to determine needs, decide on a course of action, and implement development plans (Gusky and Huberman, 1995).

Connection with local instruction

To have significant impact, professional development should link to other parts of the instructional infrastructure in a given school. Each school has a unique context, and the best professional development takes account of the multiple factors that contribute to student learning in that context. These include the community of which the school is a part, student standards, curricular frameworks, textbooks, instructional programs, and assessments. Attention to the local context also includes understanding and acknowledging the knowledge and experience teachers bring to professional development. When teachers can make connections between mandated standards or features of the existing curriculum and ideas forwarded in professional development, they are much more likely to incorporate new approaches into their pedagogical repertoires. Professional development can also help teachers understand and work with standards and curricular frameworks so that they implement them more substantially in the classroom (Dutro et al., 2002).

Creation of a professional community

Isolation is a difficulty faced by many teachers, and it frequently leads individuals to leave the profession (Hanushek et al., 2001). Conversely, teachers who belong to a study group, a learning community, or some other collaborative enterprise are most likely to remain in the profession as highly successful instructors. Effective professional development fosters collegial relationships, creating professional communities where teachers share knowledge and treat each other with respect. Within such communities teacher inquiry and reflection can flourish, and research shows that teachers who engage in collaborative professional development feel confident and well prepared to meet the demands of teaching (Holloway, 2003). Furthermore, teachers who reflect on their own work engender high-achieving students (Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 1995).


Evaluation should be part of the plan for all professional development. Without careful consideration of its effects, professional development cannot improve. Guskey (2000) suggests that five levels of evaluation be included in order to get a full portrait of the strengths and weaknesses of a given program of professional development. The five are:

  • participants' reactions
  • participants' learning
  • organization support and change
  • participants' use of new knowledge and skills
  • student learning outcomes

Collecting and analyzing data regarding each of these areas is demanding, but without such information it is impossible to determine the effectiveness of professional development.

Professional development and student achievement

Student development and achievement is the ultimate measure of success, and research shows that professional development improves student performance. Quality of teacher influences student achievement more than factors like class size and classroom peers, and effective teachers produce better achievement regardless of which curriculum materials or pedagogical approaches are used (Darling-Hammond & Youngs, 2002). Not surprisingly, when professional development is tailored to classroom practice or content, it has the greatest impact on student achievement (Garet et al. 2001; Kelleher 2003). In short, investment in professional development pays large dividends in student achievement.

A growing body of research documents the connection between systematic and sustained professional development and improved student achievement. Greenwald et al. (1996) found that moderate increases in professional development could lead to significant increases in student achievement. Estrada (2005) found that an extended program of professional development improved student achievement. She also observed that this can result when "all stakeholders, including teachers, researchers, and professional developers [are] willing to face the facts of student performance levels, take responsibility, and take the risks inherent in working toward improvement" (355). Langer (2000) studied the links between teachers' professional development and student achievement over five years and found that students whose teachers participated in professional development improved significantly. She writes, "The teachers in schools that are beating the odds are in touch with their students, their profession, their colleagues, and society at large … The knowledge and experiences gained in their wide professional arena affect the classroom context, their students' learning and achievement" (434).



Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Babu, S. and Mendro, R. (2003). Teacher accountability: HLM-based teacher effectiveness indices in the investigation of teacher effects on student achievement in a state assessment program. Paper prepared for the 2003 American Educational Research Association Meeting, Chicago, IL.

Darling-Hammond, L., & McLaughlin, M.W. (1995). Policies that support professional development in an era of reform. Phi Delta Kappan. 76, 597-604.

Darling-Hammond, L., Youngs, P. (2002). Defining "highly qualified teachers": What does scientifically-based research tell us? Educational Researcher, 31(9), 13-25.

Darwin, M. (2002). Delving into the Role of the High School Reading Specialist. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, George Mason University.

Dutro, E., Fisk, M. C., Koch, R., Roop, L. J., & Wixson, K. (2002). When state policies meet local district contexts: Standards-based professional development as a means to individual agency and collective ownership. Teachers College Record 104(4), 787-811.

Estrada, P. (2005). The courage to grow: A researcher and teacher linking professional development with small-group reading instruction and student achievement. Research in the Teaching of English 39(4), 320-364.

Garet , M., et al. (2001). What makes professional development effective? Results from a national sample of teachers. American Educational Research Journal 38(4), 915-945.

Greenwald, R., Hedges, L. V., & Laine, R. D. (1996). The effect of school resources on student achievement. Review of Educational Research 66(3), 361-396.

Gusky, T., and Huberman, M. (Eds.) (1995). Professional development in education: New paradigms and practices. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hanushek, E. A., Kain, J. E., & Rivkin, S. G. (2001). Why public schools lose teachers (NBER Working Paper No. 8599) Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Holoway, J. H. (2003). Sustaining experienced teachers. Educational Leadership 60(8), 87-89.

Langer, J. A. (2000). Excellence in English in middle and high school: How teachers' professional lives support student achievement. American Educational Research Journal 37 (2), 397-439.

Pang, E., and Kamil, M. (March 2003). Updates and extensions to the teacher education research database. Presented to the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, IL.

Phillips, M.P. (2002). Secondary teacher perceptions relating to Alabama Reading Initiative training and implementation. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Alabama & University of Alabama in Birmingham, Birmingham, Alabama). Rivers, 1999.

Sanders, W., and Rivers, J. (1996). Cumulative and residual effects of teachers on future academic achievement. Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Value-Added Research and Assessment Center.

U.S. Department of Education (2004). The Secretary's third annual report on teacher quality. Washington, DC: Westat.

Excerpted with permission. The National Council of Teachers of English. (2006). NCTE Principles of Adolescent Literacy Reform, pp. 8-11. Retrieved Nov. 7. 2007, from

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