Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Effective Professional Development in Early Literacy Programs

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Effective Professional Development in Early Literacy Programs

Article excerpt

In this article the authors report on the evaluation of a professional development program aimed at facilitating change in the learning and teaching of early literacy. Elements underpinning effective professional development programs are identified and examples of these elements in NSW schools highlighted.(1)

Introduction

During 1995-96 an evaluation was conducted of the Early Literacy Component (ELC) of the National Equity Program for Schools (NEPS), as implemented in government schools in NSW. The ELC program aimed to improve the learning outcomes in literacy for K-3 students and, in particular, the participation and achievement of educationally disadvantaged students. The primary focus was the delivery of professional development programs for K-3 teachers so that they could facilitate improvements in early literacy pedagogy and support effective intervention strategies for the targeted students. This article reports on one aspect of this evaluation program: the elements of effective professional development programs.

Background

Professional development and student outcomes are integrally linked, in that `the ultimate worth of professional development for teachers is the essential role it plays in the improvement of student learning' (Cook & Fine, 1997: p. 1). The aim of teacher professional development is to produce change in teacher knowledge and teacher practice and, through these, change in student outcomes. Effective professional development `establishes new expectations for students, teachers, and school communities' (Cook & Fine, 1997: p. 1).

Professional development programs should also aim to `equip teachers individually and collectively to act as shapers, promoters, and well-informed critics of reform' (Little, 1994: p.1). In the current educational context, where the call for reform is constant, teachers are required to manage change on many fronts simultaneously. For example, they must consider changes in subject delivery (such as the implementation of a new syllabus) and changes in recommended ways of responding to students' needs (equity issues) as well as structural change. Effective professional development programs address issues central to such changes and help teachers manage the associated reforms. However, there may be reluctance among teachers to change, even when improved student outcomes are likely, as `learning new practices often involves changing old habits that have made teaching comfortable and predictable. Because teachers have to both learn new habits and unlearn old ones, as one teacher put it, "the comfort is for not changing"' (Cohen, McLaughlin & Talbert, 1993: p. 93).

In the context of ELC, the professional development programs aimed to improve the literacy outcomes for students through a change process which started with teachers. Changes in the English K-6 Syllabus (Board of Studies, NSW, 1994) -- particularly in the nature of assessment and reporting in early literacy -- had been mooted following the review of the outcomes-based approach (Eltis, 1995) but not yet promulgated. As well, there was seen to be a need for change as a result of increasing awareness of the specific literacy needs of girls, boys, students from non-English-speaking backgrounds and Aboriginal students. In this climate, many teachers were seeking guidance about early literacy and the ELC program provided support in this area.

Evaluation of professional development programs

Any evaluation of teacher professional development programs should assess the nature and quality of changes at the three levels of teacher knowledge and practice, school organisation and student learning (Cook & Fine, 1997).

Change at the first of these levels, educator practices, involves participants describing their involvement in the professional development program and consequent changes in practices and beliefs. Participants describe their own professional growth and evaluate the program in terms of how well it meets their own professional needs (Guskey & Sparks, 1991). …

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