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Research Brief

Teachers are never done with learning. Even years into the job, high-quality professional learning (PL) opportunities help teachers improve instructional practice. In spring 2020, the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic caused widespread school building closures and disruption of instruction and teacher PL. Better understanding of when and how to offer PL opportunities so that teachers can maintain, improve, and acquire new skills is a clear area of need.

One way that schools and districts can maximize teacher learning is through academic summer programs for students that also offer PL opportunities for teachers. Yet, to date, little is known about how summer can best help teachers improve their school-year classroom practices. Do teachers already use the summer months to take part in PL? Do teachers find summer PL helpful for their work in the classroom during the regular school year? Can teaching students during a summer program provide unique opportunities for PL?

Researchers from the RAND Corporation conducted a multipart study to address these questions. First, the team sought to understand the extent of teachers' participation in summer PL by conducting a nationally representative survey through RAND's American Teacher Panel (ATP). Second, the team surveyed teachers who taught in a BellXcel Summer (BXS) program, which uses BellXcel's model for academic summer programing for students, to understand if and how teachers' PL opportunities through the program influenced their classroom practices. The team also conducted case studies at several BXS sites, involving observations, interviews, and focus groups with BXS teachers, instructional coaches, and site leaders. The team then compared BXS teachers' survey responses about their PL experiences with those of teachers nationally.

The findings from this study can assist school and district leaders in understanding how summer can be leveraged as a setting for teachers' PL.

What Does Summer PL Look Like for Teachers Across the Nation?

To address this question, the research team analyzed survey responses from teachers across the United States who completed a survey about their PL experiences in summer 2019. Details about the survey and analytic methods can be found in the main report and its technical appendix.

Nearly all teachers reported participating in at least one type of PL activity in summer 2019. Ninety-nine percent of teachers nationally reported that they participated in at least one PL activity in summer 2019. About 60 percent of teachers reported participating in one to five PL activities during the summer. Some activities, such as reading books or articles related to education, collaborating with colleagues to plan for the upcoming year, and attending in-person sessions, were more widely reported than others.

About a quarter of teachers were employed in a summer program in 2019. Twenty-three percent of teachers nationally reported employment in a summer program for students in 2019. Most of the teachers employed in such programs (70 percent) worked in programs that focused on teaching students academic content (e.g., mathematics, English language arts) and that may have included enrichment or recreational activities, such as field trips or athletics.

Most teachers felt that their summer PL activities were of high quality and helped them improve their instruction in the following school year. Nationally, between 79 and 93 percent of teachers—regardless of their employment in a summer program for students—reported that their summer PL activities made clear connections between topics and sessions, provided opportunities for reflection and practice, and were relevant to their instruction. Eighty-six to 96 percent of teachers, depending on the activity, agreed that the summer PL activities in which they participated were somewhat or very helpful for improving their instruction in the following school year. Teachers perceived collaboration with colleagues, one-on-one coaching, and opportunities to observe other educators' classrooms to be most helpful in this regard.

Teachers employed in academic-focused summer programs reported that their summer PL helped them improve in some teaching practices. Teachers who were employed in academic summer programs for students were more likely than teachers who participated in summer PL but were not employed in such programs to report that their summer PL activities helped them use data to inform instruction, promote students' social and emotional skills, employ positive behavior management techniques, and teach collaboratively. Teachers who were employed in academic-focused summer programs were also more likely to report receiving opportunities for instructional feedback than those who were not employed in such programs.

What Does Summer PL Look Like for Teachers in the BXS Model?

A key feature of the BXS model is the PL available to participating teachers (see "Teacher PL in the BXS Model" on p. 3). The research team surveyed teachers who worked in a BXS program site in the summer of 2019 and conducted focus groups and interviews with teachers and administrators in three BXS sites.

Nearly all teachers agreed that their BXS sites were supportive, positive environments for teaching. Several case study teachers suggested that the voluntary nature of summer programs, such as BXS, contributed to a positive environment because students and staff alike wanted to be there. Large majorities of surveyed BXS teachers agreed that teachers supported each other to improve student learning, that BXS site leaders were highly supportive of teachers, and that teachers had enough classroom materials. Case study teachers echoed this sentiment, saying that the availability of resources and close contact with program administrators and coaches made them feel valued as teachers.

BXS provided an opportunity for teachers to practice student-centered classroom practices. Large majorities of teachers reported that their BXS PL covered the key classroom practices (see "Teacher PL in the BXS Model" on p. 3) and that they felt prepared to use the practices. Nearly all teachers reported that their PL through BXS covered strategies to develop students' social and emotional skills and support positive student behavior, and large majorities of teachers felt prepared to use each of these practices.

Most case study teachers believed that BXS supported experimentation. Case study teachers consistently reported that the positive, supportive, lower-pressure BXS environment helped them feel free to experiment with new classroom strategies. Some case study teachers described BXS as a "learning lab" for teachers, where they could experiment with new classroom strategies in ways they could not during the school year because of pacing, testing, or time constraints.

Teachers believed that their PL through BXS improved their use of certain student-centered practices in the fall. Most teachers believed that, compared with other student-centered practices, their PL through BXS improved their use of positive behavior management techniques and their capacity to promote students' social and emotional skills during the school year (see Figure 1). Case study teachers shared that some practices, such as using centers and collaborative teaching, would be especially difficult without the additional BXS resources and class time.

Teachers who received instructional coaching found it useful. Survey and case study data indicate that instructional coaching varied across BXS sites. Slightly less than half of surveyed teachers reported receiving one-on-one instructional coaching. This could be because some coaches had additional administrative duties beyond coaching, or that some BXS teachers may not have recognized coaching when it occurred informally. However, majorities of surveyed BXS teachers who participated in instructional coaching believed it helped them use key classroom practices during the summer. All case study teachers perceived their instructional coaches as a helpful support for connecting to resources and providing informal feedback.

Figure 1. Extent to Which BXS Teachers Reported That Summer PL Improved Their Practice in Various Instructional Strategies During the School Year

To a great extent To a moderate extent To a small extent Not at all Not applicable or I do not use this
Using positive behavior management techniques 40% 31% 14% 12% 4%
Promoting students' social and emotional skills 41% 31% 14% 10% 5%
Using data on student performance to inform your instruction 34% 28% 18% 15% 6%
Using differentiated instruction 32% 35% 15% 13% 5%
Offering students opportunities to collaborate in my classroom 33% 31% 16% 14% 6%

NOTES: Survey question text: "Please indicate the extent to which the PL opportunities you received in your summer 2019 BellXcel program helped you improve your practice in each of these instructional strategies this school year?" Response options: "Not at all"; "To a small extent"; "To a moderate extent"; "To a great extent"; "I do not use this strategy in my school year instruction"; and "Strategy not applicable to my role." Some rows may not sum to 100 percent due to rounding. N = 393–395.

How Do Teachers' PL Experiences in BXS Programs Compare with the PL Experiences of Teachers Nationally?

To address this question, the research team compared survey responses from BXS teachers with those from ATP teachers who were employed in other academic-focused summer programs for students.

BXS teachers were more likely than teachers nationally to report receiving PL activities that offered opportunities for developmental feedback. When asked about their summer PL activities, 79 percent of BXS teachers reported receiving observations of their summer classrooms followed by feedback, compared with 38 percent of teachers nationally. Almost half of BXS teachers reported receiving one-on-one coaching as a part of their summer PL, compared with less than a third of teachers nationally. In addition, more BXS teachers reported opportunities to analyze student work as a part of their summer PL.

BXS teachers felt less pressure in their summer environments than teachers nationally. BXS teachers and teachers employed in academic summer programs nationally held similarly positive opinions about the supports and resources—such as sufficient classroom and curriculum materials and manageable class sizes—in their summer programs. However, BXS teachers were slightly less likely to report feeling pressure to achieve certain outcomes for students and to cover certain material in their instruction. Fifty-seven percent of teachers nationally who worked for academic summer programs agreed or strongly agreed that they felt pressure to achieve certain outcomes for students in their summer programs, compared with 48 percent of BXS teachers.

BXS teachers were more likely than teachers nationally to report that summer PL helped improve their use of student-centered practices during the school year. Table 1 shows how a larger majority of BXS teachers reported that their summer PL helped them improve in student-centered instructional practices during the school year than teachers in other academic summer programs. These differences were all statistically significant. The differences were largest for using questioning strategies to promote students' critical thinking, using positive behavior management techniques, and using differentiated instruction.

Table 1. Extent to Which BXS Teachers and Teachers Employed in Academic Summer Programs Nationally Reported That Summer PL Helped Improve the Use of Key Instructional Practices

Instructional Strategy To a Moderate or Great Extent
Percentage of BXS Teachers Who Responded Percentage of Teachers Nationally Who Responded
Offering students opportunities to collaborate in my classroom* 82 70
Using differentiated instruction** 82 66
Using positive behavior management techniques** 82 63
Using questioning strategies to promote students' critical thinking** 79 60
Promoting students' social and emotional skills through your instruction* 78 68
Using a variety of strategies to check for students' understanding** 80 65

NOTES: BXS Survey question text: "Please indicate the extent to which the professional learning opportunities you received in your summer 2019 BellXcel program helped you improve your practice in each of these instructional strategies this school year?" ATP Question text: "Please indicate the extent to which the professional learning opportunities you received during summer 2019 helped you improve your practice in each of these instructional strategies this school-year?" Response options for both questions: "Not at all," "To a small extent," "To a moderate extent," and "To a great extent."

Our national teacher data are based on results from a subset of teachers who reported summer employment with an academic program on ATP. This table presents dichotomized results adjusted for sample differences. Responses of "Not at all" and "To a small extent" are not shown here. BXS N = 326–337; ATP N = 78–93. Asterisks indicate statistically significant differences in percentages: * p < 0.05; ** p < 0.01.

Recommendations

Finding time for teacher PL is always challenging but has increased in importance as schools and districts strive to make up for time lost due to COVID-19 closures. Together, the study findings suggest ways that districts and schools can leverage summer to offer meaningful PL opportunities for teachers.

Consider capitalizing on academic summer programs for students as a setting for teacher PL. School and district leaders should consider how they might utilize summer programs for students to provide teachers with PL opportunities by partnering with academic summer programs, or by incorporating opportunities for developmental feedback in their summer school programs.

Work to develop low-pressure, positive, and supportive summer programs and PL environments. BXS teacher survey and focus group respondents suggested that the absence of school-year pacing and testing requirements, support from instructional coaches, and easy access to curricula and resources created a low-pressure, positive, and supportive environment. School and district leaders may benefit from fostering low-pressure environments in summer teaching settings to enable teachers to experiment and build confidence in classroom practices.

Consider summer teaching as a setting to focus on student-centered practices. BXS teachers believed their summer PL helped them to improve their use of student-centered practices during the school year—specifically, promoting students' social and emotional skills and using positive behavior management strategies. Those who design academic summer programs at the district and school levels should consider how these environments might be used to focus on helping teachers develop strategies to support student social and emotional learning and enact positive behavior-management techniques.

Research conducted by

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research brief series. RAND research briefs present policy-oriented summaries of individual published, peer-reviewed documents or of a body of published work.

The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.