The Impact of Improvement Science Professional Development on Teacher Agency

The educational field is riddled with ineffective top-down reform initiatives that have failed to address disparities in student learning outcomes for disadvantaged students. Over the past century, three successive waves of educational reform have situated decision-making power at the state and federal level, far away from the classroom where teaching and learning occurs. Reform efforts are often poorly funded and under resourced, leaving teachers frustrated and disengaged. There is a need for bottom-up educational reform that leverages teacher inquiry, promotes teacher collaboration, and supports teachers in building a robust pedagogical knowledge base. Improvement science, with its focus on small, iterative, inquiry cycles, networked learning, and evidence-based decision-making, is a promising bottom-up reform strategy that addresses these needs. This study utilized a mixed method approach to understand how teachers engaged with the tools and methods of improvement science by exploring: (1) How do teachers use improvement science tools and methods? (2) What structures support teachers in engaging in improvement work? And, (3) In what ways do improvement science tools and methods impact teacher agency? In this study teacher agency was conceptualized as teachers’ sense of belonging to an improvement community – I am a member of a community that believes it can learn and improve, teachers’ confidence that they can meet the learning needs of their students – I believe I have the skills and tools I need to meet the learning needs of my students, and teachers’ perceived value of professional development support, – the improvement science tools and methods I’m learning are valuable to me now and in the future. The study found that engaging in improvement science professional development increased teachers’ sense of agency along all three dimensions. Teachers reported an increased sense of belonging to an improvement community, an increased belief that they could meet the learning needs of all their students, and that learning about improvement science tools and methods was useful to them now and in the future. The study also determined four key structures that supported teachers as they engaged in learning and using the tools of improvement science, and two challenges that bear further investigation. Administrator support, regular meeting times, enlisting teachers as co-facilitators, and protocols to scaffold using improvement science tools, all contributed to teachers developing an improvement culture at their school site. Challenges teachers experienced during the study included deciding what data to collect to determine if a change idea was leading to improvement and using data to inform iterative cycles of inquiry during Plan Do Study Act cycles. The findings of this study suggest that the tools and methods of improvement science learned through professional development have a positive impact on teachers’ sense of agency and the development of a school improvement culture. Considerations for adopting an improvement science professional development framework are also discussed.