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The Q&A: Jacqueline R. Stillisano

In this week’s Q&A, we interview Jacqueline R. Stillisano, a director at Texas A&M's Department of Teaching, Learning and Culture and co-director of its Education Research Center.

Jacqueline R. Stillisano is a director at Texas A&M's Department of Teaching, Learning and Culture.

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Jacqueline R. Stillisano is a director in Texas A&M's Department of Teaching, Learning and Culture and is co-director of its Education Research Center. Stillisano, who spent more than a decade teaching in the Dallas Independent School District, got her Ed.D. degree from Ball State University, where she worked on the Teacher Quality Enhancement Project. She was a co-author on a paper evaluating 14 grant-funded teacher academies across Texas.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: One of the important elements that the study brings up about professional development is the importance of doing it over time. How long should professional development courses be and how intensive should they be?

Jacqueline R. Stillisano: That’s two different questions. The National Staff Development Council years ago came out with the idea that professional development should be ongoing, which means it’s not something that’s like, “Oh, it’s time to have a professional development day.” It should be something that is part of the regular work day. The four components that were put forth is that it should ongoing, it should data-driven, it should be job-embedded and part of the regular work day and that it should be research-based. The focus of the NSDC is that in school, everyone’s job is to learn, so teachers should always be learning. There’s been other research that looks at the minimum amount of time that has to be devoted to professional development for it to be effective. A study back in 2001 found that in terms of duration, professional development should be a minimum of 14 hours. It found the largest effect is when it was offered on a specific area between 30 and 100 hours, and this should be spread out over a period of six months to one year. So not, “We have a week of professional development at the beginning of the year and that’s all.” It should be embedded and be going on throughout the year.

Trib+Edu: How available is this effective professional development for teachers in Texas and across the country? 

Stillisano: It’s not as prevalent as we’d like to see it be. There are some school districts that are doing great things with professional development. But a lot of districts still don’t have the money and the resources to be moving in this direction.

Trib+Edu: So is that the challenge? Is it money, or is it a lack of awareness?

Stillisano: Probably both. You’re talking about a culture change, for one thing, and you’re also talking about a lot of money.

Trib+Edu: A study you co-authored looked at teacher academies in math, science and technology in Texas. What were they, and how well did they do in accomplishing their goals?

Stillisano: There were 14 academies that we looked at in our study, and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board funded them during the fall of 2008, the spring of 2009 and the fall of 2009, so there were three different groups of academies that were funded. But the RFP gave them a lot of latitude and set some general parameters, so they were offered a lot of flexibility in how the academies were to be structured.

For these 14 that were funded during this time period, there was only one that offered purely an initial certification program by itself, a program that only worked with preservice teachers. There were six that offered initial certification to preservice teachers and also offered a master's degree in education or a master's degree in another subject to inservice teachers. So they had two strands in those six academies. There were also three other academies that offered master teacher certification as well as a master's degree. And then there were two that focused on integrating technology in math and science, and then there were three that just focused specifically on mathematics. The grants were awarded to Texas universities, and they were located all across the state from the Rio Grande Valley to East Texas to North Texas, and the academy directors were all professors at public universities in Texas.

Trib+Edu: So what were the strengths and weaknesses that you found in how these different academies did their work?

Stillisano: Of course, because there were 14 academies, there were varying levels of strengths and weaknesses in the academies. Of the seven goals that the Coordinating Board had for the academies, we found that none of the academies fully implemented all seven goals at the time that we did the evaluation. Some of the academies were just completing their first year and some had some time to go by the time we did the evaluation, so it’s possible that they were able to, as they continued, to implement more of their goals. But none of them at the time we did the study were able to implement all of the seven goals.

In general, we found that two of the stated goals that were least met were integration in the areas of science, technology, mathematics and the infusion of technology into the curriculum. For example, when we interviewed some of the participants, we found that although technology was used in the academies, PowerPoint and things like that, it was used more as a mode or a technique for teaching of teachers that didn’t focus on how to use technology to increase their students’ learning. So that was one of the goals that was not met. With regard to infusion of technology into the curriculum, however, there were three academies that did very well on that.

Trib+Edu: So what are the lessons that school districts and universities should take if they want to set up professional development programs? What are the takeaways from this study?

Stillisano: Keep in mind these were partnerships between the university and the school districts, and they were funded by the Coordinating Board, so there was money there. In Texas and a lot of states, teachers don’t really get a lot of extra money when they get a master's degree. It costs some money, and they put a lot of effort to it, but it often doesn’t mean much of a bump in their salaries. So many of the teachers that we interviewed for the study said if it hadn’t been for the grant paying for their tuition and their books and everything, they would never have been able to afford to participate in this. So, looking for ways to make it easier for teachers to be able to afford to attend academies and long-term professional development opportunities is really important.

Also, what we found is that these academies lasted over a year, but because teachers were teaching every day, they had to be done in the weekends. Some of them did it one Saturday a month, for example, but it would be a very intensive one Saturday a month. It would be all day long. Research has shown — and the teachers agreed with this — that people need to have time to be exposed to new learning, to internalize it, to try it out, to try to use things in their classroom, to fail in the classroom, to discuss it with other people. It needs to be spaced out.

The duration needs to be not only over a period of a year, but within that year, they need time to be able to experience the learning. Some of the teachers that were working on the master's degree, for example, were really in an accelerated program. They said that it was very difficult to feel like they deeply learned what was presented in some of the courses because the courses were so accelerated.

Trib+Edu: One of the policy implications you bring up is the importance of mentoring programs for incoming teachers. What would that mentoring look like and what should policymakers consider on this?

Stillisano: I don’t think that mentoring should just be for incoming teachers. Mentoring should be available for experienced teachers as well to help them implement new learning in their classrooms and for teachers who are struggling with other areas in the profession. But for incoming teachers, at the very least, I think that mentoring should be of a long duration, at least a year, possibly more. The mentor, if at all possible, should be someone who’s within their grade level and particularly within their content area if they’re in a secondary school. The mentor should be a teacher who is experienced and who is a highly qualified teacher, and they should have time periods built into the day when they can observe each other teach, when they can meet to talk about what they see when they observe each other teach, where they can really collaborate on planning lessons and things like that.

Trib+Edu: The Education Research Center just got funding for a new study regarding English and Language Arts education. What will you be evaluating, and how will you go about that?

Stillisano: The state is working on revising the English Language Arts [Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills]. The Math TEKS were rolled out, I think, last year or the year before. There were a lot of changes in the Math TEKS, and teachers have struggled with the new TEKS. I was interviewing some elementary school math and science teachers, and I kept hearing over and over again that the Math TEKS changed so much that it was really a struggle for them in the first year of implementation to make sure that they were teaching what they should be teaching in order to meet those standards.

I think that the state is kind of hearing this and maybe ready to listen to what teachers are telling them, so this study was commissioned to give English language arts and Spanish language arts teachers an opportunity to express their opinion about the TEKS, about how the TEKS should be implemented, about how they address them in their classroom. We just completed a survey of several thousand teachers across the state, and from that we selected a sample of about 50 teachers to do in-depth interviews with, to give these teachers a voice. Our report will be presented to the Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts, and they will also be sharing that with the state Board of Education and the TEA so that hopefully teachers have an opportunity to give some input into professional development that they’re going to need to implement the new TEKS, how the TEKS should be rolled out and what they need to be able to address the TEKS constantly and comfortably.

Trib+Edu: Do you have a timeline for when you’ll wrap up the study?

Stillisano: The final study will be presented to TCTELA by the end of August.

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