Professional Development Advocated as a Linchpin
Officials working in state government, education, and philanthropy met here last week to take a closer look at what some call the "sleeping giant'' of education reform: professional development.
Spurred by national and state efforts to set higher standards for teaching and learning, participants at a conference organized by the National Governors' Association struggled with how to make professional development a permanent part of school culture.
Although it is often viewed as a quick, one-shot approach to providing educators with a new skill or information, participants said, professional development has become a linchpin of the movement for national education standards.
States that have been trying to beef up content standards or set performance-based graduation requirements have realized that their plans will only be as successful as their educators are prepared.
"This is a very forward-looking move, that governors are even considering this as a priority,'' said Ann Lieberman, a co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University.
The issue of professional development is rapidly gaining importance on the federal level as well, attendees noted.
Providing educators with continuous learning opportunities is one of two new national education goals in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which also authorizes grants to states that demonstrate that their educators are prepared to teach to higher standards.
In addition, proposals being considered by Congress during reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act seek to expand federally supported professional-development programs.
'The Time/Resource Wall'
With a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the N.G.A. awarded $10,000 each to Colorado, Michigan, and Rhode Island to study the role of professional development.
Teams from the states shared their findings with participants here and brainstormed about ways to help school districts, schools, and teachers broaden their involvement in professional development.
Colorado, for instance, looked at aligning continuous professional training with the state's recent teacher-licensure reforms and new content standards.
But Colorado officials constantly bumped up against "the time/resource wall'' in their discussions, said John Calhoon, a policy analyst for Gov. Roy Romer.
Not only did state officials worry about how to pay for sweeping programs that would support new legislation, Mr. Calhoon explained, but they feared a public backlash if they moved to reorder the teacher workday to accommodate some of their ideas.
Several participants pointed out that states will have to make clear to parents and others the direct link between new expectations for students and teacher training.
"We need to move from looking at [professional development] as an expense to seeing it as an investment,'' said Rexford Brown, a senior fellow at the Education Commission of the States.
But others said they feared that any state involvement in professional development--which has long been the domain of districts and schools--could be viewed as top-down control.
"I'm concerned that too much of the discussion today will be on the apparatus and delivery of professional development, as if it is something that can be poured out of a bucket,'' said James Kelly, the president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
States will need to offer educators a variety of ways to participate to avoid the "one size fits all'' approach to professional development and to make sure they are in step with teachers' needs, others said.
'This Too Shall Pass'
Even if states are serious about supporting professional development locally, several educators at the meeting pointed out, teachers will have to be convinced that politicians are not simply looking for another "silver bullet'' in education.
"I think there is the perception among some teachers that this too shall pass,'' said Colleen Bielecki, a 6th-grade teacher and a member of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers' professional-development committee.
For example, policies often are handed down by "superintendents who have to make a political splash and come and go with the wind,'' asserted Eugenia Kemble, an assistant to Albert F. Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.
In addition, states may have to push unions to develop more flexible contracts. Several officials at the meeting pointed out that resources could be shifted within districts so that teachers would get pay raises for demonstrating new skills or knowledge, instead of for years of service or education.
But it may be even more difficult to help teachers shed the common view of professional development as a once-a-year activity, said Susan Traiman, the director of education-policy studies for the N.G.A., which plans to release a report on the issue this year.