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Urban Study Faults Teacher-Development Programs

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Despite the rigorous demands on teachers, most professional-development activities designed to help them hold little promise for systemwide change, a new study of four urban districts concludes.

Staff-development programs in the districts were "fragmented, in need of strategic vision, and rarely clear to teachers," the study found.

It was commissioned by the Teacher Networks Group, an association of federal, private, and corporate funders that supports teacher-centered reforms such as the Rockefeller Foundation's Collaboratives for Humanities and Arts Teaching and the Ford Foundation's Urban Mathematics Collaborative.

The group sought to gain a deeper understanding of how urban districts manage professional development. The study recommends several changes that could help districts make such programs more effective.

Barbara Miller and Brian Lord of the Education Development Center in Newton, Mass., and Judith Dorney of the State University of New York at New Paltz wrote the four case studies. The districts, located in different geographic areas and varying in enrollment from 9,500 to 124,000 students, were not identified.

Conflicting Programs

None of the districts had a designated person familiar with the full range of staff-development work under way, the study found. In some cases, state-mandated staff development stressing "prescriptive models of instruction" conflicted with programs emphasizing teacher autonomy.

The study also found little cohesion in the funding for professional development. As a result, there was "too little funding in any one place to make a significant impact and turf-consciousness about the programs that received staff-development funds."

There was also a tendency to use staff-development programs as a "political tool" to address dilemmas arising from issues of race, language, and ethnicity, the report says.

Although short-term activities with limited follow-up were prevalent in the four districts, the study also turned up evidence of more promising practices, including multi-session workshops, institutes, and collegial working groups of teachers.

Teachers themselves said they preferred ongoing activities that allowed them to reflect on new ideas and practice new skills.

All of the districts emphasized in their staff-development efforts curriculum, instruction, and assessment in specific subject areas.

The study found evidence of "cutting edge" practice in mathematics and science, including ongoing, small-scale, and intensive professional development. Staff development in the humanities tended to be more traditional.

Teachers' Expectations

While teachers reported spending varying amounts of time in professional development, the study found that the numbers were lowest in districts that mandated teachers' participation.

Opportunities for teachers to work together varied. In one district, teachers met to discuss issues of common interest. But teachers in another had informal and infrequent contact.

In general, teachers valued activities that were constructed like good lessons, the study found.

The four districts reported spending between 1.8 percent and 2.8 percent of their operating budgets on professional development during the 1991-92 school year.

Each of the districts studied was in a budget crunch, which led to "troubling trends," the study says.

To cut costs, districts resorted to reaching large numbers of teachers with single sessions. They also decentralized the responsibility for professional development, leading to uneven results.

Finally, the districts favored activities that they could easily track over participation in networks.

Among the study's key recommendations are that districts:

  • Develop mentoring programs, study groups, and teacher networks;
  • Help teachers conduct research;
  • Promote subject-matter inquiry by teachers;
  • Create strategic plans for professional development;
  • Reallocate existing professional-development resources, including broadening the concept of what "counts" as professional development;
  • Increase time for staff development; and
  • Document changing professional-development practices.

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