The Missing Link
Say "professional development," and many teachers cringe. But the growing realization that practice is out of sync with the reform agenda is spurring widespread interest in rethinking teachers' on-the-job learning.
Like most teachers, Maggie Brown Cassidy doesn't have to be prodded to tell a horror story about professional development.
Creating a Nation of Teachers as Learners
Once, Cassidy sat through a presentation about the detrimental health effects of drugs and alcohol. It included a film strip that showed an autopsy. All Cassidy could think about was the wheezing teacher next to her, a heavy smoker, and how uncomfortable the session must have made him feel.
"It was just one of those mandates, that teachers need to have a certain number of hours of instruction in certain areas," recalls Cassidy, who teaches secondary French in Brattleboro, Vt. "It was done in a very insensitive way. And it needed to be so general that it was pretty much a waste of everybody's time."
Cassidy is fortunate to have moved on to richer, more rewarding experiences in her career. But too many teachers have not. Most roll their eyes at having to submit to "in-services" or "staff development" on the latest hot topic, often determined by administrators or state legislators.
Teachers also take university or college classes, of course, earning credits that bring them extra pay. But often, their studies are not related to the subject they teach. Many times, they pursue degrees in administration or counseling in hopes of advancing out of the classroom.
On this wobbly base rests nothing less than the nation's hopes for improving its education system. Schools are only as good as their teachers, regardless of how high their standards, how up-to-date their technology, or how innovative their programs. If teachers aren't given adequate opportunities to learn, they have little chance of meeting the ever-increasing demands placed upon them.
The growing realization that professional-development practices are badly out of sync with the reform agenda is spurring widespread interest in rethinking teachers' on-the-job learning.
Major foundations are now investing heavily in funding promising practices and sponsoring studies of professional development. Teachers' learning tops the U.S. Department of Education's priorities. Both of the national teachers' unions plan to weigh in with major reports on the topic this summer. And this fall, the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future—a 26-member blue-ribbon panel funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York—is expected to make recommendations on strengthening professional development over teachers' entire careers.
"It's the missing link," says Joseph C. Vaughan, the coordinator of professional development in the Education Department's office of educational research and improvement. "We've talked about curriculum and assessments and standards--everything but human resources and support. That's how institutions change."
The job of teaching must be redefined to include continuous learning, argues Judith A. R‚nyi, the executive director of the National Foundation for the Improvement of Education at the National Education Association. Teachers are now expected to educate all students to a level once reached by only about 20 percent of students, she points out, in a multilingual, multicultural society undergoing rapid technological change.
At the same time, teachers increasingly are being called on to become decisionmakers and school leaders, without adequate preparation for these roles.
"There isn't any amount of education in the world that can prepare you to do all that," R‚nyi says. "You're never done learning."
Although many educators and researchers lament the prevalence of inadequate, superficial programs foisted on teachers, a consensus is emerging about the principles of effective approaches to professional development.
The success of teacher networks and school-university collaboratives is a bright spot helping spur new ways of thinking about professional development.
First, teachers should be involved in planning their own learning experiences, not just passive recipients of knowledge. Second, they need to be linked to a larger "learning community" that can bring in expertise and ideas to complement their work. And third, professional development must be better balanced between meeting the needs of individual teachers and advancing the organizational goals of their schools and districts.
"While everybody talks about how bad things are, in some ways, they may never have been better," says Thomas B. Corcoran of the University of Pennsylvania, the co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education's policy center. "We now have some models and successes."
Despite the enthusiasm some of these projects have generated, there isn't much research evidence about them. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur and Spencer foundations are seeking to fill the void with a grant program targeted at identifying effective practices and exploring why they work and how they can be replicated.
But that will be just a first step toward overhauling the professional development of practicing teachers. State policymakers need to examine the rewards and incentives that govern the current haphazard system, experts say. Corcoran recommends that they look at aid to higher education, accreditation, requirements for teacher licensure and relicensure, and teacher-compensation structures to "deliver a consistent message" about professional development.
Now, state and local policies create strong incentives for teachers to be "active consumers of workshops and conferences," he says. Salary schedules in most districts give teachers more money for taking classes or earning "continuing-education units" for various activities. And state relicensure policies mirror these incentives, with requirements for more CEUs or master's degrees.
A multimillion-dollar industry supplies the workshops, in-services, and half-day training sessions that characterize so much professional development. While some of this fare does the job, Corcoran says, much is "intellectual junk food."
Some 80 percent of professional development money is controlled by local districts. Typically, the responsibility for professional development falls on a busy administrator with other duties who can most easily fulfill requirements by calling in an outside expert.
What these consultants or staff developers have to offer may or may not be particularly relevant to teachers. And it may or may not have any connection with a school or district's larger goals, whether it be for the development of its employees or the achievement of its students.
Typically, teachers are simply exposed to a particular concept or practice in a short-term fashion. Rarely are they helped to think about what it might mean for their classroom or supported as they try something new with their students.
"Teachers often have wonderful opportunities in terms of content," says A. Richardson Love Jr., the director of the education program at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami. "It's the application that's missing."
The smartest programs, Love says, are those that offer teachers group training and orientation and then follow-up and technical assistance in the classroom, including observation, feedback, and work with master teachers who serve as mentors. These approaches make professional development a resource, he says, and not just a burden.
In addition to such help, teachers also need opportunities to learn by performing tasks once considered the domain of administrators, including serving on curriculum committees, developing new assessments, conducting research, and helping their peers hone their practice.
Policymakers should consider giving teachers credit for these broader activities that develop their knowledge and skills, experts advise, and pay close attention to the quality of the menu of offerings approved for credit. Some states have increased the amount of money devoted to professional development or paid for extra pupil-free days for teachers, only to find that they have invested in the "same old, same old," Corcoran reports.
Although the temptation may be strong to offer teachers training to introduce a particular reform, the best bet in the long run is to invest in activities that develop teachers' overall capacity, advises G. Williamson McDiarmid, the co-director of the National Center for Research on Teacher Learning at Michigan State University.
A deep knowledge of the subject she teaches, for example, is "absolutely critical" to a teacher's ability to reach all her students, McDiarmid points out. Investing in teachers' subject-matter knowledge is also a wise move because the political winds shift so rapidly in education.
"Today's hot new policy is tomorrow's political road kill," McDiarmid cautions.
For professional development to become woven into the fabric of a teacher's job, rather than squeezed in after school or on weekends, schools must rethink their use of time. In this country, teachers spend the vast majority of their working time engaged with students. Studies have shown that Japanese, Chinese, and most European teachers have substantial time built into their regular workday for preparation, curriculum development, and working with their colleagues.
Eventually, R‚nyi of the NEA says, the school year for teachers may have to be lengthened to 11 months instead of 10 to create more time for professional development. Two weeks of the additional month, she suggests, could be for staff development "determined by the school group, for the group."
Many schools are reconsidering their schedules and resources to enable their teachers to engage in productive learning activities. Some use block scheduling to create common planning time for teachers, while others schedule early-release days for students. The trend toward having students do community service and independent projects also holds promise for creating time for teachers to learn on the job.
In the Mesa Unified School District in Mesa, Ariz., community volunteers have been trained to teach mini-units in science so teams of teachers can be released from their classrooms to work together.
"Teachers need the chance to dialogue and reflect with one another," says Joanne Vasquez, the incoming president of the National Science Teachers Association. Vasquez, who notes that the new national science standards heavily emphasize teachers' learning, hopes to make the NSTA a professional-development broker, provider, and clearinghouse.
While new arrangements clearly are necessary, districts and schools also can make better use ofexisting positions. High school department chairs, for example, can play leadership roles in professional development.
In the long run, public attitudes may be the greatest barrier to restructuring schools to create ways for teachers to learn on the job. Most Americans believe that teachers are working only when they are with children, and many parents are resent-ful of efforts to free up time for teachers to meet.
Focus groups conducted last year for the National Education Association by Public Agenda, a New York City-based research group, found that participants were unaware of the need for professional development for teachers. Once the issue was clarified, however, they became supportive, but they also "expect professional development to lead to quick, significant, and measurable payoffs in student achievement."
That is unlikely to happen, however. Learning to teach in new ways, research has shown, is a long-term, developmental process that involves much more than being exposed to a topic and being expected to usher it into the classroom. Finding ways to create new arrangements that will meet teachers' needs is critical.
"Teachers themselves agree that their preparation has been inadequate and the current system of in-services is inadequate," R‚nyi says. "They're desperate for help."
In this special report, underwritten by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, we will examine the strengths and weaknesses of teacher networks and why many are interested in creating them.
We'll size up the vital role that teachers' unions could play—and are starting to play—in advocating and providing for their members' continued learning.
Because technology holds such promise for bringing teachers together, we'll review projects that use it as a vehicle for professional development.
We'll visit Flint, Mich., where educators are scrutinizing how they spend their professional-development dollars. Ultimately, they hope to create a coherent plan that will support learning systemwide.
And we will take a close-up look at Cottonwood Creek Elementary School outside of Denver, where teachers are engaged in long-term, in-depth learning experiences that pay off for students.
Finally—and perhaps most important—we'll listen to what practicing teachers have to say about their opportunities to learn and grow in their work. Their frustration and hopes should provide a guide for those interested in helping them do their jobs better.
Vol. 15, Issue 30, Page s7-12