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Teachers As Learners

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Like most teachers, Maggie Brown Cassidy doesn't have to be prodded to tell a horror story about professional development. It was a presentation about the detrimental effects of drugs and alcohol that included a film strip showing 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.''

Far too many teachers know just what Cassidy is talking about. Most have had to submit to "in-services'' or "staff development'' on the latest hot topic, as determined not by them but by administrators or, worse, state lawmakers. Teachers, of course, also take college classes to earn credits that boost their pay. But often the courses they take are chosen for reasons of convenience rather than substance. Sometimes their studies are not even related to the subjects they teach.

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 is out of sync with reform agendas has spawned widespread interest in rethinking teachers' on-the-job learning. Major foundations are now investing heavily in promising practices and sponsoring studies of professional development. It has become the top priority of the U.S. Department of Education. The National Education Association is weighing in with a major report on the topic. 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 recommend ways to strengthen professional development over teachers' entire careers.

"It's the missing link,'' says Joseph Vaughan, 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.''

Teachers are now expected to educate all students in our multicultural, technological society to a level once reached by only about 20 percent of students. At the same time, they are being urged to play decisionmaking and leadership roles. "There isn't any amount of education in the world that can prepare you to do all that,'' says Judith Rényi, executive director of the National Foundation for the Improvement of Education at the NEA. "Teachers themselves agree that their preparation has been inadequate and the current system of in-services is inadequate. They're desperate for help.''

Although educators and researchers continue to lament the superficial programs foisted on teachers, a consensus has begun to emerge about the kind of professional development teachers should be receiving. Topping that list is a belief that classroom teachers should be involved in planning their own learning experiences. Second, teachers need to be linked to a larger "learning community'' that offers, on an on-going basis, 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 Corcoran, co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education's policy center at the University of Pennsylvania. "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. State policymakers need to examine the rewards and incentives that govern the current haphazard system. Corcoran believes these people should look at accreditation standards, teacher licensure and relicensure requirements, and teacher pay structures to "deliver a consistent message'' about professional development.

Current 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.'' And state relicensure policies mirror these incentives, usually requiring teachers to accumulate units or acquire master's degrees.

A multimillion dollar industry supplies the workshops, in-service programs, 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 professional or educational goals. 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 to implement something new with their students.

"Teachers often have wonderful opportunities in terms of content,'' says A. Richardson Love Jr., 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 with technical assistance in the classroom, including observation, feedback, and mentoring. These approaches make professional development a resource, he says, 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 peers hone their practice. Policymakers, experts say, should consider giving teachers credit for these broader activities that develop their knowledge and skills 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 says.

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, co-director of the National Center for Research on Teacher Learning at Michigan State University. A deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, McDiarmid points out, is "absolutely critical'' to teachers' ability to reach all of their students. 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 amounts of time built into their day for preparation, curriculum development, and working with their colleagues. Many schools are reconsidering their schedules and resources with this in mind. 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 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 resentful of efforts to free up time for teachers to meet. Focus groups conducted last year for the NEA by Public Agenda, a New York City-based research group, found that participants were unaware of the need for professional development for teachers. They became supportive, however, once the need was clarified. Even so, they said they "expect professional development to lead to quick, significant, and measurable payoffs in student achievement.''

Most experts agree that this expectation is unrealistic. Learning new ways of teaching, 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.

In this special section, underwritten by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, we will take a close-up look at Cottonwood Creek Elementary School outside Denver, where teachers are engaged in long-term, in-depth learning experiences that pay off for students. Because technology holds such promise for bringing teachers together, we'll review proj-ects that use it as a vehicle for professional development. And we will examine the strengths and weaknesses of teacher networks. Finally--and perhaps most important--we'll listen to what practicing teachers have to say about the opportunities they've been given to learn and grow in their work.

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