Over the past two years, there has been increasing talk among policy analysts, legislators, and education reform advocates about “teacher effectiveness.” This phrase means different things to different people, but in some circles it is a euphemism for more rigorous evaluation of teachers’ performance, and the termination of teachers who are ineffective, incompetent, or who do not meet certain performance expectations. Right now 20 states are overhauling their teacher evaluation systems, and throughout the country there will almost certainly be greater scrutiny of teachers’ performance in coming years.
As part of increasing attention to teacher evaluation, some people have invoked “professional development” as a potential response to a determination that teachers are not performing effectively. In Wyoming, a local assistant superintendent speculated on the implementation of new state guidelines that require teachers to demonstrate how they use student performance data “to improve teacher and learning.” He said, “The principal may look at the data and say, ‘I see a consistent trend over time that your students aren’t doing well in this particular area, so I want you to have some professional development.’” This view seems to illustrate a narrow understanding of professional development that is limited to its role as a fixer, rather than as a catalyst for addressing students’ learning challenges.
In other discussions of teacher evaluation, references to professional development seem to be throwaway lines intended to counter concerns about fairness and other potential vagaries of teacher evaluation. It is as though the role of professional development should merely be one component of due process in which teachers are given a chance, or repeated chances, to improve their performance before their possible termination. And some of the people who, in other contexts, question the utility and effectiveness of professional development are the same people who cite professional development as an appropriate and potentially effective strategy to improve the performance of teachers who are found wanting.
In my view, the references to professional development as related to teacher evaluation reveal a profound lack of understanding about what professional development is, its many and diverse manifestations, and what it can and cannot accomplish in regards to the effectiveness of teachers’ knowledge, skills, behaviors, and practice. What we need In discussions about teacher evaluation is serious attention to whether there is an appropriate role for professional development and, if so, what that role should be and what it can realistically accomplish.
Distinguished Senior Fellow, Learning Forward
The opinions expressed in Learning Forward’s PD Watch are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.