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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Is Your Professional Development a Waste of Time?

By Peter DeWitt — August 18, 2015 5 min read
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“After a little over a decade in the classroom, the average teacher in the districts we studied would have spent the equivalent of more than an entire school year on professional development.” TNTP Study

We have all sat through professional development (PD) that was more about compliance than new learning. I remember sitting through some “PD” and the people delivering it assured all of us sitting in rows unable to ask questions that their PD was not about compliance, and then every hour on the hour they let us know we were recertified to do whatever they had just covered.

No time for real dialogue. No time to ask questions.

There is nothing more frustrating than attending PD based on the fact that we will get points or be paid, regardless of whether we will actually learn something new. Before the accountability on steroids and budget cuts that we presently face, many teachers had the luxury of choosing PD to attend that they wanted to attend, rather than PD that they are required to attend which may be of no interest to them at all.

But it still didn’t mean the PD they wanted to attend actually worked.

In a recent TNTP study (which you can read here) involving more than 10,000 teachers and 500 school leaders, they found:

  • School systems are making a massive and laudable investment in teacher improvement--far larger than most people realize.
  • Yet most teachers do not appear to improve substantially from year to year, even though many have not yet mastered critical skills.
  • We found no evidence that any particular kind or amount of professional development consistently helps teachers improve.
  • School systems are failing to help teachers understand how to improve--or even that they have room to improve at all.

TNTP was once called the New Teacher Project and was led by Michelle Rhee in its first 10 years. At the end of the report it is stated that, “The districts studied for this report are among the more than 60 school systems with which TNTP is currently engaged as a consultant and/or service provider. None of these districts held editorial control over this report, and the report was independently funded.”

The report highlighted what they referred to as a “disjointed system” among the public schools when it comes to professional development, but TNTP did find one mid-sized charter school that they called an “exception to the rule” because of the amount of growth all the teachers in the system seemed to make.

The report includes a quotation from a charter school teacher who said, “What’s unique about being at my school is that there is always going to be someone to push you. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stagnate here.” I would venture to guess that there are many public school teachers who feel the same way. The quotation included from the public school system is,

Truly, everybody is trying very hard to have a positive impact on the schools, but there is some redundancy and disconnect. The phrase 'random act of school improvement' is what pops into my head. We're all out there trying to do our best but we're not coordinating the efforts."

TNTP went on to explain the perceptions of “improvers” and “non-improvers.” The report stated that,

Improvers reported "reflecting daily on their practice" about as often as teachers who did not demonstrate evidence of improvement. They were as likely as other teachers to feel that they should bear the greatest responsibility for their own development, and they were no more likely to admit they had weaknesses in their instruction (40 percent agreed they had weaknesses, compared to 45 percent of other teachers).

Reflection is important, but it needs to be done with evidence. This was not addressed in the report. Reflecting without evidence just means we are reflecting on the way we saw it and not necessarily on the way it happened. Should teachers incorporate more use of video to enhance instruction to be able to accurately reflect on the lessons of the day?

The TNTP study suggests:

  • REDEFINE what it means to help teachers improve
  • REEVALUATE existing professional learning supports and programs
  • REINVENT how we support effective teaching at scale

An interesting finding in the study is that,

Teachers in their first five years grew at least two and a half to five times faster than all other teachers across the districts studied, over the last three years. After their fifth year of teaching, the average teacher grew even less, and the average teacher in their tenth year or beyond has a growth rate barely above zero."

It sometimes seems as though teachers and leaders show up to PD believing that they do everything being offered, when the reality is that they often don’t do it with integrity or at a deep enough level. “Oh we do this already,” is a common response to PD. Do they do it...or do they think they do it? The report states that, “non-improvers are almost twice as likely to self-assess their own performance as stronger than their formal ratings.”

In the End

The TNTP report is an interesting read. The PD being provided needs to take into account the needs of the teachers and leaders sitting through it. If teachers and leaders feel as though they had no voice in the process, then they will most likely not use most of what they learned because there was no buy-in.

As someone who now provides professional development, there are other issues that come into play as well. There have been many times that I have walked into situations where participants, regardless of the type of school system, show up without much background knowledge on why they are there. Is that a breakdown in the communication coming from the district or county office, or is it due to the leaders or teachers not reading the e-mail?

If school leaders are going to provide PD that sticks they need to make sure that they have a school climate that is conducive to learning and not one that focuses on accountability and compliance. They need to make sure that they offer ongoing support rather than new mandates that seem to go against the PD being implemented.

And they need to stick to one thing at a time.

Additionally, the report doesn’t include collaborative impact programs which evaluate their impact over time. The report states,

Unlike most research on professional development, our method was not to implement a particular development strategy and then track its results. Instead, we identified teachers whose performance appeared to improve substantially and worked backward to find any experiences, mindsets or environments they had in common, in contrast to those teachers whose performance did not improve substantially.

There are districts who are using collaborative impact programs which evaluate their impact over time. According to John Hattie’s research, professional development can have an effect size of .51 (For full disclosure, I am a Visible Learning trainer for John Hattie and Corwin Press).

According to Timperley, Wilson, Barrar and Fung (Teacher Professional Learning and Development: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration), the following is needed for professional development to be effective:

  • Over a long period of time (three to five years)
  • Involves external experts
  • Teachers are deeply engaged
  • It challenges teachers’ existing beliefs
  • Teachers talk to each other about teaching
  • School leadership supports teachers’ opportunities to learn and provides opportunities within the school structure for this to happen

Regardless of our role in the PD process, it is clear that we can all do a better job understanding why we are there, how it fits into our daily lives, delivering it in a way that is engaging, and following through to make sure that it makes a meaningful impact on learning.

Questions to ponder about PD:

  • What is going on at the district level?
  • Is there consistent follow-up support?
  • How do these schools work through the implementation dip?
  • Is one initiative started and then dropped for the new flavor coming through?

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.