Education Opinion

Superintendents Need a New View on Professional Learning

By Learning Forward — July 16, 2013 3 min read
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Recently, more than 2,500 superintendents of K-12 school systems across the United States responded to an opinion survey conducted by the Gallup poll organization and Education Week.

For people concerned about improving educators’ performance levels, the survey results are informative and sobering.

The survey asked the superintendents to rate on a five-point scale their agreement with the following statement:

My school district has an effective ongoing professional development program designed for teachers.

Just 30% of the superintendents indicated they “strongly agree.” In response to a similar question about professional development for principals, only 17% of the superintendents said they “strongly agree.”

It is possible, of course, that the results are skewed because superintendents interpreted the statements differently, and therefore responded in different ways, for different reasons.

Some superintendents may judge their school systems’ professional development to be “ongoing” but not “effective,” or the opposite. Other respondents may believe their school systems’ professional development lacks the coherence and targeting necessary to be described as a “program designed for” either teachers or principals.

Nevertheless, the superintendents’ responses are disturbing. It appears these education leaders are not confident their school systems’ professional development is ongoing and effective. The superintendents acknowledge that the school systems that they lead and for which they are responsible fall short in utilizing one of the few tools at their disposal to raise the performance levels of teachers and principals.

Why is this the case, given that the field of K-12 professional development is at least 20 years old? For more than a decade, there have been established standards describing the policies and practices necessary for effective professional development. Certainly there is no shortage of expertise about how to organize and implement productive professional development. To the contrary, a variety of education associations, professional organizations, and vendors provide technical assistance specifically for that purpose, and there is an abundance of related print, online, and video material. In addition, it is possible to visit and learn from diverse school systems that are operational models of ongoing, effective professional development. Nor is money the barrier. Most school systems benefit from local, state, and federal funds designated specifically for professional development. While funding may not be ample, if school systems target and manage it wisely, resources are adequate to positively impact the learning of many teachers and principals.

Because there is no lack of knowledge, assistance, or resources, it is unclear why so many superintendents do not agree that their school systems have “an effective ongoing professional development program.” Superintendents have a broad range of responsibilities and are subject to many pressures, but they seldom experience demands for effective professional development. For that or other reasons, it may not be on their radar as a strategy for school improvement. Some leaders regard professional development as a routinized component of the school system that drifts from year to year with little coherent direction, oversight, or assessment. Where this is the case, professional development has little impact, and it ultimately leads to low expectations and benign neglect. Superintendents may not invest in developing “an effective ongoing professional development program” because they don’t believe it’s worth their effort.

Professional development that increases educators’ learning and improves their practice is not self-implementing. It cannot be left to mid-level central office staff or school principals. It not only requires superintendents’ sustained attention and effort, but their own learning. Many superintendents retain a mental model of professional development formed by their past inappropriate staff development experiences. These superintendents now need to educate themselves about new standards and modes of professional learning that are yielding impressive results in school systems that take them seriously. That is the first step toward more positive responses to future Gallup/EdWeek surveys.

Hayes Mizell

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.