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Education Opinion

What Would Better Professional Development Look Like?

By Michelle Rhee — May 02, 2014 4 min read

This week, Michelle and Jack have been discussing teacher retention and development. They conclude their conversation today, by discussing particular policies designed to help teachers grow as professionals.

Schneider: Let’s talk a little bit about how we’re going to support teachers. If we can agree that teaching is a complex profession that requires a wide variety of competencies that aren’t often discussed in policy rhetoric, how do you envision building capacity among teachers?

Rhee: As I said earlier, teacher professional development needs to be geared toward the specific needs of the educator. I think the ideal system empowers teachers. For example, if a district is spending $3,000 a year per teacher on professional development, then give the power of that spending to the teacher. They can take an online course, use it to pay subs so they can observe master teachers elsewhere in the district, or hire a coach/mentor in a particular area.

As long as they are improving they should be allowed to continue to drive those decisions. The exception to this would be a teacher whose performance is not improving. In those cases, that educator probably requires more specific guidance.

Schneider: I think that model—of leaving educators without much support in terms of their own development—has proven itself a failure. Teachers need good facilitation—and not from online courses or PD hucksters.

That isn’t to say that district-run PD is any better. A majority of teachers get no more than 16 hours of PD each year. And with the exception of content-related work, which is itself an exception, teachers generally find professional development unhelpful.

The answer, I think, is to build more time for collaboration and professional growth into the work day. U.S. teachers spend nearly 40% more time teaching students than teachers in comparable nations. Why? Because we haven’t approached this question thoughtfully.

I think that if we’re going to be evaluating teachers in a more robust way—and you and I still disagree about how that should be done—then you need to invest heavily in building capacity so that all teachers can continue growing.

Rhee: I disagree with the notion that freeing teachers up won’t work. Where have we seen teachers really empowered to make professional development choices for themselves and it’s failed? I’d argue we haven’t done it yet. Teachers are smart. If they take an online class and it stinks, they won’t do it again and they’ll tell others not to do it.

We absolutely need to build into that model a way for teachers to rate the quality of what they got.

Schneider: But we already do that. We ask teachers to evaluate PD providers. And do you know which providers get the highest scores? The ones that are the least boring. Why? Because, as surveys show, teachers have totally given up on actually learning anything from PD days. Expectations are as low as they can possibly go.

Rhee: So you’re saying since expectations are low teachers wouldn’t recognize real quality? I’d argue that we need to set up a system that has a lot of high-quality options. In fact, why not let teachers design it?

I agree with you that teachers need more time for collaboration. But I would also say that we need to ensure that time is used well. I’ve seen this model work extraordinarily well and I’ve also seen it not work well, mostly because there isn’t a skilled facilitator who is really making the most of the time.

Schneider: I actually agree with you here. And I’m wondering why this isn’t a part of the bigger conversation. Because this seems like a much more important place to be channeling our energies than trying to use half-baked methodologies to rate teachers. We should be pouring everything we’ve got into helping teachers become better every single day on the job.

Rhee: This isn’t a zero sum game. We can and must work on multiple tracks to improve teacher development. Having rigorous teacher evaluations is one important piece. High quality professional development is another. Policies that keep great teachers in the classroom is yet another. I’d say that we have to work on all of these parallel tracks to help teachers become better.

Schneider: Unfortunately it is a zero-sum game. In fact, it’s the very definition of one. Because we’re working with limited time, limited human resources, and limited dollars. And whatever you allocate to one concern is going to come at the expense of another.

Crafting new policy is easy. But following through is another matter entirely. So while I’m theoretically in total agreement with you about the need for better evaluation systems, better PD, and better retention efforts, I also happen to see those as resource-intensive matters. They can’t be dealt with through new policies alone.

Better PD is going to require major capital investments. It can’t just be outsourced. At least not if it’s actually going to work.

I’d like to see teachers engaged in collaborative lesson-study teams, working with trained coaches, connecting with scholars at local colleges and universities, and reviewing artifacts of practice (student work, video of themselves, and yes, even test scores). And that’s going to take a huge investment. But imagine the payoff. Imagine a school that functioned like a real learning community.

Rhee: I think we can agree that doing all three of those things is important. How to do it at the same time—which I think can be done—is the difference. Perhaps we can explore funding/flexibility in an upcoming post.

The opinions expressed in K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric 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.


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