Inservice Efforts Fail a System in Need, Critics Say

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Statistically, at least, Cheryl Tucker is a fairly typical American public-school teacher. She is 30 years old, has spent 6 years in a classroom, and earns about $20,000 a year.

Last spring, she and six other teachers pleaded "no contest" in Los Angeles Municipal Court to charges of misdemeanor grand theft for receiving up to $3,000 in salary increases over three years for college credits from extension courses they never attended. They were among 43 Los Angeles-area teachers who were indicted for the crime; the remaining cases are still pending before the court.

It was the first time that schoolteachers had been criminally indicted for a type of academic fraud.

Ms. Tucker earned her pay raise ostensibly for participating in "staff development," a commonly used label for the variety of ways that teachers sharpen their classroom skills, keep up their study of the subject they teach, and rekindle their interest in a field where repetition and "burnout" take a high toll.

The conduct of Cheryl Tucker and her colleagues represents an extreme instance of what is wrong with public education's staff-development system.

A wide range of people who know and work in that system--and who were interviewed for this series--are highly critical of it. They do not direct their criticism at all teachers or even those who exploit the system, but rather at the multi-million-dollar "inservice" enterprise itself.

They share the view that while the Los Angeles case is unusually dramatic, it points nonetheless to flaws that are endemic in staff-development activities across the country.

For example, the quality of staff development varies widely, because rarely is anyone held accountable for it. Moreover, many contend, the common practice among states and school boards of linking salary increases and certification to course credits distorts the broader goal of staff development by forcing teachers--for economic reasons--to take courses they do not like and from which they say they rarely benefit.

In addition, as teachers and their union leaders are quick to point out, those most affected by staff-development programs have little or no control over them: States, school boards, education schools, consultants, administrators--everyone except teachers themselves--have had a hand in approving and running most staff-development projects.

Says Frederick J. McDonald, a former associate dean of the New York University school of education and from 1970 until recently a researcher in teacher training for the Educational Testing Service: "Teachers have not learned anything [from staff development] except to be skeptical of anyone bearing new programs."

Some of those who are active in the field say that this view overstates the situation, that there are some effective strategies for the professional advancement of teachers, and that there are a number of able people planning, teaching in, and benefiting from such programs. But virtually no one endorses the status quo; all concur in the need for change.

Harsh Criticisms

Estimates of the total current cost of staff development vary widely, from between $150 and $1,000 per year per teacher, or between $315 million and $2 billion a year for the nation's 2.1 million teachers. By comparison, the country's public and private elementary and secondary schools together spend about $950 million a year on textbooks.

Its harshest critics claim that in most school systems staff development is a disorganized patchwork of often irrelevant workshops, lectures, and college courses, neglected by administrators and disdained by teachers.

"Right now, most [staff development] is a trivial and fruitless waste of money," says Gary Sykes, a research associate in the program on educational policy and organization at the National Institute of Education (nie).

Interviews with nearly 50 people familiar with the subject suggest, moreover, that the effect of staff development on teacher performance or student achievement is rarely, if ever, measured; administrators seldom check to see if what teachers learn through staff development is ever put into practice in the classroom.

Nonetheless, states and school systems are turning in increasing numbers to staff development as they struggle to respond to the public's demand for "accountability" in the schools and to cope with the problems posed by an aging teaching force.

In the last few years, for example, nearly every state has done away with the longstanding policy of granting lifetime teaching certificates. States are insisting that teachers who want to keep their licenses participate in staff-development programs, usually by earning extra course credits in college or through their school systems.

Earlier this month, Delaware became the most recent convert to the policy. Beginning in 1987, its teaching licenses will be valid for only five years and will be renewed only if teachers have earned six hours of credit.

At the same time, many educators point out that the need has perhaps never been greater to revive teachers after long service in the classroom and to renew their knowledge of their subject matter and how they teach it.

Because of budget cuts and falling student enrollment, few new teachers are entering classrooms today.

Only 1.6 percent of 1,300 elementary- and secondary-school teachers from a cross-section of school systems across the country surveyed in the spring of 1981 by the National Education Association (nea) said they were new to the profession.

The average age of an American school teacher is nearly 40 and rising each year; in California it is nearing 50.

The "graying" of the teaching profession--a trend that is expected to continue through this decade and into the 1990's--is being accelerated in another way.

When teachers are laid off, as thousands have been in recent years, the newest teachers are usually the ones to go because in virtually all school systems a union-backed seniority system protects those with the most years of service. Increasingly, school systems must rely on staff-development programs to retrain older teachers to teach other subjects in order to fill the gaps.

Supply-and-demand projections suggest that most of the teachers who will be in the schools 10 years from now are already among the 2.1 million teachers now teaching. Consequently, if new teaching techniques, technology, and higher-quality teaching are to find their way into the classroom, it will very likely be through the retraining of the present teaching force.

"It's about the only reed [that school] districts have to lean on to improve teaching," says Mr. Sykes of nie

Federal Involvement

Staff development in this country--also commonly called professional development or inservice-training--dates back to the 19th century, when the first summer "teacher institutes" focusing on teaching methods were conducted by states and education schools.

In this century, it has consisted primarily of classroom teachers taking college courses, usually from education schools, to earn bachelor's and, later, master's degrees.

But within the last 20 years, improving the performance of teachers has become just about everyone's business.

The early successes of the Soviet space program in the late 1950's prompted the federal government to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the training of precollegiate mathematics and science teachers. From 1956 to 1973, it spent $514 million on secondary-level teachers alone.

The Great Society initiatives of the 1960's spurred federal staff-development activity in other areas: $654 million for the training of special-education instructors between 1960 and 1981, and $781 million from 1967 to 1976 under the Education Professions Development Act of 1967. That law supported the training of teachers in a variety of areas, including bilingual, vocational, and Indian education.

Hundreds of millions of federal dollars were also spent--with some positive results, most agree--helping teachers cope with the classroom consequences of desegregation, another by-product of the profound social changes of the 1960's and early 1970's.

The availability of such federal staff-development funds attracted the interest of those who stood to get a share--education schools, school systems, and a rapidly growing number of consultants.

The education schools--beginning in the early 1970's to suffer enrollment declines as the baby-boom generation passed out of the nation's schools, leaving an oversupply of teachers in its wake--started to offer an array of extension courses to teachers in an effort to forestall faculty cuts and retrenchment. Designed to be convenient for teachers, these courses were often held within school districts, sometimes on weekends, sometimes in hotel rooms.

Similarly, school systems began offering workshops, seminars, mandatory lectures, and in some cases extensive course offerings that could be taken for college credit. Travel, participation in curriculum-development committees, outside work experience, and sabbatical leaves were also recognized as legitimate teacher-improvement activities.

And in the past few years, some states--including Florida, Michigan, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and California--have committed money to their own, statewide staff-development programs.

Oklahoma, for example, last year began requiring each of its 617 school systems to submit annual staff-development plans that every teacher in the state must participate in.

The state this year will give school systems $2.55 per student--a total of $1.4 million--to pay for their programs.

However, most states consider staff development a low budget priority, say several observers, including James F. Collins, director of the National Council of States on Inservice Education, an organization of state and other staff-development professionals.

Anxious to improve teaching but unwilling to provide funds for staff development, most state legislatures have simply changed certification laws to force teachers to earn additional college or school-system course credits, credits that teachers often must pay for themselves.

At the same time, the Reagan Administration, through the new education block grant, has given the states (and through them, local school systems) control over virtually all former federal staff-development funds.

Few observers feel the states will choose to spend their block-grant allotments on staff development.

"The general consensus," said C. Emily Feistritzer, a Washington-based publisher who has followed federal staff-development programs closely over the years, "is that staff development is not going to be a terribly high priority of the states."

Because of this, experts worry that the staff-development system will deteriorate further, just at the point when circumstances make it perhaps more important than ever.

The second article in this series will examine more closely the characteristics of the current system of staff development in public education.

Vol. 02, Issue 04

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories