Teacher Professional Development: It's About Time

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Hardly a conference about K-12 education happens these days without the conversation turning at some point to professional development of teachers. By all accounts this is an issue whose time has come. School reformers and reform-minded educators alike have learned much the same lesson during the last decade of experimentation: In order for reform to reach beyond the motivated few teachers and their fortunate pupils to the majority of teachers and their students, there's simply no avoiding a major investment in retooling the teacher corps.

In recent years a consensus has emerged that students will need certain higher-order competencies, such as creative thinking and problem-solving, in order to function in the 21st century. Cultivating those competencies will require mastery by educators of new modes of teaching and learning. As David Cohen of Michigan State notes, "If the recent reforms are to succeed, students and teachers must not simply absorb a new 'body' of knowledge. Rather they must acquire a new way of thinking about knowledge and a new practice of acquiring it. ... and in order to do [that], they must unlearn much of what they know, whether they are 2nd graders or veteran teachers.''

The processes of unlearning and relearning will not be automatic or occur overnight. "Most folks really don't understand how much there is [for teachers] to learn,'' Mr. Cohen adds. "They don't appreciate how arduous and long the learning will be. And it has to be done by people with full-time jobs.'' To complicate matters, there are two kinds of teachers, according to Milbrey McLaughlin of Stanford--those eager to innovate and those resistant to change, who make up the majority. Short of summarily replacing them, they must be retrained. That means, plain and simple, massive professional development. And even if their eventual successors are state-of-the-art, the art of teaching evolves continually, thus necessitating continuous investment in professional development.

With rare exception, current patterns of professional development fall well short of what's needed. Reformers pine for more money to pay for extended school days and years, supplementary academies, and teacher stipends. The occasional crafty school principal manages to squirrel away a half-day every so often for professional development. Yet fiscal realities are such these days that few districts will be able to pony up lots more money, especially those beleaguered urban and rural districts that serve large numbers of low-income and language-minority children.

Will reform therefore be stalled, with a surfeit of exemplary incubator projects but scant buildingwide and districtwide progress? Let's assume little extra money will be forthcoming. Is it possible to think afresh about how much contact really is required between teachers and students in order for quality teaching and learning to occur? Just imagine what a difference it would make if teachers taught the equivalent of four days per week instead of five, and if the time thus freed up were devoted, either in one chunk or spread out over the week, to professional development.

Heresy, you say? Consider the Japanese education system, where, according to Michael Fullan of the University of Toronto, teachers spend only three to four hours a day in classrooms and use the remainder for assorted planning and learning activities, alone or with colleagues. If we're too proud to emulate foreigners, then take an example closer to home, namely American higher education, which other nations supposedly envy.

I have just finished paying a small fortune for three daughters to attend private colleges. Despite annual tuition bills approximating $20,000 apiece, I was delighted with the education--and with the doses of instruction--they received. None of their courses ever met daily. The professors presumably used their non-classroom time to deepen their knowledge of the disciplines, conduct research, and otherwise engage in activities which enriched the courses. I know, that wasn't all they were doing outside of class. Nevertheless my point holds: At this more demanding level of education, neither the universities nor the tuition-paying parents thought that quality education or subject-matter coverage necessitated five sessions per week.

How ironic, then, that when it comes to K-12 education, we parents and state regulators routinely insist that teachers conduct their courses daily. This without examining whether that yields the best instruction by teachers, not to mention the best education for students. Given the pattern in higher education, are that many contact hours between teachers and students really necessary?

If upon close examination they aren't, then this may "merely'' be a custodial issue. In other words, we keep both in class because we're unsure what to do with students while their teachers are off engaged in professional-development activities. And, to be truthful, because we don't quite trust the teachers, especially the reputedly unmotivated majority, to use the newfound time productively.

Let's address the latter anxiety first. My own contact with teachers in programs funded by our foundation reveals a thirst for new knowledge and an eagerness to succeed. I usually meet the motivated types. But mustn't we believe, as an article of faith, that even the skeptics, if not the cynics, would bestir themselves to improve if school districts took professional development seriously? If we lack that threshold confidence in the nation's teaching corps, then no intervention imaginable will transform them into the kinds of educators needed to equip our country for the 21st century. Simply put, there's no teacher-proof curriculum for cultivating higher-order skills in kids.

If we trust teachers to devote lots more time to professional development, how then might they use that time? For serious, week-in, week-out activities such as institutes and workshops, cooperative planning and study groups with colleagues, technical assistance and coaching, content-area research, and reflection on one's practice. Experimentation over the last decade suggests that "state of the art'' professional development should cover, in no particular order, the expectations educators hold for students (especially those deemed at risk), child-development theory, curriculum content and design, instructional and assessment strategies for instilling higher-order competencies, school culture and shared decisionmaking, and so forth.

Assuming that teachers managed to put their newfound time to constructive use, could the same be said of students? Are there academically productive ways they could spend the equivalent of one day a week away from their regular teachers that wouldn't cost the district a bundle? Herewith some possibly naÃive notions from a parent who would happily swap five days of old-fashioned teaching for four days of the fresher variety, which holds the promise of fostering higher-order skills, plus a day of academically germane activity which reinforces them. It's true I've never taught in a K-12 setting, but I do have the consumer's-eye view of one who recognizes sound educational value for the school-tax dollar. Here goes:

  • Substitute instructional television for traditional instruction. Why not produce television programs for the express purpose of using them in grouped classrooms in lieu of regular teachers? Also, purchase up-front the right to use PBS programs for this purpose. Anthology series like "Nature,'' "Nova,'' and "The American Experience'' offer endless possibilities, as do excerpts from the "MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour'' and such epic miniseries as "The Civil War,'' "The Other Americas,'' "Eyes on the Prize,'' "Civilization and the Jews,'' and "Art of the Western World.''

The programs could be produced or reformatted for instructional use in segments and accompanied by such materials as discussion guides, supplementary readings, suggested projects, and homework assignments. Of course, the programs would have to be tailored by subject and grade level, but they needn't necessarily fit snugly into the formal curriculum in order to be worthwhile academically. Manning the classroom in the absence of regular teachers, conducting the accompanying discussions, and overseeing the work that's produced might be perfect assignments for student-teachers from local schools of education.

  • Reintroduce extracurricular activities. Those of us educated a generation ago remember with fondness the rich array of school-based extracurricular activities. Not merely the varsity and intramural sports, but the various clubs, debating societies, literary magazines, and school newspapers. Many were academically oriented, and they deliberately reinforced what was being learned in school by providing additional exposure to curriculum content and affording opportunities for students to polish academic skills, singly and in groups. Members of language clubs spoke only that language. Debaters honed their reasoning and argumentation skills. Students who loved science worked on complex, semester-long projects for science fairs. The academic value of such activities has been substantiated by Reginald Clark of California State University at Fullerton, who has found direct correlations between academic achievement and time spent on activities such as these, which give students what he calls a "mental workout.'' Sadly, a succession of fiscal crises has shorn public schools, especially those serving poor children, of such activities. Why not reintroduce them during those segments of the school day when teachers are engaged in professional development? Some could be student-run; others might be manned by student-teachers or volunteers.
  • Occasional large classes. Marshall Smith, the incoming U.S. undersecretary of education and erstwhile dean of the Stanford School of Education, reminds us that not all classes need to have a teacher-student ratio of, say, one to 30. College professors routinely lecture to 100 or more students. While a steady diet of large classes would surely be self-defeating, their occasional use to launch a curriculum unit and set the stage for follow-up study would probably work at the high school level. This too would free at least some teachers from classroom duty.
  • Higher-order assignments. If we're serious about equipping students to become self-directed learners who possess critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, then we must see that they are challenged, and given time, to become such. That means, among other things, providing course-related projects that they do individually or in teams--that they perhaps actually design--which progress in difficulty and duration, and which call upon them to do a variety of tasks, including interview, read, research, write, reflect, prepare, and present. Much of this work must be done outside standard classroom settings, in the library or in the community. Naturally, the students would need to be supervised, but they need not be in a teacher's line of sight every second.
  • Community service. With the enthusiastic backing of President Clinton, this idea is all the rage, and for good reason. The virtues are self-evident, so I won't repeat them. What about encouraging high school students, and perhaps even middle-schoolers, to participate in structured community-service activities during the school day? But let them extract some academic value from the experience as well.

Participants could conduct reseach on the agency where they're working, or on the issues that agency deals with. While helping in a day-care center, for instance, they could study issues in early-childhood education, research the debate over federal aid for child care, or examine the challenges of providing quality care. Every form of community service could be transformed into an opportunity for extended learning, and in due course, for preparing papers, projects, and presentations back in school.

I've no illusions that this list is exhaustive. Or that it would serve every school or teacher or student well. Some communities may be bereft of service opportunities that are convenient or safe. Some students may not function well in a self-directed activity and might squander the opportunity, or worse. The most chaotic and beleaguered schools may simply be unable to spring their teachers from classrooms, and thus would drift further behind their more organized and orderly counterparts.

Nevertheless, some fresh thinking about academically useful alternatives to the way students currently spend time in school may free up significant opportunities for teachers to spend their time--in the classroom and out--more productively. Teachers and principals who are closest to the classroom may have other ideas about how this can be done. Somewhere in this mix of extended learning activities may lie an answer to the puzzle of how to engage teachers in sustained professional development at comparatively little extra cost. If the problem of time can be solved, then school districts can repool their professional-development money for use for related curriculum materials, consultants, and technology.

The ultimate question, of course, is whether parents and policymakers can be persuaded that less classroom time will yield higher-quality learning. Experience overseas and experiments in this country suggest that it can. The keys are credibility and rigor--in both the alternative learning activities created for students and the professional-development opportunities thus afforded teachers. The solution to the problem of time may well lie in its more imaginative use.

Vol. 12, Issue 33, Pages 24, 32

Published in Print: May 12, 1993, as Teacher Professional Development: It's About Time
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