Professional Development

EdWeek's Special Report on Professional Development

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 10, 2010 2 min read
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A man dies and goes to heaven. Passing the pearly gates, he notices that there are plenty of folks from all professions and walks of life standing around, but no teachers.
“Where are all the teachers?” he inquires of God.
“Oh, they’re in professional development,” God replies. “In hell.”

That was one of the jokes I was told by an educator when I began reporting Education Week‘s special series on teacher professional development, released as a special section in this week’s edition. The joke is, obviously, a little over the top, but it gets at one of the subtexts of current conversations around PD: Though there are scores of great teachers, teacher leaders, researchers, scholars, and providers working deep in the trenches to change and improve the training, PD suffers from a real branding problem.

While many of the folks I spoke to over the course of my reporting said that the overall caliber of PD has improved over the past few decades, they could also all remember their worst experience. Over and over, I was told, the training just has to get better, if policy folks are going to take professional development seriously—and invest in it as a long-term strategy for boosting teacher effectiveness.

That’s the basic reason why we at EdWeek decided to take a serious look at PD. You can now access all the stories online, along with some special Web-only features.

This was an especially challenging project. What we currently talk about as “staff development” in the field varies incredibly in its provision, duration, content, quality, and so forth that talking about it in a general sense is like walking through a field of land mines.

At times, I found myself feeling a bit like Alice must have felt down the rabbit hole, in that some of even my most basic assumptions, like how much the average district spends on the training, turned out to be misinformed. In the end, my colleagues and I decided that tackling some of those assumptions head-on would be a fresh way to approach the topic.

Our series is hardly a comprehensive look. Two thoughtful readers rang me this morning asking why we chose not to do a story specifically on teacher induction or on math-content professional development. I hear you, and there are still many avenues to be explored.

Some important stories are still just spinning themselves out now. For instance, a few sources wanted me to delve more deeply into the link between teacher evaluation and professional development. While there are some really interesting projects to that end—the Teacher Advancement Program comes to mind, as does the American Federation of Teachers’ experimentation—it’s still a novel concept.

Indeed, there were many interviews and great examples that didn’t make it into the report, and I hope to follow up on some of them on this blog.

I had great help on this project from Mary Ann Zehr of Learning the Language fame, and also from my predecessor on the teacher beat, Bess Keller. Working with Bess was a particular pleasure for me, because I’d long admired her work before arriving at EdWeek.

Most of all, I found the teachers we profiled in this report to be inspiring, hardworking, and full of thoughtful opinions about the state of PD. It took a lot for them to share so honestly and openly about their experiences, so I hope you’ll check out what they had to say.

I look forward to hearing your reaction to the stories.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.