Opinion
Professional Development Commentary

Bringing Professional Development Into the 21st Century

By Alvin H. Crawford — September 09, 2011 6 min read

Our school systems are broken, but everyone seems to have his or her favorite villain rather than a strategic approach to producing positive student outcomes. Unions, teachers, districts, parents, politics, school choice, and competition all play a role, but the blame game doesn’t address the core problem. Here’s the reality: If we fix public education, every child will have an opportunity to break the cycle of poverty, and the United States will have an opportunity to play a role in the global knowledge economy. The challenge is determining the real source of the problem and providing a solution that works for every school in the nation. And those are no small tasks.

Research suggests the problems lie not with the students but with the adults. Teacher-performance research clearly illustrates we have a teaching problem in school districts. It suggests the quality of a classroom teacher is the single most important element in a child’s success. Given such data, one might conclude there are more suboptimal teachers than great ones. But let’s not immediately point fingers at teachers. Arguably, most enter the profession hoping to have an impact on children, yet a third leave after three years, and 50 percent after five years. The heart of the problem is that there are too many poorly trained administrators, principals, and teachers. In most industries, people are considered the most important asset, and corporate leaders ensure they are trained to do their jobs effectively. Public schools should be no different.

However, most foundations and policymakers have focused on accountability and evaluation rather than training. The assumption: If we measure teachers more effectively, we can get rid of the bad ones. The problem is too deep and systemic, though. In short, we cannot fire or hire our way out of this problem. The statistics suggest that if we develop a support system for principals and teachers to train them effectively, we will change education culture, retain new educators more effectively, enhance the performance of existing staff members, and identify those who, despite effective training, can’t meet standards and should pursue other careers.

According to several studies, school districts spend more than $10,000 on teacher professional development per teacher, per year. The number is startling and, in most cases, represents an amount far greater than any district budgets or believes it spends. In most instances, staff development is funded through a combination of federal funds (Titles I, II, III, and IV, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), several district-level departmental budgets (curriculum and instruction, accountability, professional development, and human resources), and school-level budgets. In most instances, no centralized accounting exists for those dollars, either in how they’re spent or their overall impact.

In most industries, people are considered the most important asset, and corporate leaders ensure they are trained to do their jobs effectively. Public schools should be no different."

But the body of research reveals that staff-development costs, including central-office and local staff, hours of teacher time, stipends, salary increases, substitutes, facilities, instructors, and material expenditures hover in the range of $8,000 to $16,000 per teacher, per year, especially in larger districts. Most districts have no idea they spend that much on staff development. Sadly though, most administrators agree their professional-development outlay has no correlation with student-achievement results.

The $10,000-per-teacher cost could be justified if a significant change in teacher practice or student achievement were the result. But most professional development today lacks alignment to student-achievement needs, fidelity of implementation, and scale or reach. Professional-development days are historically spread throughout the year and delivered by internal resources through one-day trainings with little or no follow-up. In most cases, the inch-deep and train-the-trainer approaches to professional development won’t transform practice.

Scaling effective practice is also a significant issue. Most training takes place outside the classroom, an arrangement that requires coordination of days, substitutes, trainers, and facilities. This means many initiatives take six to eight years to reach all teachers in a given school or district, creating isolated pockets of knowledge but no systemic change in overall teacher practice. Research should dictate the model and methods for training all employees, but curiously, over 15 years ago, the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, or CPRE, wrote a report on professional development that largely echoes the same problems we have today: lack of alignment, fidelity, and scale.

There is a “paucity” of solid research on the impact of professional development on student achievement, the U.S. Department of Education has found. In reviewing 1,300 studies on the subject, the department found that only nine of them met What Works Clearinghouse standards for research. However, the nine studies agreed that “teachers who receive substantial professional development” can raise student achievement “by about 21 percentile points.” A report by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education concluded that to be effective, professional development must be focused, engaging, intensive, linked to student learning, supported with coaching, and integrated with other school initiatives, and continuous for “an average of about 50 hours or more on a given topic.”

Given the challenges and the evidence, how do we deliver effective professional development to teachers in a way that aligns to strategic objectives, provides the fidelity and rigor required to change instructional practice, and offers the scale required to address the needs of more than 50 million students?

The only effective way to scale professional development is to leverage online learning. Online professional development can deliver dozens of hours to teachers within eight weeks and includes collaborative learning environments supported effectively by coaching, modeling, mentoring, observation, and feedback. Online professional development works because it reduces travel costs and coordination, minimizes time out of the classroom, and allows educators to learn at their own pace. In fact, research suggests that online learning happens faster than face-to-face learning, with increased retention of the material.

Online professional development engages educators in high-quality learning by adhering to best practices in adult learning. It promotes differentiated coursework while enabling teachers to engage collaboratively with colleagues who share their learning needs. By delivering effective, differentiated online professional development, districts leverage the powerful advantages of technology and the online-learning environment. Districts delivering online professional development realize cost savings, scale critical instructional practices, differentiate teacher learning, advance strategic human-capital management, maintain intentional fidelity, and transform teaching.

Building educator capacity this way allows districts to focus on fixing the problems, immediately. Imagine if a district could effectively train 5,000 teachers in the common-core curriculum, differentiated instruction, cultural competency, effective teaching, instruction of English-language learners, formative assessment, and highly engaging classroom practice. Those courses could be delivered in less than six months to all teachers by the nation’s leading practitioners, with research-proven practice.

Imagine the dialogue. Imagine the engagement when principals, teachers, and coaches go about their work. There would be a common language and culture focused on addressing the problems. There would be a support system to help transform learning into practice. There would be a way to evaluate whether teachers who receive training and face-to-face support can meet the demands of rigorous instruction through end-of-year evaluations. And there would be transformational improvement in the ability of teachers to meet the needs of their students.

It’s time to take action and invest in developing our educators to meet the needs of 21st-century students by becoming 21st-century teachers. We can solve this problem by focusing our efforts, our investments, and our school districts on building capacity through online professional development.

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