Professional Development Opinion

World-Class Teacher Professional Development: Neither Workshops or Rubrics

By Marc Tucker — December 19, 2014 6 min read
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There is a large literature on teachers’ professional development. Unfortunately, it is mostly about the provision of workshops. I doubt that anyone is surprised to learn that workshops that teachers attend only because they are required to do so and are paid to attend--workshops that typically provide tools to address problems they do not think they have and no tools to address the problems they do think they have--result in very little discernible benefit to anyone. I have just described a very large industry.

In recent years, another industry has arisen which claims to offer a new path to effective professional development: I refer to the development of standards for effective teaching and rubrics for judging whether teachers have the skills and knowledge called for by the standards. The best known of these systems is the one developed by Charlotte Danielson. It conjures up the image of a school principal sitting in the back of a classroom with a clipboard running through a list of dozens of different criteria for good teaching, each with its own rubric, page after page after page of this, trying to make fair judgments about the teachers’ performance. As Dylan Wiliam has observed standards and rubrics can be used to judge performance if done well, but they tell the individual very little about how to improve their performance. Does anyone suppose that this is how partners in our best law firms develop the professional skills of young associates? Or the way that the colonels in the US Army develop the combat skills of the officers who report directly to them? For centuries, great artists learned their trade by apprenticing to the masters. Do you suppose the masters carried around clipboards full of standards and rubrics?

The central issue here, in my view, is not how to conduct an effective workshop or how to judge an individual’s performance, but how to improve that individual’s competence. More precisely, the issue is how to design schools to create an environment in which the professional competence of the whole faculty is constantly improving. As you will see, I think the answer to this question has very little to do with workshops and even less to do with clipboards and reams of standards and rubrics. It has to do with organizational design. It is mainly a matter of getting the incentives and supports right.

The aim is to improve teachers’ expertise. One of the now-famous findings of the literature on expertise is that it takes roughly ten years to become expert in virtually any field. But teachers, on average, stay in teaching only five years. So it may be that the most important thing we can do to improve teachers’ professional competence is make the occupation sufficiently attractive to induce them to stick around long enough to become expert and then keep them in teaching long enough to enable their students to reap the rewards of their accumulated expertise.

But that same literature makes it clear that longevity does not by itself create expertise. One gets expert only by working hard and continuously to improve one’s competence.

And indeed, recent research shows that teachers’ competence seems to top out after three years, long before they can be said to be truly expert teachers. I suspect that this has something to do with the incentives teachers have to improve their game. I would argue that teachers’ competence does not improve on average after three years because by that time, they are good enough at their work to get by and then have neither the incentive nor support to work hard to get better. For most teachers, the job they have on their last day in the classroom is the same as it was on the day they became a teacher. Contrast this with the law firm, or the military or an engineering firm. Focus for a moment on the law firm. Recent law school graduates don’t sign up to be junior associates for the rest of their lives. Their aim is to make partner, maybe senior partner, maybe even managing partner. As they move up the ladder, they get more pay, more responsibility, more autonomy and greater status in the eyes of their colleagues and in the larger community. My guess is that the regard if not the admiration of their colleagues is worth at least as much as the pay to them.

Most teachers expect to be paid to develop their professional competence. But if the same people were doctors or engineers, they would be keeping up with their field on their own time and at their own expense. Why? Because gaining the expertise they need to stay current is the key to advancement in their chosen profession. But there is no career path for teachers unless they leave teaching. Without an incentive to learn, most will learn enough to get by and then stop. This is characteristic of blue-collar work but not of professional work.

Professional learning in organizations built around high-status professionals is a very important function of the firm. The same is true in the military. People higher up on the career ladder are judged in no small measure on their success at identifying promising junior people, providing them with growth opportunities, coaching them along the way, suggesting things to read when they are likely to benefit from them, providing them with access to just the right internal and external formal training when they need it and so on.

What we are seeing in the top performing countries in education is very much what I just described. The system cannot be implemented without well-designed career ladders. Without career ladders, there is no career. And, if we cannot offer real careers in teaching, we will not be able to keep or attract to teaching the very people we most want--those who have what it takes to go into the high-status careers.

But there is more. In most of the top performing countries, teachers have much more time to work together to improve their own performance and the performance of the students. They work in teams to design, field test, revise and then implement highly effective lessons. They do the same thing to come up with designs for formative evaluation of student progress that enable them to change their instructional strategy during a class if the students are not understanding what is being taught. They are constantly sitting in on each other’s classes, critiquing one another and learning from one another, in a very disciplined way. They are taught research skills and use them to judge whether what they are doing is really working.

Sometimes teachers in these schools decide they need some formal instruction offered in a workshop. But that is not the heart of the system for professional development. The heart of the system is the approach to school organization and management I just described. That approach provides very strong incentives for each member of the faculty to get better and better, not stopping when they think they are “good enough.” And it provides the support that every member of the faculty needs to become more expert. It is not about workshops or rubrics. It is about getting the incentives and the supports right. It is about creating an environment in which teachers believe that, however good they are, they can do better and never stop trying to do just that. That is what a world-class professional development system looks like.

I’ll be taking a brief blogging break for the next two weeks for the holidays. I’ll be back with the conclusion of the Common Core Implementation series at the beginning of next year.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers 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.