Perhaps no other aspect of the teacher-quality system in the United States suffers from an identity crisis as severe as that of professional development.
Few in the education field discount the eminently logical idea that teachers should be supported in the continuous improvement of their craft. But as a term for describing ongoing training investments in the teaching force, “professional development” has become both ubiquitous and all but meaningless.
Though frequently invoked by lawmakers and consultants, most recently in states’ applications for the federal Race to the Top competition, professional development plans generally incorporate little context about who will provide the training and for what purpose. That this situation endures, despite a focus during the past decade on data analysis and research to improve instruction, is both a testament to the complexity of the professional-development enterprise, and its greatest problem: Mediocre, scattershot training, apart from doing little to help students, is a burden for teachers.
Sorting Through the Jumble to Achieve Success
“At some point, you are in this meeting and feel you’ve been there two million times before, and it starts to grate,” said Jess Rhoades Bonilla, an 11th grade English teacher in New York City. “It can be a teacher-morale issue as well as not a good use of time.”
New developments in education policy portend a crossroads of sorts for the field of professional development. For one, the idea of “teacher effectiveness” is now front and center on the state and national policy agenda. In theory, the idea dovetails with the goal of professional development: to ensure that teachers have opportunities to improve their craft and are given tools with which to do so, and that school systems have a way of determining whether students learn more as a result.
Yet advocates acknowledge that professional development risks marginalization in the teacher-effectiveness conversation unless it is able to articulate clearly its place in producing better teachers.
“The hard truth is that, until recently, the field of professional development has been underdeveloped and immature,” said M. Hayes Mizell, a distinguished senior fellow at Learning Forward, a nonprofit group and membership organization that works to improve the quality of ongoing training. “It has tolerated a lot of sloppy thinking, practice, and results. It has not been willing to ‘call out’ ineffective practice and ineffective policy. ... It has not devoted attention to outcomes.”
In this special report, Education Week takes a detailed look at some of the critical issues faced by those charged with upgrading the quality of post-preparation teacher training.
Among other topics, this package of stories attempts to offer new insights into some of the fundamental questions about such training’s research base, its cost and its implementation in districts, and the changing marketplace for professional-development providers. The report also aims to launch conversations about changes in the field, including advancement in the curriculum of professional development and a new focus on serving an increasingly diverse student population.
Teacher-quality policy has evolved dramatically since 1996, when Education Week last examined professional development in a special report.
At that time, teacher quality was still largely defined by teachers’ characteristics, such as the selectivity of teacher education program attended, credentials held, educational attainment, and state licensing status. But as analyses of longitudinal data linking teachers to student test scores have become common, researchers have discovered that such individual characteristics are by themselves only weakly predictive of student academic success.
These mini-profiles—including video interviews—are meant to provide insight, but not to serve as representative examples of the districts in which they teach or programs in question. Their diverse experiences highlight the challenges districts face in providing high-quality training matched to each teacher’s needs.
In the past two years, policymaking has moved toward linking student outcomes to teacher performance. But as teacher tenure, hiring, seniority, and dismissal policies increasingly come under that microscope, comparatively little attention has been paid to ways to boost the effectiveness of the majority of educators who will remain in classrooms across the country.
From a policy standpoint, that could be partly because of the vast number of initiatives that purportedly invest in enhancing teachers’ knowledge and skills.
“We’ve recognized professional development as important, but we don’t have very clear standards for what we’re looking for and we don’t have much accountability for what teachers engage in,” said Jennifer King Rice, a professor of education policy at the University of Maryland College Park. “It opens the floodgates for just about anything to be called professional development.”
Practices that fall under the broad heading conceivably include everything from teacher induction and contractually set in-service days to content coaching, recertification credits, and participation in professional associations and networks.
In addition, scholars point to problems with how the training is selected and provided.
“Every time the superintendent goes to a conference, the teachers get worried, because they know he’s going to come back with something he wants to try,” said Thomas R. Guskey, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington. “We should start where students’ weaknesses and shortcomings are and then seek strategies or techniques to help [teachers] understand those shortcomings.”
A popular model for doing that is the “professional learning community,” or PLC, in which school-level teams of teachers meet periodically during school hours to examine student work from common assignments, brainstorm ways to instruct students who haven’t yet mastered standards, and evaluate the results of reteaching. Such efforts appeal to teachers like Ms. Bonilla.
“One ineffective way of doing PD is very top-down, giving little control to teachers and treating all departments and all teachers the same way,” she said.
The hard truth is that, until recently, the field of professional development has been underdeveloped and immature."
As with all teacher training, the team-based approach can be done well or poorly. Supporters of the model stress that merely putting teachers in a conference room once a week doesn’t, by itself, yield better professional development.
“There’s probably not a district out there that doesn’t think it’s doing PLCs,” said Judy Haptonstall, the superintendent of the 5,000-student Roaring Fork district, in Colorado, which for eight years has set aside time each month for teachers to work together. “But the heart of it has to be about planning for good instruction and evaluating teaching.”
Indeed, the relationship of professional development to teacher evaluation is among the murkier areas for educators to make sense of. Evaluation, the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s teacher-quality plans, ideally provides teachers with specific feedback about how to improve their craft.
Some educators, like officials at the Learning Forward group, formerly the National Staff Development Council, worry that the focus on individual teacher evaluation will dominate discussions about professional development, causing it to be seen as a remediation tool rather than a process for collective, schoolwide improvement.
But Timothy Daly, the president of the New Teacher Project, a New York City-based training organization, argues that better alignment between individual and schoolwide training is crucial for making professional development relevant.
“You cannot possibly have good professional development without a [formal] evaluation that tells you the skills that need to be developed and without a subsequent evaluation that lets you know whether they’ve been improved,” he said. “It helps set the curriculum for professional development.”
As such debates wind on, a variety of for-profit and nonprofit providers, both local and national, continue to populate a lucrative marketplace for professional development, and they are beginning to respond to the call to move training closer to schools.
Federal data suggest that a steady increase in teacher hiring during the past decade may have been caused by the phenomenon of the instructional-coaching model for professional development. And federal data also document an increase in the number of teachers who report participating in a mentoring program. (“Slew of Layoffs May Be Linked to Overhiring,” May 19, 2010.)
What all the spending on personnel, programming, and teacher release time actually buys remains hard to determine, because districts typically amalgamate federal, state, and local dollars for those purposes—and do little to track their impact on teacher and student learning.
Despite all the challenges in the field, there are signs of rejuvenation, too. Providers of all sorts are creating new programming to respond to new needs, such as helping general teachers work with special populations of students.
On the cutting edge is a way of thinking about professional development that focuses not just on content but also on the minute-by-minute ways teachers make pedagogical decisions in classrooms.
And finally, there are teachers in every building and every school who are dedicated to constant improvement. They include teachers like Corey R. Sell, an 11-year veteran of the field who for years has grabbed bits and pieces of everything from academic journals to in-service workshops that he felt would make him a better teacher.
Now all that remains is figuring out how to get all teachers to share that degree of professional commitment. That is not an easy task, says the 5th grade teacher in Arlington, Va., when some teachers prefer to close their classroom doors and new ones come into a culture that’s not always committed to ongoing learning.
“If I could find a way to get my own school to be innovative, to disrupt itself,” Mr. Sell said, “I’d do it in a moment.”
Freelance writer Bess Keller contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Professional Development At a Crossroads