A new joint report from the PD-focused company Learning Forward and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future suggests educators continue to lack agency in choosing their own professional learning.
“For many teachers, professional development has long been an empty exercise in compliance, one that falls short of its objectives and rarely improves professional practice,” writes Laurie Calvert, the author of the report and education policy adviser to Learning Forward and NCTAF.
(Members of the Learning Forward organization write an opinion blog on this site as part of a content-sharing partnership with Education Week Teacher.)
Research show that states spend a lot of money on professional development (up to $18 billion), with the federal government spending more than $2 billion a year. But the quality of teacher training comes under routine scorn and cynicism. This new report is no different, offering seven steps for improving PD by increasing the amount of agency teachers have to choose it:
- Ensure at least 50 percent of all teams or groups responsible for selecting PD at the local level consists of teachers;
- Reorganize schedules to allow teachers more opportunities to collaborate;
- Help teachers learn to use data to understand their own instruction;
- Establish high-quality professional-learning communities;
- Give teachers choices for PD, including who they work with and where they focus;
- Use PD for growth, not for evaluation; and
- Don’t automatically scale up PD just because it works for one teacher
The report, based on interviews with 26 teachers and administrators, includes several examples of educators finding ways to have a certain level of autonomy over their professional learning. There’s also a profile of the Long Beach, Calif., system of personalized teacher PD that my colleague Stephen Sawchuk wrote about for Education Week last fall.
Professional Development vs. Professional Learning
Calvert’s report makes an argument for separating two terms that are often used interchangeably: Professional development and professional learning. The former, she says, is something that is done to educators, while the latter is something educators do for themselves.
The report does note that professional learning is not guaranteed to work better than PD: “There will be times when the adults in the room will choose learning experiences that do not significantly change their thinking or their practice. Nevertheless, teachers are making a clear statement that what we have been doing is not effective.”
To that end, though, the report has received pushback. In response to both Calvert (and a follow-up post by Jal Mehta over at Learning Deeply), Ilana Horn, a professor of math education at Vanderbilt University, says the idea of giving teachers greater agency over their professional training overlooks a lot of problems with how teachers may use that agency. For one, she says, school environments may push teachers to pursue PD that may not be all-that-helpful:
Even in highly collaborative, well-intentioned teacher communities, other institutional pressures (e.g., covering curriculum, planning lessons) pull teachers' attention to the nuts-and-bolts of their work, rather than broader learning or improvement agendas." (Emphasis from the original)
And local agency means that PD best practices will be subject to a major degree of variegation:
For instance, if we have a lot of students failing a course, how do we get to the bottom of this issue? In many places, high failure rates are interpreted as a student quality problem. In others, they are taken as a teaching quality problem. Interpretations depend on how practitioners think this whole teaching and learning business goes down."
Or, as Horn offers in a more succinct bit on Twitter:
I have also seen great teachers fall short of articulating what makes their teaching great when sharing with colleagues @jal_mehta
— Ilana Horn (@tchmathculture) March 7, 2016
Not to let a good conversation drop, Mehta responded to Horn in kind, agreeing on many points. Yet he also emphasized that local input doesn’t exclude outside expertise, and doubled down on a central premise of his earlier response:
Most of what I usually write takes [this] tone—problems are systemic; lots of people at different levels have different things to contribute; we need to build a better system. But ... we fundamentally haven't organized our system as if as if we think that teachers are capable people who are worthy of respect and who can earn trust. We have a system where the superintendent comes in, chooses a set of priorities, and everyone is supposed to jump in that direction."
(There’s also a lot more of this conversation on Twitter.)
But to everyone’s point: Even as the deficiencies of PD systems have been well-documented, it’s a complex topic that is subject to a great deal of interpretation. This NCTAF/Learning Forward report isn’t the first to criticize PD, and probably won’t be the last.
More on professional development, the subject that never stops giving:
- Introverted Teachers Aren’t Sold on Push for Collaborative Time
- Reports: Teacher PD Drives School Growth, and Other Countries Offer Models
- To Tailor PD, D.C. Looks to Groom Teacher Leaders
Also there’s this whole report:
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.