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Special Report
Teacher Preparation

It’s Not How Long You Spend in PD, It’s How Much You Grow

By Liana Loewus — December 06, 2017 4 min read
From left, teachers Jordan McCarty, Ben Long and Linda Hutzler as well as special education co-teacher Francis Willis evaluate a video of McCarty teaching a class at Pine Mountain Middle School in Kennesaw, Ga. The three teachers come together weekly to collaborate and compare data, but this is the first time they watched video and provided feedback to each other.

The research is clear: The “sit ‘n’ get” model of professional development doesn’t work.

Yet the majority of states continue to base the requirements for maintaining a teaching license on clock hours or seat time. And very often that looks like teachers heading en masse to one-off conferences and seminars, disconnected from their everyday classroom work.

But 14 states, including Georgia most recently, are now trying something different. They’re asking teachers to craft personalized plans for improving their instruction, and they’re measuring success with proof of teacher advancement. “How long” teachers spend in PD is no longer the central question; instead, it’s, “How much did they grow?”

“It’s a big leap to change from something that’s very simple, straightforward, easy to document—either you did or you didn’t [get the hours]—and to move to something that reflects professional learning that’s effective,” said Dale A. Hair, a senior consultant for Learning Forward, an association for educators focused on improving professional learning, who has worked with a variety of states, including Georgia.

Georgia schools are officially beginning to make that leap.

From left, teachers Ben Long and Linda Hutzler as well as special education co-teacher Francis Willis evaluate a video of teacher Jordan McCarty (off-camera, left) teaching a class at Pine Mountain Middle School in Kennesaw, Ga. The three teachers come together weekly to collaborate and compare data, but this is the first time they watched video and provided feedback to each other.

A rule adopted this summer by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, which is in charge of licensing for the state, lays out a new vision for certificate renewal—one that requires teacher learning to happen on the job and continuously. It says teachers each need individualized professional-learning goals, and some will need more detailed learning plans. And all teachers have to participate in professional learning communities.

“Taking 10 professional learning units or the equivalent of two three-semester-credit-hour courses—there’s no research that supports that,” said David Hill, the director of special projects for the standards board, who headed the committee that came up with the rule. “We said, ‘Let’s find a better way.’ ”

Professional learning communities, which became popularized in U.S. schools about a decade ago, generally involve teams of teachers working together to improve specific areas of student learning. The teachers meet periodically to plan, analyze data, look over student-work samples, target problems, and give each other feedback.

“Having a cycle of that type requires a lot more higher-level thinking and planning than just going and sitting in a workshop where [teachers] may or may not come away with some beneficial tips they can use in the classroom,” said Hair.

The process is, by design, an intensely local one. The work is happening at the school level and is focused on reaching individual students.

And the Georgia professional-standards commission is taking a hands-off approach. Principals will essentially vouch that their teachers are engaging in the process.

“We can’t ask educators within your school to trust each other if we’re not also going to trust you,” said Hill.

When Hill explained that the process would be based on good faith rather than compliance in an early presentation to district leaders and principals, he got some laughs from the audience. But he believes deeply in the importance of trust, pointing to research from the 1990s by Sharon D. Kruse and Karen Seashore Louis on building school-based professional communities.

Accountability will come in the form of schoolwide data, he said. “If your school is not improving or your data is stagnant, you either don’t have a learning community or it’s not effective,” he said.

And there were plenty of problems with accountability in the previous credit-hours system as well.

“A lot of times teachers would go sign their name and leave, or have a friend sign their name, or teachers weren’t engaged, they were on their cellphone while the presenter was speaking,” said Jasmine Kullar, the principal of Pine Mountain Middle School in Kennesaw, Ga. “There’s no follow-up on how did you come back and implement what you learned? It was very hard to monitor.”

Kullar has been implementing PLCs for years now and has been widely recognized across the state for her leadership in that area. She said teachers actually feel more accountable for that kind of work.

“If we give the same quiz and we come back to share our data, and 90 of your kids failed, but only 10 of mine failed, we’re going to have a conversation,” she said.

Even so, she recognizes that implementing PLCs is a heavy lift—and much of it falls on the principal.

A video of Jordan McCarty teaching a class at Pine Mountain Middle School in Kennesaw, Ga. is paused while other teachers in her group provide feedback.

To ensure teachers have time to work together, “sometimes you’ve got to blow up your master schedule,” she said.

Over the past couple of years, questions have emerged about the effectiveness of PLCs. A 2014 study conducted by an outside research group for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found many teachers saying the process wasn’t working for them. Some educators say the meetings can devolve into teachers simply venting their frustrations, and plenty of schools have moved away from the model.

Georgia teachers have other concerns about the new process as well.

Districts often need to pay for substitute teachers or additional personnel to free up teachers to plan jointly. Schools, particularly in rural areas, often lack that funding, said Chris Baumann, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Educators. That “could lead to an uneven quality of professional development leading to certification,” he said.

The union is also uneasy about no longer having a role in the certification process. The GAE used to give members training that would count toward renewal. Under the new rule, that’s no longer an option. (However, colleges of education and regional education agencies, which tend to serve a pool of rural districts, can help teachers meet their goals.)

But Baumann emphasizes that the union believes in professional learning for credentialing and agrees with the use of individualized learning plans in concept.

“It appears that it will be [better than the previous system], but we’ll see how it plays out,” Baumann said. “Time will tell.”

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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