Teaching Profession Opinion

From PD to Professional Learning: Organizing for a New Paradigm

By Jal Mehta — March 08, 2016 4 min read
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In a blog post yesterday, I called the existing top-down PD system broken, and suggested that we wanted teacher-led, teacher-owned professional learning instead. This has led to this thoughtful response from Ilana Horn, as well as some other responses from those who thought I was missing the need for good systems in professional learning. I think there is more heat than light in this “debate,” and I wanted to use this post to explain what I meant, since what is in my head was clearly not fully expressed in what I wrote.

1) The problems with professional learning are systemic. As my colleagues and I laid out in this Transforming Teaching report, to build a better system would require building a much more robust knowledge base, creating considerable more opportunities for teacher learning at all stages of the pipeline, and building school and district leadership that would support this learning. In the report, we lay out 12 design challenges that need to be taken on to make this new professional system a reality.

2) School-level PLCs, while very valuable, are not going to be the solution on their own. Schools are too variable, as are the teams within them. As with any form of decentralization, if we simply pushed power down, we will get inequality across schools. Relatedly, particular schools can be parochial - they know well what they know, but not what they don’t know. So, to anyone who thought I meant that teacher-led meant “do all learning at schools with and by teachers,” I agree that that is not going to be sufficient.

3) At the same time, that’s not the only form of “teacher-led” professional learning. On a panel yesterday, Bill Day eloquently spoke about what he had gained from Math for America, which enables him to collaborate with other math teachers in his region but who are not in his building. Especially with technology, there are lots of possibilities about how to create teacher collaboration, some of which might have different benefit than school-based PLCs.

4) Teacher-led also does not mean that teachers are the only source of expertise. In one school that I know, teachers have summer time to work on problem of practice that they and the school administration have mutually defined as important to their and the school’s work. (More specifically, teachers propose what they want to focus on, and a panel, made up of teachers and administrators, decides what to fund.) Then they have paid time to investigate the question, looking both internally (say the problem is gender differences in math performance, internal investigation might include interviewing students and looking at student work) as well as reading books, consulting experts, and talking to other schools. Then, what they learn has to be put into practice for the next year, and shared beyond the group that did the investigation. In that model, you have internal and external expertise, you have real time to work, you have teachers’ interests meeting with school interests, and you have accountability that what is discovered be used. But it is teacher-led and teacher-owned - isn’t that the kind of school where a talented teacher would want to work?

5) Most of what I usually write takes the above tone--problems are systemic; lots of people at different levels have different things to contribute; we need to build a better system. But the reason that I wrote yesterday’s post is that I think such a reasonable stance obscures a bigger picture problem, which is that 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. That’s just not how professional work works. In part, this is a problem of the knowledge base, which is supposed to provide guidance to the technical core, and that technical core should remain fundamentally constant even as leadership changes. In part it is historical and related to gender, where a mostly male administrative corps was expected to oversee a large female teaching force. But mostly it is about the fact that we have organized our system as if it is an administrative hierarchy when it needs to be a profession.

6) And this final point is a familiar one, but it is worth re-stating: other countries, including a number of the top PISA performers, have organized their system in a much more professional way than we have. Imagine a world, as in Singapore, where principals are chosen because of their success as lead teachers, and ministry officials are those who have excelled as building level instructional leaders. All of this is anchored by a teacher career ladder system which incentivizes this kind of mobility in a way that does not exist in the American system. That kind of a system still has layers (ministry, principal, teacher) but it is fundamentally owned by teachers and organized by people who know and have excelled at teaching work. We could have professional learning systems at the district level run by master teachers, and those systems would be much more likely to be attuned to the needs and concerns of teachers.

I’d love to see a world full of Long Beaches and Montgomery Counties, where thoughtful superintendents develop coherent approaches to professional learning that are highly attuned to the needs of teachers. I also like intentional portfolio approaches that delimit top-down directives and empower individual schools to create coherence at the school level. But for there to be more movement in this direction, there will have to be demand from below; teachers will need to organize as a profession, advocate against the kind of professional development experiences that are so common today, and push for the kind of professional learning systems that respect teachers’ knowledge and agency.

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