IT Infrastructure

Reinventing Professional Development in Tough Times

By Anthony Rebora — March 16, 2009 9 min read
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Tight budgets could bring focus and new ideas to school professional development programs.

Last year, leaders with the Trussville school district in Alabama wanted to help their teachers learn more about integrating Web technologies into their lessons, a central aim of the district’s curriculum. Unfortunately, they didn’t have enough money in their budget to bring in leading ed-tech experts to provide professional development. So they did it anyway—in a manner of speaking.


Instead of hiring presenters to come to their schools, they downloaded free archived video presentations from the Web site of the K-12 Online Conference, an annual grassroots gathering of instructional technology aficionados. Then they featured the videos as part of a special series of staff development sessions for teachers on technology topics. Members of the district’s tech team and Web-savvy teacher leaders facilitated the sessions, leading discussions on the presentations and addressing teachers’ practical concerns. In some cases, they even conducted live follow-up interviews with the original presenters via Skype, the free Internet phone service.

“The result was we made massive strides in our tech proficiency,” says Shawn Nutting, Trussville’s director of technology. “After seeing these speakers, our teachers were off and running.”

Trussville’s approach wasn’t rocket science. It is instructive, however, because it combined a number of the elements that experts say are needed to provide effective professional development in times of budgetary constraint. These include a focus on instructional priorities, reliance on in-house leaders, resourceful use of technology, and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to let go of old assumptions.

More With Less

Indeed, it may sound odd, but many experts don’t see the current financial crunch in schools as necessarily being all bad when it comes to teacher professional development. They believe it could bring focus and innovative thinking to practices that are too often fragmented and hide-bound by convention.

“Tough times give us the opportunity to do [staff development] in a way that really works, even if providing less,” says Karen Hawley Miles, president and executive director of the nonprofit consulting organization Education Resource Strategies.

Likewise, Stephanie Hirsh, executive director of the National Staff Development Council, says that the current financial climate could provide “an opportunity to step back and review current programs, and examine what’s getting results and what’s not.”

And the general consensus is that there are many staff development activities taking place in schools that are not getting results—or at least not providing a decent return on schools’ investments. While most observers agree that professional development has generally improved in recent years, they say they still see too many expensive “drive-by” workshops and other offerings that may not be connected to schools’ or teachers’ actual needs.

“Any district hiring a consultant to come in for a one day for $10,000 or $15,000—that’s a waste of time and money,” says Ed Wilgus, a former district professional development manager who is co-founder of Systemic Human Resource Solutions.

Perhaps no less wasteful, experts say, is the scattershot way in which teacher professional development is often organized and delivered. In some schools, professional development amounts to “an unsystematic piling on of information,” says Nancy Fichtman Dana, a professor of education and director of the Center for School Improvement at the University of Florida.

“There’s too much coming at teachers” in ad hoc, fragmentary ways, agrees Miles.

Having a Vision

A heightened focus on the bottom line, then, could provide an opportunity to rein in wayward professional development offerings and reconnect staff learning to more clearly articulated priorities.

A place to start, according to Miles, is with a thorough stock-taking of what is currently being spent on professional development in a school or district. She advises leaders to “think big” about what to include in this analysis, since schools conventionally spend far more on staff development than they think they do. Indirect expenses like teachers’ time out of class and salary increases based on coursework completion are often overlooked, for example.

Once leaders have mapped out where precisely the money and resources are going, Miles says, they’ll have a sense of how spending could be better evaluated and targeted. Getting a big-picture view of how training dollars are spent can also protect against knee-jerk cost-cutting.

An essential next step, experts say, is to work toward crystallizing the focus and purpose of professional development in the school.

Teacher learning, says Miles, needs to be organized around a “clear and compelling vision"—that is, an overarching strategy for school improvement or instructional change. To illustrate, she gives the example of a large urban district that consolidated nearly all of its staff development resources into a coaching program designed to help teachers make better instructional use of assessment data, particularly in literacy. The program was closely tied to the district’s academic goals, and after two years, it was successful enough to justify an increase in the professional development budget.

In the same vein, Hirsh says schools should try to streamline professional development to “focus on those few areas where you want to go deeper.” She suggests that staff development activities be integrated with an instructional framework or a principal-walkthrough protocol.

Hirsh stresses the need to zero in on school-improvement initiatives already in place, as opposed to introducing new pedagogies or curriculum ideas with every staff development day. This is an “opportunity to stop focusing on the next new thing,” she explains.

From a more human resources-based perspective, Wilgus says schools could also give staff development greater coherency and financial viability—by integrating it with preset criteria or goals for teachers’ professional growth. Defining where teachers should be and what qualities they should possess at specific career stages can help leaders become more thoughtful about professional development and how resources should be allocated, he says.

Internal Work

In addition to creating an opportunity for greater focus, budget re-forecasting could dovetail with what experts generally believe is a positive trend already taking place in the professional development arena: the move toward giving teachers a greater role in their own learning. Staff development may become “more internal,” says Hirsh, with cash-strapped schools eschewing high-priced consultants and putting a greater emphasis on the expertise and professionalism of their own teachers.

Teacher-directed professional development—often categorized as job-embedded professional development—is a term covering a variety of activities, from instructional coaching to professional learning communities to inquiry-based teacher-research projects. Currently, there is no direct evidence that programs based on these methods are necessarily less costly than traditional, workshop-and-conference based programs, says the University of Florida’s Dana, who is co-author of The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Professional Development: Coaching Inquiry-Oriented Learning Communities. But they do have some clear financial advantages. Apart from potentially cutting down on travel expenses and consultant fees, says Dana, they “depend on expertise that has often been discounted” in schools—that of teachers.

And while direct cost-savings are difficult to determine, Dana contends that there is growing evidence that teacher-facilitated staff development models do give schools a “better return on investment than traditional models.” Research is starting to show that job-embedded methods such as PLCs and action-research projects are more likely to result in changes in the classroom, she says.

Part of the reason for this is simply that teachers often have a better grasp than outside consultants or remote district officials of the kind of knowledge and training they and their colleagues need to help their students, says Dana. Many observers also believe that, because it is closely connected to teachers’ day-to-day work, teacher-led training is more likely to embody the hallmarks of high-quality professional development—feedback and follow-up, connection to practical classroom issues, and teacher engagement and reflection on practice.

Dana strongly cautions against thinking that teacher-led models are in any way cost-free, however. The expenses for successful programs include materials and resources, incentives or bonuses and training for facilitator-teachers or coaches, and—perhaps most crucially—the out-of-class time teachers need to collaborate and study.

“It’s absolutely possible to cut costs, but you need to think carefully about resources,” Dana says. For starters, she recommends looking closely at “existing structures” such as faculty-meeting schedules and teacher-leadership roles to see how they can be integrated with collaborative professional development models.

Making Connections

As the Trussville district demonstrated, another resource that may need to be looked at more imaginatively in hard times is the Internet. Simply put, school leaders looking to control professional development costs should be asking, “How can I leverage Web 2.0?,” says Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, a former district administrator and co-founder of Powerful Learning Practice, a digitally-oriented professional development provider.

Nussbaum-Beach believes the growth of interactive Web technology fits in perfectly with the current professional development environment “because it can reduce costs, and it’s the way schools should be moving anyway” for delivering instruction and learning resources.

At the most basic level, Nussbaum-Beach points to the availability of webinar and related online-conferencing programs that enable schools to connect teachers with speakers and authors at a fraction of the cost of holding an in-person workshop or traveling to a conference. Among the programs she highlights are Elluminate, WizIQ, Adobe Connect, and Skype, some of which have free services for educators.

But Nussbaum-Beach also contends that schools could vastly increase teachers’ learning opportunities by integrating current online-networking tools with professional development. She cites the micro-blogging platform Twitter and the social-bookmarking site Delicious as examples of free services that can help educators get “just-in-time-answers” to instructional questions and build on their own research by connecting with colleagues nationwide. More broadly, on social-networking sites like Ning, teachers can join and build interactive learning communities—perhaps expansions of existing in-house PLCs—based on particular instructional topics or subject areas. “Out of collaboration, over time,” Nussbaum-Beach says, “deep learning comes.”

Given the availability and growing significance of such resources, she argues, the key for schools might be to provide a structured, goal-oriented framework in which teachers have the capacity and flexibility to “essentially take over the professional development job” and direct their own learning.

That sounds like a smart use of resources, both in tough times and beyond.

A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2009 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Reinventing Professional Development in Tough Times


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