Cheap professional development costly to students

In a great blog postScott Elias at EdWeek’s Leader Talk, asks why we can’t be more logical and pragmatic when it comes to professional development for teachers by doing something truly radical—asking the teachers what they already know and what they need to learn.

Those of you parents or non-educators in the audience may marvel at the need for anyone to even have to bring this up, much less argue for its implementation. Sadly, educators all over the country have suffered from lousy, ineffective professional development thrust upon us by well-meaning administrators, or in some cases, legislators.

Scott does a great job of exploring some of the main causes of useless PD in his piece, so I won’t repeat them here. One that he does not address, however, is financial. In the poor rural school districts in which I have taught there was either no money allocated in the annual budgets for professional development or very little (1-2%). Surely in education, more than any other profession, we would value our own learning enough to set aside time and money for it? Nope.

Most of the district- and school-provided professional development to which I have been subjected was the direct result of the district being awarded another grant. Poor districts are always on the hunt for grant funds of any kind. They help shore up the anemic local budgets which otherwise depend upon non-existent property taxes. Problem is, grants are by definition short-term in focus and duration. A new grant, a new round of PD sessions on whatever philosophy, technique, or corporate sponsored products propelled the grant.

In my last school district, the administration applied for and received five separate reading program grants during the same school year. Each program had its own favored reading series/program/technique. Each came with its own mandatory training and PD. Several of these methods were contradictory; one was downright silly.They were all for the same grade level children, with copious amounts of recordkeeping. Some teachers refused to come back at the end of that year; others took early retirement. At least one became physically ill. The children were confused, and at the end of it all, the reading scores remained flat or dropped. Why did the district leadership put us through all that? The grant money helped pay the salaries of three teachers, two central office staff, and got us some new computers and software we could keep after the grants expired. And—oh yeah, the “free” PD was included.

Where was the pedagogical integrity? Where was the planning and coordination? Professional development is still viewed by some administrators as either a luxury or a necessary evil rather than an opportunity to allow professional staff to grow. Which is why more and more quality teachers are choosing to pursue their own professional development apart from their schools or districts, and more of that is being increasingly accomplished via virtual networks and tools.

That’s good in one sense—teachers are professionals who should take initiative to advance their knowledge and skills. What’s not good is that this individual pursuit of professional development can further weaken the collective fiber of the school. Close collaboration and coordination among teachers within a building are hallmarks of the most successful schools for students. Genuine, teacher-driven professional development helps make that happen. The schools, for example, that actually get professional learning communities (PLCs) right, see the tangible results of what well-grounded, peer-connected, job-related professional development can do.

The rest of us are still trying to get through another year of (not) motivational speakers, high paid consultants, corporate marketing disguised as PD—and a lot of wasted time.