Is Professional Development for Teachers a Waste of Time (and Money)?

For the next two weeks, bloggers here in the CTQ Collaboratory will explore the theme: How Do Teachers [Really] Learn? We invite you all to join us with your thoughts and questions here on the blogs or on social media at #Love2Learn.

 

A recent study and several spin off articles, proclaim the quality of teaching does not improve after teachers receive professional development, particularly the kind usually mandated by their districts or schools. While there have been questions about the methods and measurements of The New Teacher Project’s study, there’s huge anecdotal support for its conclusion. Every teacher I know has at least one PD horror story. Here’s mine: One year our district required every teacher to sit through an afternoon session the day before students would arrive during which we listened to a highly paid not-so-motivational speaker tell his childhood stories; then he capped off the wasted half-a-day by making us stand and sing along to all the verses of Kenny Rogers’ “(You Picked A Fine Time to Leave Me) Lucille.”

Another report declares that offering incentive pay or bonuses based on higher student test scores did not result in increased teacher performance. Of course, teacher leaders here at CTQ some time ago, warned that many pay-for-performance plans were ill-conceived and could create more problems than they solve. Being true teacherpreneurs, we also put forward workable solutions to help those places that wanted to develop performance pay models more thoughtfully.

Some have argued, using old, questionable data that those who enter teaching are from the lower end of the academic pool to start with; then use that straw-man fallacy to make teachers responsible for poor performing students and failing schools. Others suggest that teachers experience steep professional growth during their first five years in the classroom, then settle into a plateau of complacency until they retire.

Given these questions and questionable findings, is it realistic to talk about every child in every school having high quality teachers? Is there a limited supply? Are there enough to go around? Can we move teachers who are novice or mediocre to higher levels of skill and performance after they’ve left initial teacher prep, or do we have to more rigorously front load them?

In their 1999 seminal work, The Teaching Gap, James Stigler and James Hiebert argued eloquently that we have the teachers we need, we just need to help them get better. I would add…and give them and their students the environments in which they can actually practice highly accomplished teaching.

In every true profession, we expect:  a) intensive training from the start, b) rigorous entrance requirements to be allowed to practice, c) mentorship or apprenticeship under seasoned experts, d) continued professional learning and updating of skills, e) the creation of new knowledge by practitioners and researchers in the field, and most important, f) a systematic sharing and passing on of that accumulated knowledge by the profession [Thank you, Lee Shulman]. Sadly, many outside education, and some within it, do not regard teaching as a true profession, partly because we do not consistently exhibit all of these criteria.

Into this milieu, some 25 years ago stepped the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) with the then radical notion that we could and should identify highly accomplished teaching, and that it was something every teacher should strive towards in his or her practice. To that end, NBPTS has created and published performance standards for highly accomplished teaching in almost every content area and grade level. It has also recently created the ATLAS video collection, making it available for teacher education and for professional development. The significance here is that NB standards are created by teachers, for teachers, and have a proven record of impact on student learning and student achievement. What does that do to the concept that teachers don’t want to learn and/or are incapable of improvement over the course of their careers?

Likewise, we are seeing a proliferation of teacher-generated, grassroots PD ranging in formats from virtual PLNs, educator Twitter® chat groups, international online conferences completely organized by teachers, Edcamps and other unconferences, to teacher-led or teacher-powered schools. Is there any evidence that these approaches have more impact on teachers? How does that impact show up in their classrooms?

Meanwhile, some teacher preparation programs are changing dramatically, as are some of the professional and subject area organizations in how they support professional growth. Thankfully, some schools and districts are also changing their approaches to PD, but what about those that aren’t? What are the implications of teacher learning (or the lack of it) for students?

For the next two weeks, many of the bloggers here in the CTQ Collaboratory will engage in a roundtable discussion of these and other questions as we explore the theme: How Do Teachers [Really] Learn? We invite you all to join us with your thoughts and questions here on the blogs or on social media at #Love2Learn.