Stunted growth

A recent article here on TLN, appropriately titled, “The Sad State of Professional Growth,” includes this painfully accurate observation by our colleague, Rick:

As I’ve been traveling around these past few years working with schools, I’m amazed at how limited many teachers’ knowledge and application of assessment principles really are. There are some very effective practices I learned more than 25 years ago that, when I introduce them to teacher and principal audiences today, are bold new steps to them.

On-going professional development and annually renewing ourselves are just not priorities in many districts, particularly where money is tight. Except for the few teachers who take their development in their own hands and find a way to fight a system that tries to shut them down (e.g., principals who don’t let teachers attend conferences, refuse to subscribe to professional journals, don’t provide any time for planning, etc.), these districts plod along, holding teachers accountable without providing them the tools and resources necessary to evolve. Then they wonder what happened when test scores don’t improve.

This is a telling indictment not only of the state of professional development in many K-12 school districts, but also of the track record of teacher preparation. I can safely guess that the underinformed educators Rick describes are not just cynical, burnt out veterans, but also novices from alternative and traditional teaching preparation programs, as well as mid-career teachers stuck in some of the districts he describes above. 

In the high-poverty school districts where I have worked, the only professional development budget was the 1 or 2% of whatever two or three year grant we had most recently obtained. More often than not, it was training on whatever educational reform or product was being promoted by that particular grant (or administration), whether or not that was a match for our needs or those of our students. When the grant ended, so did the training. Since these were also critical teacher shortage areas with high turnover, there were always newer personnel coming who had missed the previous cycle of training. Those who remained became increasingly frustrated by “flavor-of-the-month” professional development offerings over which we often had little or no selection.

Fortunately, there are at least two promising seedlings in the field of educational professional development. One takes the form of collaboration between colleges of education and accomplished classroom teachers. An example is the Quest Project co-sponsored by the Goldman and Carnegie Foundations. In this project, “signature pedagogies” of outstanding teachers from diverse settings are collected using innovative web-based tools that are in turn used by teacher educators at pilot sites in training of candidates. 

My own classroom research project was part of this initiative. The most exciting aspect of that work was that the website included not only video of my teaching, but also interviews in which I explained the theory and rationales behind the techniques, as well as contextual information about the students and the school environment. Teacher educators who used my site (and the others) in their classrooms, in turn encouraged online discussion between me and the teacher candidates about what they had observed. My hope is that we will see the development in education of a deep, broad, constantly evolving collection of such field-tested, pedagogies, (best practice and not for teaching purposes) that can be used both for new teacher programs and on-going professional development.

The other trend is represented by growing number of teacher-led networks and conferences, many of them virtual, that are taking control of their own professional development without necessarily waiting for administrative stamps of approval.

Cultivating projects such as these through increased funding (public and private), and broader participation will go a long way towards stimulating genuine professional growth across our profession.