The Intersection

Redesigning Professional Development

February 25, 2014

For years we have invested significant resources in professional development for teachers – somewhere in the vicinity of $16 billion per year. And please don’t forget the countless hours of time and energy that teachers spend in trying to move their practice forward. Unfortunately, the disappointing fact is that we have not seen the corresponding jump in student achievement that such an investment merits. It’s no surprise why when the common approach to professional development is revealed. More often than not, new strategies are demonstrated in front of groups of teachers who come from a variety of disciplines, grade levels, and school contexts. In this setting, teachers can observe and can ask questions, but they are sent back to their own classrooms to figure out how to adapt new strategies on their own.

We ignore the fact that when anyone learns something new, or tries a new approach, they immediately become a novice again. We know from our own life experience that novices seldom perform new tasks at a proficient level – it takes practice, feedback, and coaching to really master something. We know that this approach to professional development is bogus, but we persist! And it seems particularly stupid at this moment in time, when we have invested billions in new standards that promise real gains for students.

What to do? In recent years, several technological innovations have made it possible for teachers to engage in the professional development that helps them discover and try recommended strategies in their own classrooms. They can get timely feedback, chart an evidence-based record of their own growth, and work collaboratively. Social learning platforms like Google Hangouts, Edmodo, and Teaching Channel all enable teachers to form asynchronous on-line study groups that help them to analyze and master new approaches. Further, affordable and ubiquitous smartphones and mobile tablet devices allow teachers to video-record themselves in action while they are trying new strategies – providing them with an evidence-based record of their efforts.

Watch this 13-minute video – A Passion For Fractions – of Ms. Becky Pittard teaching her elementary school students about fractions. Her lesson is aligned with three Common Core Math Standards, but what you can observe by watching her and her classroom work through a lesson would take weeks to communicate in a staged demonstration or by reading text alone. By watching this video you can also observe how a master teacher plans her lesson, manages her classroom, and helps her students talk through a problem.

Very shortly, PARCC and Smarter Balanced will roll out new assessments. Millions have been invested and both consortia are promising assessments that are more rigorous and more informative than the standardized tests we have relied on for years. It is crucial, at this moment in time, that teachers get effective and professional support. If we can’t help teachers grow and gain the skills that help students successfully master the challenges ahead of them, we will undermine the enormous effort we have all made to improve student learning in the U.S.

If we take advantage of new tools that can make professional learning action-oriented and evidence-based, educators will have a much greater chance of succeeding. Paying attention to teacher support is critical.

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