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I recently attended the annual conference held by NYSCATE, the New York State ISTE affiliate organization. It is a favorite conference of mine, since I served as a board member of that organization for about six years. It is also both comprehensive and progressive in the way of education conferences. As with all education conferences it is easy to identify what trends in education have been most popular over the last year by the number of sessions being offered on any given subject. I was delighted to see that there were several sessions on Professional Development, which is what I believe to be a key in improving our education system.
I was pleased to hear that in the summary of these sessions that they would address the problems with professional development. In my mind I envisioned a list of the problems I hoped that would be addressed from a teacher’s perspective. I was sorely disappointed to see the focus on those problems in some of the sessions was from an administrator’s point of view. It was based more on delivery and less on quality or effectiveness. The list included: How to get teachers to sign up for PD, how to get teachers to fulfill seat-time requirements, how to assure that teachers taking online components were really who they said they were. I immediately thought about a doctor who placed all of the effort to addressing and fixing the symptoms of an illness and missing the obvious task of addressing the illness itself.
What was clear to me in most of the sessions was that there was little focus on the failures of the PD that was to be delivered. There was only one session that addressed an understanding of Andragogy, also referred to as adult learning, and how components of their program addressed it. This session presented a larger more flexible Internet delivery system. Delivering information electronically without considering adult learners as your students doesn’t work. This was the equivalent of delivering paper-printed worksheets digitally. The problems that come with printed worksheets travel well electronically. Just because a computer delivered it, it doesn’t make it better. Research tells us that lecture is not the most effective way to teach, so why would we think computer-delivered webinars would work any better? There was a limited amount of follow-up support, and that support had to be initiated by the teacher’s request. There was no mention of follow up research to determine how effective the PD was in improving or even affecting student learning in the classroom. Of course I do not see this as a shortcoming of the educators who were charged with evolving this PD in their district. It was a short sighted direction to meet the immediate needs of their administrators to check off that box indicating that they offered PD to their teachers in terms they have come to understand after decades (maybe centuries) of the same old PD. Why do we question that teachers in overwhelming numbers list dissatisfaction with professional development as their number one concern?
The hard cold fact of the matter is that if we are to improve our education system, we must improve how we understand, deliver, and assess our professional development. That will not be comfortable for anyone in education. It will require commitment to time and money and that will affect teachers and administrators not to mention taxpayers. It is also why we haven’t made great strides in this area over the centuries that we have had a public education system.
We cannot assume that a four-year degree that addresses both mastering teaching, as well as additionally mastering a specific subject area, is enough to carry a teacher through an entire career in education. Many states require a Master’s degree, but many don’t. Of course that is only an additional two-year degree and careers are 35 to 40 years long.
I carried my concerns to another conference in NYC, The Software and Information Industry Association’s Education Business Forum (SIIA EBF). It is a great business education conference, rather than educators, it is made up of people representing the companies within the education technology publishers’ community. They provide the technology, systems, applications, programs, and consulting that schools purchase throughout the year.
I had dinner with an old friend whose career has been focused as a leader in professional development for educators. My question to him was based on my own concerns with PD in education. I asked, what should we do about the PD we are getting? His answer was simple, truthful, and I fear it to also be correct: Blow it up! We then spent our dinner conversation on WHY.
The bulk of “continuing PD” for teachers is a day or two during the course of the year, or during the summer, often to fill the gaps of the use of technology supported by the district. Additionally, teachers can take approved college courses or workshops that meet district requirements. Seat time is key to many of these courses in order to be approved. Seat time varies from place to place, but it all relies on a teacher being seated in a class for a specific number of hours and being able to certify it. With assessment being such a big part of what educators do, one would expect some assessment on what the teacher learned, or some assessment of the PD’s impact on that teacher’s students’ learning. For the most part that is not often done.
My friend at dinner pointed out that research shows successful methods of PD have common factors. Unfortunately, the first factor may make it a deal breaker for teachers and administrators. For PD to succeed, it must be at least fifty to eighty hours of continuous and continual instruction, practice, and coaching in order to attain mastery. This would require time from the teacher and money and support from the district. The obvious solution to this is to incorporate all PD into the job description of the teacher making it part of the workweek and supporting it with additional money for additional time and a professional coaching staff.
Further insight can be derived from The Learning Policy Institute: Effective Teacher Professional Development by Linda Darling-Hammond, Maria E. Hyler, and Madelyn Gardner, with assistance from Danny Espinoza
Elements of Effective Professional Development Using this methodology, we found seven widely shared features of effective professional development. Such professional development:
And here is another support from an older article that is still very relevant is: Teaching the Teachers: Effective professional development
Paying attention to any part of these lists of recommendations could make a small difference from the status quo of the past centuries of practice for PD. The idea of blowing up the entire thing and starting over, with all of the considerations that we have come to understand work, would be the best thing we could do to improve on what we have.
As educators, we are a community of learners first, and teachers second. As educators, we collaborate, reflect, and improve. As educators, if we fail, we assess, correct, and move forward. Knowing who we are, and what we do, why do we as educators continue to put up with a failing Professional Development approach that handicaps our profession and limits our students? Let us consider, reflect, collaborate, and improve what we know and how we learn it to affect the greatest and best change for our students.
If we are to better educate our kids, we must first better educate their educators.