Rethinking Professional Development

August 25th, 2011

Category: Policy and Practice

I’ll be honest—during my teacher tenure I didn’t always pay attention in professional development sessions. I either lesson planned, graded papers, or focused my efforts on the million and a half other things I needed to do yesterday. That’s why I had to pause when I saw several million dollars of Race to the Top funding going towards professional development (for example, $1.4 million going towards Learning Focused Strategies).  As a former teacher, I definitely understand the value of professional development as a whole, and I recognize the value of LFS—many LFS practices are actually things we learned during Delaware Teaching Fellows or Teach for America training. It’s just that $1.4 million is a lot of professional development hours.

We need to evaluate our approach to professional development and consider how best to use our teachers’ time. New research shows that approaches like coaching and embedded professional development can produce higher student achievement than a traditional program. The study’s findings that targeted teacher coaching are the key makes a lot of sense in the context of my teaching experience. In the classroom, my one-on-one or small-group work with my students is when I had the most effect on my students, targeting their weaknesses, correcting misunderstandings, and pushing thinking further—it stands to reason that this is the case for teachers, too.

What’s exciting is that several districts are doing just this—looking for ways to adopt a smarter approach to professional development:

  • Howard and Delcastle (NCC Votech) are piloting the Teachscape platform, an acclaimed professional development tool that allows a 360 degree view of a teacher’s classroom that administrators can watch without disrupting the classroom itself.
  • At least 6 districts are implementing the PD360 platform to try to streamline observations and track the effectiveness of professional development. Several more are using various other PD tracking platforms to ensure professional development is targeted and effective.
  • Many Race to the Top plans include language around using mentor teachers to actively coach teachers in the classroom and work on identified weaknesses and improving targeted student-teacher interactions.

I’m glad Race to the Top is about more than just increasing budgets for professional development—it has also challenged administrators and policymakers to rethink professional development. The State Board of Education recently approved regulatory changes that created higher statewide standards for professional development, and districts are targeting supports towards specific subject areas or grade levels. We’re on the right track and I’m excited to see what comes from the innovations mentioned above.  The challenge now is to make sure we keep testing and evaluating our practices, and then think about sustainability when Race to the Top funding runs out. Here’s to hoping we follow-through so that we can develop our teachers to be the best in the nation.

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Brian Yin



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