Teacher Professional Development Needs a Makeover

Recently The New Teacher Project (TNTP) released an important study of teacher professional development. The study, titled “The Mirage”, aims to expose how taxpayers waste billions of dollars each year, because schools are providing “development” opportunities for teachers that yield no real results.

Dan Weisberg, chief executive of TNTP, spoke in an article by the Washington Post about the study. He comments,

“We are bombarding teachers with a lot of help, but the truth is, it’s not helping all that much. We are not approaching this in a very smart way. We’re basically throwing a lot of things against the wall and not even looking to see whether it works.”

The findings highlight the number one pitfall in education which is the mentality that if you just throw more money at the problem, then it has to get better. Right? Not exactly. I can say, as a classroom teacher, that Weisberg hit the nail on the head. And I know I’m not the only teacher out there who thinks this. Teachers have been jaded by professional development for years and no one had to conduct a study to prove this. The fact is that states mandate professional development in a way that forces schools and teachers to check off a box at the end of the year. This does little to encourage meaningful professional growth.

Still, there are critics of the study who say that TNTP has exaggerated the numbers. David Cohen brings up good points in his opinion piece, which is featured on Edweek. Billions of wasted dollars does sound a bit outlandish, especially considering the length of the study and the factors considered part of the $18,000 spent per teacher per year.

Yet regardless of the actual numbers, Cohen does say that “there’s much in ‘The Mirage’ that I think most educators could agree upon, regarding the importance of professional learning and the fact that we’re not doing it well enough. Yes, we do need more individualization, focus, coherence, and follow through.” (emphasis my own)

It’s that last sentence that should be the bigger picture lesson from all this.

Teachers want to feel like they have ownership of their development and can see a direct connection between their learning and teaching. The irony is that while good teachers know how to differentiate and motivate their students, education leaders don’t seem to understand these principles and how they apply to teachers. For the most part, professional development remains a top-down initiative regulated by states, pushed to administrators, and then forced onto teachers. From my experience, this means sitting in on meetings about technology I already know how to use, listening to speakers tell me things I already know, and talking to colleagues about things we’ve already discussed. Even if this isn’t wasting billions of dollars, it’s wasting precious time that I could use to become a better teacher. Professional development is a problem, no matter how you look at it.

But there are solutions. The most meaningful professional development I have experienced was through local Edcamps. These are unconferences, which means they are designed by educators for educators. The best part: if you don’t like the learning in one room you can move to another. Everyone who attends has a different perspective and gains something unique, but everyone contributes their own knowledge and walks away with a wealth of new ideas. The success of this model has spread rapidly across the U.S. as more cities and districts host their own Edcamps, even despite the fact that teachers must voluntarily give up a Saturday with no pay to attend these and there is no follow-up provided by districts. So how can we adapt this into the required PD?

Linda Hippert wrote a fantastic article featured on Getting Smart showcasing how some schools are leveling out the top-down PD toward a more horizontal model. Education is changing and school buildings are changing, so the ways teachers learn should be changing too. Within every school there are teachers with knowledge and skills to share with their colleagues. Teachers want time to observe each other and get feedback from trusted colleagues, instead of brief, high-stakes observations by administrators. Outside of class time, teachers want the freedom and choice to explore what’s best for their own classroom and teaching style. It’s time more schools take notice and redesign professional development experiences not based on money spent or hours logged, but rather based on personalized choices with time to experiment and follow-up on learning.

Thanks to studies like “The Mirage” and the work done by great schools everywhere, I look forward to seeing those changes soon.

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