Moving Away from Standardized Professional Development for Teachers
Professional development, or PD, is a mandatory aspect of teachers’ working lives—whether they find it useful or not. Building upon the idea that the often mixed reception to PD may be due to some aspects of standardized programs being less relevant than others, a recent post on the education industry site Education Dive asked a thought-provoking question: Should teachers choose their own PD?
Linda Jacobson, the author of the piece, noted that the federal Department of Education has expressed interest in promoting teacher-led PD as an alternative to traditional professional development structures; more specifically, President Trump’s proposed 2020 budget sought to eliminate the Title II program that underwrites PD grants and class size reductions. Although previous budgets earmarked $2 billion for Title II, the program was selected for termination based on the belief that PD could be addressed by other department initiatives, such as vouchers with which teachers could pursue PD opportunities on an individual basis.
Although the proposed budget came under fire for what amounted to an overall reduction in funding, it served to elevate an important question: Are current PD delivery methods sufficiently effective, or do they miss the mark?
As Jacobson pointed out, “districts across the country have already been letting teachers steer their way through the array of learning opportunities available to them,” with some working to rethink PD long before the Trump administration broached the topic. For instance:
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided grants to several districts willing to experiment with PD, including California's Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD); using the myPD app, LBUSD teachers can exercise choice within a framework of vetted, district-approved PD offerings.
Teachers in Suffolk, Virginia, are empowered to access relevant PD through an online resource library.
Ways to improve PD
In a 2019 blog post for the website We are Teachers, Nevada educator Angela Barton wrote about the hours of lackluster PD to which she’s been subjected on the job, then cited some troubling statistics from the Gates Foundation that seem to indicate that she is far from alone in this experience. Specifically, despite the nation investing a substantial amount ($18 billion) into PD each year, less than 30 percent of surveyed teachers reported being “satisfied” with their PD.
Barton went on to list PD elements that she and her fellow teachers would likely find more valuable than the status quo, including the following:
Resource navigation: The marketplace of classroom materials and products is extensive, and while it's good to have options, too dizzying of an array may leave teachers overwhelmed. With this in mind, Barton suggested designing a PD session to boost teachers' awareness of what's out there (for instance, the open-marketplace Teachers Pay Teachers website, which allows teachers to buy and sell supplemental materials, lesson plans, and more) as well as to offer assistance in navigating some of the more complex options (such as DonorsChoose).
Self-care: There’s no doubt about it, teaching is stressful—and unfortunately, PD often compounds the problem by “piling something else on our plates,” as Barton phrased it. To address this widespread issue, Barton advocated for a “session of massages or a staff walk” to boost everyone’s energy and reduce anxiety.
Communication: According to Barton, many teachers are eager for additional guidance about working with parents, so it may be worthwhile to offer a PD session focused on answering questions such as "What's the best way to structure parent-teacher conferences?" and "How can teachers productively share information about students’ challenges and strengths with parents?"
Specificity: A PD session that attempts to be all things to all people runs the risk of becoming too broad to be relevant—and of being tuned out by the audience as a result. To avoid this, Barton suggested creating PD curricula tailored to the specific needs and interests of teachers and their students, including topics that run the gamut from classroom management strategies to trauma-informed teaching.
How to make the most of teacher-led PD
While the suggestions outlined above certainly have the potential to improve PD (along with teachers' opinions of it), Education Dive's Jacobson warned that teacher-led PD needs to be judiciously implemented in order for participants to reap its full benefits. More specifically, she advised keeping the following points in mind:
Look at the big picture: Although personalized PD will likely get a warmer reception from teachers than its more standardized counterpart, it should still be structured within the context of overall school and/or district goals.
Support teachers along the way: Even the most effective PD is doomed to fall flat if teachers aren't given the time, space, tools, and support they need.
Focus on best practices: A 2018 Association for Curriculum Supervision and Development post about redefining PD drew a straight line between differentiation for teachers and by teachers. According to the post, teachers who are expected to view students as individuals should also be treated as individuals themselves, which means not subjecting them to one-size-fits-all PD.
Although standardized PD can help ensure the widespread incorporation of school- and district-level objectives, it is important to consider the needs and requests expressed by teachers. After all, the ultimate goal of PD should be to equip teachers with the knowledge and skills they need to serve their students well.
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At the heart of teacher effectiveness is the teacher’s ability to understandthe strengths and weaknesses of every student in the classroom. Curriculum-focused PD tells teachers “what” instruction they need to provide, but not necessarily “why” specific students require certain instructional resources and “when” those resources are needed. Read the white paper by Lexia’s Chief Education Officer, Dr. Liz Brooke, to answer these questions.