Effective professional development—for many teachers the phrase is an oxymoron.
Districts across the country are perpetually in search of professional training that engages and inspires their faculty. That search has an incredibly high price tag. America’s schools collectively fork out an estimated $18 billion for professional development—up to $15,000-$20,000 per teacher—according to recent statistics.
Despite the investment, most teachers say their professional development does not prepare them for success in the classroom.
A study from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that less than 30 percent of teachers are highly satisfied with their current professional development.
That might be changing for the better.
According to a new report from the non-profit Education Resource Strategies (ERS), some districts are starting to get PD right.
The study, Igniting the Learning Engine, analyzed four school systems that have seen improvement in teacher instruction and student progress, despite the introduction of new academic standards and high percentages of disadvantaged students.
The school systems analyzed in the study were D.C. Public Schools (Washington, D.C.), Duval County Public Schools (Florida) and Sanger Unified School District (California) as well as the charter school network Achievement First.
At the heart of each school’s professional training success is something researchers refer to as “Connected Professional Learning,” in which learning is embedded into every part of the teacher’s daily work.
ERS identifies three key elements that these schools were able to implement in achieving connected professional learning. As you work on your district’s professional development game this summer, keep these ideas in mind.
1. Comprehensive curricula and testing
Connected professional learning environments provide teachers with in-depth lesson materials that they can use in their classrooms, ERS reports:
“This allows teachers to spend less time on what to teach and more on how to adapt the lesson to their students’ unique needs and interests.”
D.C. Public Schools introduced “Cornerstone assignments,” comprehensive lesson plans and project assignments that teachers can use to better understand the elements of high-quality instruction. Teachers are then encouraged to transfer the fundamentals that worked in their cornerstone projects to their own free-standing classroom assignments.
2. Content-focused collaboration
For many districts, collaboration among faculty is not a priority.
ERS found that only 4 percent to 8 percent of teachers’ time was set aside for professional development. The majority of teachers’ time outside of classroom lessons is spent doing solitary prep work, the study found. Worse, when collaboration does happen, researchers determined, that work often does not have a clear goal.
In contrast, successful school districts devote larger chunks of faculty time to cross-department collaboration, and educators are encouraged to work together across disciplines to solve specific problems.
Schools using connected professional learning also paired professional learners with assigned instructional experts—i.e. principals, coaches, other teachers—to help them think through their learning approaches.
Duval County Public Schools employs designated District Specialists to coordinate teacher collaboration and train instructional coaches with the latest learning strategies.
3. Continuous feedback
While traditional teacher evaluation is usually relegated to one end-of-year performance report, connected learning environments use frequent check-ins between teachers and content experts. As ERS points out:
“This puts teachers in a much stronger position to continuously improve instruction and empowers them to play a more active role in their own ongoing learning and development.”
To ensure this kind of feedback is effective, ERS suggests that school districts hire ample coaches to ensure a low teacher-to-coach ratio. They also suggest setting aside additional time for constructive evaluation.
This system requires a strong culture of trust to ensure feedback is candid and growth-oriented, says ERS.
What steps is your school or district taking to improve professional development this year? How are you building a culture of trust and feedback in your classrooms? Tell us in the comments.