Time to Re-Develop Professional Development

By Steven Ross
Professor and Senior Research Scientist, Center for Research and Reform in Education
Johns Hopkins University

When you talk to educators about job satisfaction, professional development (PD) is rarely high on the list of things they enjoy doing. Understandably, most would rather spend the time teaching their students than being students themselves—away from their classrooms. Educators also recognize that in the rapidly changing landscape of PK-12 education, polishing present skills and learning new ones, such as using technology and aligning lessons with Common Core State Standards (CCSS), is essential to effectiveness. Satisfaction with PD seems to suffer, in part, from experiences with traditional, but uninspiring, delivery modes, such as “make and take” (e.g., develop a new lesson plan or bulletin board in a workshop and bring it back to school) or “the big lecture hall” (e.g., sit and listen to the sage on the stage dispense expert guidance on improving selected skills). Both of these formats and a variety of others can be useful in certain situations and limited doses. The key factors seem to be the relevance, design and quality of the PD experience so that educators truly benefit and view their participation as clearly worth the time.

These considerations call attention to the importance of the report, “Bridging the Gap: Paving the Pathway from Current Practice to Exemplary Professional Learning,” issued in November by the Frontline Research & Learning Institute. Importantly, the institute grounded its study of current national PD practices on evidence-based, measurable and widely accepted definitions of quality. The starting point is the specification by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of six criteria that define quality PD (sustained, intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven and classroom-focused). Drawing on publications from the nation’s leading professional development association, Learning Forward, the institute established operational definitions of each criterion and then explored a research question of clearly high interest and importance: To what degree do current PD practices by school districts meet the federal definition of quality?

Notably, Frontline Education was uniquely positioned to answer that question through its Learning Management System, which houses data from numerous districts on PD activities and enrollments. With permission from 203 school district partners across the country, the institute compared the standards associated with each of the six criteria to five years of data on the PD experiences of over 330,000 educators. I am pleased to note that my center (CRRE) at the Johns Hopkins School of Education made a modest contribution to the study by corroborating research-based definitions, findings and conclusions.

The findings essentially show that old habits die hard. Specifically, for four out of the six criteria, 80 percent or more of the PD offered and received by teachers was not aligned with the new federal definition and priorities for professional development. Disappointing, yes, but hardly surprising so early in the ESSA era. The study, therefore, acquires considerable importance, not to rebuke school districts for maintaining familiar practices, but as a clarion call for systematically using ESSA standards and the institute’s defined criteria for raising professional development to higher levels of quality and utility. With these clear directions and the metrics provided by the institute for tracking performance, it can be done.

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