The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The huge problem with professional development for teachers

One of the things that teachers have long said they need is quality professional development but most of them don’t get it. In this post, Alvin Crawford, CEO of Knowledge Delivery Systems, the largest provider of online teacher professional development programs, writes about the problem and what to do about it. Crawford has been in the teacher training space for close to 20 years and writes about these issues.

By Alvin Crawford

The appeal of California’s teacher tenure decision and the start of similar challenges in New York suggests that the debate over tenure is closer to the start than the end. While the debate so far has been passionate, the fight has obscured the problem.

In the now appealed California decision, the judge highlighted the failure of teacher training to prepare classroom instructors to meet the needs of their students. Yet it’s possible to agree that teacher training is inadequate without weighing in on tenure. They are separate – but related – issues.

Good teachers want to be great teachers. But no one – not even the most ardent supporters or detractors of tenure – can argue that many teachers are getting the support and training they need to be effective and efficient in many of today’s classrooms.

Unfortunately, the structure of teacher professional development is letting them – and us – down. In truth, the situation is far worse than many realize.

According to a 2009 national research report, when asked about their experience in professional development, “most of those teachers…reported that it was totally useless.”

In 2012, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan asked, “What do you think we spend on professional development each year? $2.5 billion. But when I say that to teachers they usually laugh or cry. They are not feeling it.”

And, even worse, students aren’t feeling the investment either.

Estimates are we spend more than $6 billion a year between federal, state and district on professional development for classroom teachers. If just half of that investment is “totally useless” in improving teacher efficiency and instruction, we’re throwing away $3 billion annually on improvement methods that are falling flat.

Teacher development studies going back thirty years have shown over and over again that simply exposing a teacher to a new concept or skill has little to no classroom impact because most professional development opportunities for educators are still lecture style – telling, showing, and explaining how something can be done.

And when the “learning” is finished, we push teachers back into the choppy waters of their classrooms without so much as a life preserver; they’re given very little or ineffective ongoing support from their district.

To be transformative, strategic professional development needs to be 50 hours or more plus less formal and ongoing interaction and peer engagement to refine skills and model successes. It must also be tailored by subject, grade level and type of student.

With that much time required to learn, practice, implement and master a new teaching skill, it would take a district with 5,000 teachers nearly 300 qualified trainers and five years to complete. California alone has more than 300,000 public school teachers. North Carolina has nearly 100,000.

But this is the rare public challenge that won’t require more money. Throwing cash at this problem won’t solve it; the solution isn’t more, it’s better.

Ubiquitous technology and social engagement tools allow effective and efficient initial teacher training on virtually any subject to be done in 12 weeks and continue indefinitely. We know this because it’s being done in New Mexico and in large districts such as Philadelphia.

It may be too much to hope that a national debate about the merits or drawbacks of tenure could spark action to making our teachers better.

But before we can earnestly debate whether teachers should have legal protections to stay in classrooms, we should create effective and meaningful support systems for ongoing growth and development of certified teachers.