While professional development opportunities are critical for teachers to improve their craft, many education professionals believe that there is room for improving professional development opportunities for teachers. In fact, some education experts argue that the current state of professional development for teachers is sporadic, inconsistent and often lacking in substance.
As this issue comes to light, more and more educational professionals have their sights set to improve the quality, frequency and offering of professional development for teachers. According to Harvard University Professor Heather C. Hill, the “professional development ‘system’ for teachers is, by all accounts, broken.”One likely reason for the view held by Professor Hill and others is the reliance on short-term, episodic, and disconnected professional learning for teachers—the kinds of training programs that are unlikely to positively influence teaching and improve student achievement. It takes sustained investment of time into teacher training to change instruction and improve classroom outcomes.
A review of research on the effect of professional development on increased student learning found that programs had to include more than 14 hours of professional development for student learning to be affected. None of this is lost on the educators on the receiving end of professional development. “Perhaps the most damning indictment of PD [professional development] is that even teachers themselves regard it with contempt,” writes Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute.
Yet the education industry—including federal, state, and local education policymakers, plus all those who work to deliver teaching and learning to students—has recently made a sizable bet on the power of professional support to change teaching and boost student learning. From federally supported and locally enacted educator-evaluation systems to the rollout of the Common Core State Standards, the nascent changes to education all require educators to learn new and better ways to do their jobs. Almost every presentation or speech or conversation about educational reform inevitably includes some reference to the amount of support and training teachers and administrators will need in order to make key reforms real and effective in classrooms.
Just how critical is professional learning for teachers to educational improvement? In many ways professional development is the link between the design and implementation of education reforms and the ultimate success of reform efforts in schools. The evaluation of educator effectiveness based on student test scores and classroom observation, for example, has the potential to drive instructional improvement and promises to reveal important aspects of classroom performance and success. That information may, in some cases, be used as the basis for critical personnel decisions such as whether to dismiss an educator or increase his or her salary. But in order to have the impact on student learning that supporters of reform intend, evaluation needs to be accompanied by insightful feedback about teacher performance that leads to a strategic set of professional-learning activities to help educators improve their practice.
State education leaders in many places know this and have specifically included direction for following up evaluation with professional learning in their public descriptions of educator evaluation. Connecticut lists it as a design principle for its “Education Evaluation and Development” system, stating on its website to “Encourage aligned professional development, coaching, and feedback to support teacher growth.” Colorado lists “professional development” as a necessary support to its educator-effectiveness system, and the District of Columbia includes educator evaluation and professional development and supports on its webpage titled “Ensuring Teacher Success.”
Meanwhile, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which set out academic expectations for student achievement that have been called rigorous when compared to most standards currently in place in the states. Now, almost three years after the standards were introduced, and about a year away from implementation in most states, educators and policymakers are thinking not only about the demands these new standards will place on students; they are also grappling with the challenges teachers face as the standards inform classroom instruction. Report after report mentions the need for teacher training and instructional support as an essential part of the success of the Common Core State Standards.
Endnotes and citations are available in the PDF version of this report.