Five ways to stop wasting teachers' time with ineffective professional development

Any teacher worth his salt can recognize that there are differences among students that must be taken into account in the classroom. Why, then, can’t we acknowledge that the same is true for teachers?

Every time I’ve taken part in a teacher’s professional development activity, I’ve asked myself this same question. Too often, they are deathly boring, tedious examples of how not to engage in the learning process. Such efforts are rarely built on the strengths and weaknesses of individual teachers, and they fail to make the most out of new developments in technology.

So here are five ways to prioritize real professional development (PD) as an important issue and stop wasting everybody’s time.

1. Admit we’ve got it wrong

Two recent reports demonstrate that the United States is underperforming internationally in its commitment to teacher PD. They show how more successful countries tend to promote a robust system of collaborative professional learning that is built into the daily lives of teachers and school leaders.

This is no small thing: More than two decades of research findings show that the teacher quality is the most significant contributing factor to student success. State-funded PD systems in America are falling drastically behind in this country. Even where teachers and administrators admit the need to address poor performance, intervention is extremely rare. It is even more puzzling when you consider that the reported cost of PD provision comes to $18,000 per teacher, despite there being little evidence of its effectiveness.

The first step to solving this problem, surely, is admitting that it exists.

2. Use Common Core and high-quality assessments to our advantage

Most states have now adopted the Common Core, and many are using higher-quality and more rigorous assessments to ensure that the standards are met. But what good are these developments without good and improving teachers? The success of the Common Core is contingent on our progress in improving teacher PD.

To this end there, we seem to have made some headway. PD is more likely to reflect changes coming from new standards than ever before, and instructional practices are changing as a result.

While more professional development is aligned to Common Core, though, teachers are still not getting targeted pedagogical help in their areas of greatest need. The new standards will require different teaching techniques that will take time to implement effectively. Within the context of Common Core and improving assessments, schools now have a detailed and effective blueprint for ensuring effective teacher PD.

3. Don’t be afraid to take a lead at the school level

The Every Student Succeeds Act released $2.3 billion of federal funds to the states to improve teacher quality, which may be used to upgrade PD. However, districts’ hands are often tied as this money leaks into other expenses that have little to do with the classroom.

School leaders need to take the lead themselves. Teachers often don’t have the time to pursue this on their own, and administrators feel constrained by the need to spend valuable PD sessions dealing with policy clarifications and district-level mandates.

There is an opportunity here for enlightened school leaders to take their time and identify models that best suit the specific needs of their schools. There is also a great opportunity to tap into the strength of teachers already in schools to lead tailor-made PD efforts, which many teachers agree is the most effective method.

4. Recognize that the twenty-first century is now sixteen years old

The integration of transformative technology in classroom activities should no longer be seen as a sci-fi pipedream, but rather as the $8 billion mega-industry it now is.

Services like those provided by Mozilla’s Open Digital Badges (ODB) issue micro-credentials for teachers’ PD achievements, which can then be shared and displayed across any digital network. Since this is all open-source, schools can tailor their own reward-and-recognition system to their teachers and target their specific needs. Similar resources have already proved successful on a national scale in the UK, where everything from micro-awards to live inner-ear coaching for teachers are being deployed to improve classroom practice and outcomes.

glut of PD options is now available online, and this is by no means an exhaustive list. It has simply never been easier to create the kinds of collaborative learning networks that are thriving in other countries. Though the tools used to achieve this success may have changed, the emphasis on what has been long considered important in effective PD remains the same.

5. Bring it back to basics

We know the benefits of introducing technology into the learning process. We have also seen that successful teacher PD is grounded in effective school leadership and thriving professional learning communities.

When students struggle with a problem in class, the most effective salve is to remind them not to overcomplicate things. Teachers already know what doesn’t work in PD. Workshops that take place in a single session, in a lecture format and with no follow-up, aren’t going to help teachers succeed.

We are lucky to be alive in a time when cutting-edge technology can be aligned with the latest improvements in standards and accountability measures. The most successful models for teacher PD are those that incorporate these assets while maintaining a focus on school-level solutions and strong, flexible professional learning networks.

These practices the ones that teachers themselves prefer. Now it’s time for us to catch up with other countries in implementing them.

Andrew Scanlan
Andrew Scanlan is a Research and Policy Associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.