CPRE Policy Brief: Helping Teachers Teach Well: Transforming Professional Development - June 1995
Improving Professional Development
A number of organizations have proposed setting standards for
teachers' professional development. The guiding principles behind these ideas are summarized in the sidebar in the previous section. Standards might help improve the quality and efficiency of professional development. However, while these proposals are useful for discussion, it is important that state and local policymakers engage teachers in the process of setting standards for states or districts. Teachers have a great deal of
insight into what has made professional development effective or ineffective in the past, and will be more likely to support changes to the current system if they have been a significant part of the improvement process.
Promising Policy Options
To make professional development more effective and more consistent
with the guiding principles outlined in the sidebar in the previous section, policymakers need to be clear about the problems they are trying to solve and about the conditions under which teachers are likely to
change their practice. They must also be more concerned about the quality and character of experiences provided for teachers. And, given the scarcity of resources, they must strive to be efficient, to leverage additional resources, and to make full use of expertise already in the
Fortunately, some policymakers and practitioners have come up with new approaches that are promising, though we know little about their costs or effects as yet.
These approaches to teacher professional development are consistent with the guiding principles outlined in the sidebar in the previous section and share some common characteristics. They respect the expertise of accomplished teachers. They are integrated with teachers' work. They are based on current research on teaching and learning. They recognize teachers as a valuable source of information regarding effective professional development and include them in its design and implementation. The examples below are good starting points for incorporating these ideas.
Joint Work and Job Enrichment. Joint work refers to shared responsibility for tasks, such as in team teaching, curriculum committees, or other jobs that create interdependence among teachers and require cooperation. Joint work promotes learning on the job because it
provides opportunities for productive exchange among teachers and reflection about practice. Job enrichment refers to the expansion of teachers' work in ways that require new skills, such as the scoring of portfolios in Vermont or serving as mentors to beginning teachers in Connecticut. These new responsibilities include opportunities for teachers to discuss their practice and share ideas.
Teacher Networks. Teacher networks tend to focus on specific subject-matter and seek to deepen teachers' understanding of content and their facility with new teaching strategies. They offer teachers access to a "professional community" in which their expertise and
experience are respected and where they can be active participants in professional discourse about improving practice. Networks have high credibility with teachers, and appear to have positive effects on their motivation, knowledge of pedagogy and subject-matter, willingness to take risks, and commitment to improvement. The National Writing Project, Urban Math Collaboratives, California's subject-matter collaboratives and
Vermont's portfolio networks are examples of teacher networks.
Collaborations Between Schools and Colleges. Professional development opportunities cannot be provided in sufficient intensity and for sufficient numbers of teachers unless the schools and colleges work together. Some organizations, such as the American Association for Higher Education and its affiliate, the Education Trust, as well as the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Ford Foundation, Knight Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Rockefeller Foundation are actively promoting
and supporting partnerships between colleges and schools. While these initiatives vary in size and focus and remain quite fragile, dependent in many instances on external funding and often operating at the margins of the institutions, they hold great promise for strengthening professional
development. As current reforms require teachers to deepen their knowledge of subject-matter, it is important that these initiatives involve liberal arts faculty as well as those in schools of education.
Professional Development (or Practice) Schools. Professional development schools are a special form of collaboration between public schools and higher education. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development has documented several
hundred of these institutions which are roughly analogous to teaching hospitals. While much attention has been given to their potential role in the pre-service preparation of teachers, they also could play an
important role in professional development. They could bring
both novice and experienced teachers together with university
clinical faculty in a professional setting to improve their practice through observation, low-risk experimentation, reflection and coaching.
National Board Certification. The National Board of Professional
Teaching Standards has worked
with teachers and national teacher organizations to establish standards and assessment procedures
for recognition of exemplary teachers. The Board hopes that teachers who achieve "national
certification" will be given responsibilities commensurate with
their abilities, such as mentoring beginning teachers or developing
curricula, and that local policymakers will use its standards
to guide their professional development programs. The process of applying for certification itself
is thought to be excellent professional development for teachers as it requires them to
document their practice, reflect on their strengths and weaknesses,
and demonstrate specific knowledge and skill.
Teachers as Researchers. Increasing numbers of teachers are
conducting research in their classrooms and schools in cooperation with their colleagues and
university faculty. While some of these research projects are defined
by academic interests, many are directed at problems identified by
the teachers themselves. There is considerable evidence that
involving teachers in research can stimulate discussion, help
organizations define problems, and lead to changes in practice and
Implications for Policymakers.
Given these and other options for improving professional development for teachers, what steps
should policymakers be taking? To begin with, they should focus their deliberations on the central
issues of professional development and set some clear goals for policy. These goals might include
- Focusing professional development on core problems of teaching and learning.
Teachers need more opportunities to become intellectually engaged with their subject-matter and
to deepen their understandings of key concepts. They need opportunities to try new approaches in
environments that are supportive.
- Balancing individual and organization interests in professional development, and
restructuring incentives so that they are more closely aligned. Professional development
arrangements should support schoolwide improvement, stimulate individual growth and
engagement in teaching, and support career advancement.
- Embedding more professional development in the workplace so it is more closely
related to teachers' work experience. Teachers should have access to their colleagues and
be encouraged to share, discuss, and reflect on their practice. Time must be provided for these
- Ensuring that high-quality professional development opportunities are accessible to
teachers who serve the most vulnerable students. The teachers of the children of the poor,
of isolated minorities, of immigrant families, and others
who are at high risk of failure in the schools often work under the
most difficult conditions and have less time for interaction and less opportunity to improve their
- Improving the productivity of professional development. We cannot afford the
laissez-faire, inefficient approach that has been taken to professional development.
We need standards for schools and for providers, technical assistance in design and
implementation, and monitoring to ensure that funds are targeted and well-used. This is especially important in low-performing schools.
Given these policy goals, there are clearly some actions that state
policymakers should avoid. It would make little sense to expand
the resources devoted to professional development without
attending to improvements in quality. Given the sparse evidence
about what works, it makes sense to avoid heavy investments in any
single approach to professional development. All professional
development strategies should be treated as hypotheses to be tested, and encouraging multiple strategies would be more prudent than mandating a single approach.
Policymakers should also be aware of the risks of focusing solely on the short-run, immediate needs generated by the implementation of school reforms. Improving teaching is a long-term problem.
Focusing on the short-term can lead to superficial compliance with
new policies and the neglect of long-term investments in teachers'
knowledge of subject-matter and pedagogy.
What steps might state policymakers take to push professional
development in the right direction? There are several areas in which action by state leaders could produce benefits.
- Increasing awareness among educational leaders. Policymakers should reach out to key stakeholders such as local board members, school administrators, teacher leaders, and university faculty and engage them in discussions about the adequacy of existing professional development opportunities and the alternatives. Many individuals have stakes in the current arrangements and these audiences need to be convinced
that new forms of professional development are required to effectively support reforms in standards, curriculum, and instruction.
- Increasing public support and awareness. The public also must be convinced that new forms of professional development are
needed and that time and money should be allocated to support
them. Parents hear from teachers that professional development is
ineffective and do not want more time and money wasted on it. Since
more than 80 percent of existing professional development funds are
locally controlled, the support of local communities is critical to the strengthening of professional
- Reviewing policies and practice.State policymakers should take advantage of new federal initiatives and review the policies, practices, and programs that shape professional development in their states. A thorough policy review is essential to determine what changes in
structures and incentives, if any, are needed to support the reform agenda in a particular state. A framework for such a review is presented in a sidebar.
- Setting standards and priorities. Standards could provide much-needed guidance for both state and local professional development activities. If state policymakers adopt guidelines for the design, character, conduct, and content of professional development, based on input from educators and linked to state performance and content standards, they could enhance the likelihood that the time and resources dedicated to professional development are put to good use.
- Providing more time. States must increase the time available for teacher interaction and professional development. Some common approaches that might be used to create more time for professional development are presented in a sidebar.
- Strengthening teacher roles. The all-to-common failure to involve teachers in the planning and delivery of professional development undermines its legitimacy and efficacy. The failure to use exemplary teachers to lead professional development wastes talent, increases costs,
and contributes to the division between research and practice. States could lead the way by making more use of outstanding teachers in their own professional development activities, linking professional development to school-based management--shifting both the responsibility and the
funds to the school site, and involving teachers in setting standards for professional development and recertification. A number of states have already taken such steps.
- Supporting local adoption or demonstrations of promising approaches. The alternative approaches to professional development described above are sufficiently promising to warrant state support for local initiatives or for the implementation of demonstration projects.
- Re-thinking incentives. Policymakers should consider
altering the incentives affecting teachers' participation in professional activities by permitting service to "count" toward re-certification, especially if the service involves research or reflection on good practice, learning new content or skills, and/or teaching or mentoring. They may consider using teacher portfolios for recertification. They might even consider eliminating the award of CEUs for workshops or in-service experiences that do not meet minimum standards for quality, or
giving salary increments only for graduate coursework that is related to teachers' current or future assignments. They might even want to expand existing subsidies for advanced study in content or pedagogy for all teachers or for teachers from low-performing schools.
[Professional Development Today]
[Conclusion: Going to Scale]