Archived Information

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 system.

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 board 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 policy.

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 the following.

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.

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