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High-quality Professional Development: What is it and how do we use it?

May 2, 2012

Teachers developing scope and sequence in mathematics

In 1993, Jeanette Gann wrote that professional development is,

an educational and personal experience that enhances or changes teaching practices toward the end of improving student learning. (Arithmetic Teacher, volume 40, no 5, page 286.  This NCTM journal is no longer in print.)

Her definition is not far off from the one that Learning Forward developed for NCLB.

The term professional development means a comprehensive, sustained, and intensive approach to improving teachers’ and principals’ effectiveness in raising student achievement.

Ms. Gann asserts that teachers,

need the support of ongoing professional development programs to assist them in bringing about the changes in practices, in their beliefs and attitudes, and in the learning outcomes of their students (page 286).

I assume she means that teachers who see themselves primarily as distributors of content, in the absence of careful attention to the instructional strategies used to deliver the content, might find that some, many or all of their students will fail to deeply understand the meaning and value of the content.

What if the delivery of the extremely well-planned content from a teacher does not resonate with the needs and interests of his or her students?  Isn’t it entirely possible that some students might struggle learning and using the content to further their knowledge?  Some teachers who deliver content only to be faced with students who are confused often blame the patient.  “It’s the student’s fault.”  “They didn’t do their homework or prepare sufficiently for the test.”  Strikes me this is no different from a well-intentioned parent giving his or her sick and reluctant child cod liver oil to treat the symptoms of illness.  We force feed them, test them and then evaluate their understanding through a rather narrow lens.

If professional development is to be useful and effective it should assist teachers to “bring about changes in practice, beliefs and attitudes, and in the learning outcomes of their students.”  Otherwise, why invest the resources in our teachers if student learning isn’t the beneficiary?

How many professional development programs have you been to where the content was well delivered, but you failed to use the content to change your teaching practice to improve student learning?  In many cases, you may have had good intentions, but rarely do we hold ourselves truly accountable for documenting changes in practice we might undertake or authenticating and documenting how changes in our practice directly improve student learning.  These forms of measurement are rarely required by schools that invest resources in professional development.

So what does high-quality professional development look like?  What are the ingredients?  Learning Forward has attempted to define high-quality professional development through their work on Standards for Professional Learning.  I like the way they have developed and marketed this plan.  It promotes the teacher as a learner and it ties professional learning to student results.  Here are the seven standards,

Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students:

  • occurs within learning communities committed to continuous improvement, collective responsibility, and goal alignment.
  • requires skillful leaders who develop capacity advocate, and create support systems for professional learning.
  • requires prioritizing, monitoring, and coordinating resource for educator learning.
  • uses a variety of sources and types of student, educator, and system data to plan, assess, and evaluate professional learning.
  • integrates theories, research, and models of human learning to achieve its intended outcomes.
  • applies research on change and sustains support for implementation of professional learning for long-term change.
  • aligns its outcomes with educator performance and student curriculum standards.

Learning Forward is promoting these seven standards as a lens that educators should use when designing and implementing professional development.  If the professional development meets these seven standards, then it could be considered high-quality professional development.

So how do we (educators) determine what type of professional development to design and implement for our teachers.  First, let’s ask teachers what they need to improve their ability to help students learn.  For some of them it will be professional development that deepens their content knowledge so that they can provide a more complete picture of their discipline to students.  For others, professional development that enriches the toolbox of instructional strategies used to teach content will help them improve their delivery of content and hopefully student learning.  In asking teachers, the assumption is that they understand themselves well enough to determine what they need.  So long as schools have a self-assessment process that helps teachers sort through their own needs, with the help of a department chair or principal, we can rely on their feedback to define the high-quality professional development to improve student learning. In the end, it is still the responsibility of teachers and schools to verify that their changes in practice improve student learning.  (Click here for a recent post from a workshop by Thomas Guskey on evaluating professional development.)

A second way to determine what type of professional development to design and implement is to collect student achievement data from a variety of resources, mine the data carefully, and analyze the data for patterns that illustrate student learning problems.  The DATA WISE improvement process is one formal way of going about this work.  Regardless of the process a school uses, results from this work can lead to a clear sense of what students need to improve their understanding of the content and skills we value.  Once we have identified a student learning problem and translated it into a problem of practice, rather than “blaming the student,” then it should become clear what type of professional development is needed to address the problem.

A third way to decide on what type of professional development teachers need is through the lens of a school’s strategic plan, especially when that plan is targeted at improving the quality of the academic program and student learning outcomes.  At The Westminster Schools, a new strategic plan has been adopted by the Board, administration, and faculty.  Learning for Life: A Vision for Westminster asks that teachers and students develop the skill of “problem finding and problem solving” through the essential action of “critical and creative thinking and collaboration” using project or problem-based learning (PBL) as an instructional strategy.  To accomplish this goal faculty at The Westminster Schools will need a framework and support for how to create and implement a PBL learning environment or develop and adopt other instructional strategies that lead to the same outcome.  High-quality professional development will be one way to achieve this goal.

The final way to determine what type of professional development faculty need is through the school’s evaluation process.  If faculty and administrators have a rigorous and transparent process for giving faculty good feedback on their teaching, then the data mined through an evaluation process could be used to help faculty determine their professional growth plan.  It would make logical sense to tie the information coming from a formal evaluation process to the data a faculty member shares through their own self-reflection.  If these two processes are well integrated then each faculty member, as well as the school, should have sufficient data to assemble a high-quality professional development plan that assures continuous growth of the each teacher.

If you are interested in a rich conversation about the relationship of professional development to teacher evaluation, Hayes Mizell wrote a short but thoughtful piece on Learning Forward’s website (click here).

For schools to fulfill a commitment to build a “school of the future” that meets the needs of all learners, I believe they must commit to the development of a high-quality professional development program linked to a set of standards or guidelines that holds the school and their faculty accountable for stretching their wings and refining their practice with a target of improving the learning experience for all students.

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