For many schools and school districts, the concept of professional development very much follows the “sage on the stage” model. An outside professional arrives at the school and dispenses invaluable wisdom, and teachers sit and absorb these immense thoughts. Teachers are then expected to return to their classroom and transform these grand ideas into classroom reality. The remarkable thing about this model of professional development is that it follows precisely the same model for instruction that student-centered learned was focused on correcting. Is this the wrong model for professional development? Are there better ways to develop teachers?
Unfortunately, answers on professional development models aren’t particularly clear simply because there is limited research in this area. One of the more recent studies in the area, though, was conducted by Mathematica Policy Research for the U. S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. The study, of which you can read a brief synopsis here, focused on studying the benefits of comprehensive teacher induction programs, teacher mentoring programs designed to assist new or underdeveloped teachers by pairing them with a more seasoned mentor. The surprising finding is that such programs had no effect on factors such as teacher attitude or retention, and only had a small but statistically-significant impact on student achievement in the third year. For such expensive programs, both in terms of money and time, such marginal results beg the question of whether more effective mechanisms exist.
Some districts, in order to save money, have begun professional development programs that feature teachers teaching teachers. An excellent summary of such programs is given in an article titled “Teachers Teaching Teachers: Professional Development that Works” published on EducationWorld. The method for such programs is obvious: teachers become the professional development “expert” and school other teachers on a topic that they know. Likewise, the economic benefit is also apparent: if one does not have to hire an outside expert to perform training, there are therefore no professional fees for such an expert. What about missing out on the “expert” knowledge? The innovation in this approach is using a single teacher as a form of scribe: one or a few teachers are sent away to a conference, and then return to the school to share their knowledge with the others. This is economically adventitious, as the cost of sending such individuals to a conference are often less expensive than inviting experts to campus.
An even more interesting emerging approach to professional development flips the roles of teacher and student. A recent New York Times article titled “Teacher Training, Taught by Students” focuses on an innovative program being run by the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education. Under this program, students run the professional development program. Teachers observe students teaching mock lessons, and in so doing learn the techniques and methods that students feel work for them. While such an approach is innovative enough, the model could certainly be taken even further: students, as digital natives, are often more familiar and more comfortable with technology than their teachers, who are often digital immigrants at best. As such, students could be used to teach teachers technical concepts that the teachers could then leverage as part of classroom instruction.
In all of these approaches, however, the focus must be on making our professional development programs as rigorous and well-thought-out as our curriculum and our classroom instruction. Myriad software exists to determine curricular goals, map those goals onto state objectives, assess students against such goals and objectives, determine interventions when necessary, and much, much more. Do we use this same rigor when it comes to the development of our teachers? We need to improve the quality, focus, and direction of our professional development programs such that they form a cohesive strategy to both developing our teachers and improving our students’ achievement.