Professional Development is Broken, but Be Careful How We Fix It

This morning, Jal Mehta tagged me on a tweet to linking to his recent Education Week blog post, entitled “Let’s End Professional Development as We Know It.”

The following exchange ensued:

He then asked if I could share some of my research to back my perspective. I sent him an email with journal articles and such, but I thought I would share my ideas with y’all too.

Here is my argument about why putting professional development (PD) back in schools may be necessary but not sufficient to improving its impact on teachers’ instruction.

Unlike medicine and other scientific fields, where problems are taken-as-shared and protocols for addressing problems are roughly agreed upon, teaching problems are locally defined. What needs attention in one school may not need attention in another. For instance, some schools’ “best practices” may center on adapting instruction to English learners, while other schools’ might center on the mental health ailments that have become prevalent among affluent teens. Likewise, other professions share language, representations, and goals for critical aspects of their work — these all important resources for learning together. In teaching, we see repeatedly that terms acquire the meaning of their setting more often than they bring new meanings to these places. Take, for instance, Carol Dweck’s ideas about mindset. The various ways that her construct has taken hold in education led her to explain why what she means by mindset is not how the idea is being used. If we leave professional development entirely up to individual school sites, this means that “doing PD” on Topic X probably looks fairly different from place to place, so radically localized professional development will exacerbate this problem.

Leaving professional development to local sites also limits teachers’ access to expertise. When my colleagues and I have studied teachers’ collaborative learning, we found that the learning opportunities are not equally distributed across all teacher groups. Some of this has to do with how teachers spend their time (e.g., focused on logistics or deeper analysis of teaching). But some of it has to do with who is sitting around the table and what they have been tasked to do.

Teachers’ collaborative learning can be described as an accumulated advantage phenomenon, where the rich get richer. That is, teachers who have sophisticated notions of practice are able to identify teaching problems in complex ways and deploy more sophisticated strategies for addressing them. This follows from my previous points, since problem definition is an important part of teachers’ on-the-job learning. For instance, if we have a lot of students failing a course, how do we get to the bottom of this issue? In many places, high failure rates are interpreted as a student quality problem. In others, they are taken as a teaching quality problem. Interpretations depend on how practitioners think this whole teaching and learning business goes down. In other words, problem definition is rooted in teachers’ existing conceptions of their work, which in other professions, are codified and disseminated through standardized use of language and representations.

Unequal access to expertise is only one of many reasons the optimistic premise of teacher community often does not pan out. There is a tendency to valorize practicing teachers’ knowledge, and, no doubt, there is something to be learned in the wisdom of practice. That being said, professions and professionals have blind spots, and with the large-scale patterns of unequal achievement we have in the United States, we can infer that students from historically marginalized groups frequently live in these professional blind spots. For reasons of equity alone, it is imperative to develop even our best practitioners beyond their current level by giving them access to more expert others.

Even in highly collaborative, well-intentioned teacher communities, other institutional pressures (e.g., covering curriculum, planning lessons) pull teachers’ attention to the nuts-and-bolts of their work, rather than broader learning or improvement agendas. Add to this the norms of privacy and non-interference that characterize teachers’ work, you can see why deeper conversations around issues of teaching and learning are difficult to come by.

What about, you might say, bringing in expert coaches? Research shows that expert facilitators or coaches can make a difference. In fact, there is evidence that having expert coaches may matter more than expert colleagues when it comes to teacher development. At the same time, we suspect that expert facilitators are necessary but not sufficient, as coaches often get pulled into other tasks that do not fully utilize their expertise. In our current study, we see accomplished coaches filling in for missing substitute teachers, collating exams, or working on classroom management with struggling teachers. None of these tasks taps into their sophisticated instructional knowledge. Additionally, being an accomplished teacher does not guarantee you have the skill to communicate your teaching to others. In our data, we have numerous examples of really great teachers underexplaining their teaching to others.

Lee Shulman famously called out the missing paradigm of teacher knowledge, giving rise to a lot of research on pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). While PCK gave a very useful way to think about teachers’ specialized knowledge, little progress has been made on understanding how teachers develop this and other forms of knowledge, particularly in the institutional context of schools, which often presses teachers’ practice away from what might be deemed “good teaching.” As long as we don’t have strong frameworks for understanding how teachers learn, PD –– even localized, teacher-led PD –– risks being just another set of activities with little influence on practice.


13 thoughts on “Professional Development is Broken, but Be Careful How We Fix It

  1. Spot on, Lani. Thank you for arguing for greater equity in such a compelling way.

    What makes me nervous about “ending professional development as we know it” is that some administrators will use these findings as an excuse to cut out professional development from their budgets: after all, putting teachers in a room by themselves is cheaper than hiring people to work with them, right?

    If administrators would be willing to give control of their professional development budgets to teachers and allow them some agency in deciding what they want to learn, that could be a different story. I think it would be reasonable to let teachers be accountable for own professional learning. And I am completed biased in saying so, but I still think there is a role for university folks to play in teacher PD, because their goals *can* align more closely with teachers than administrators (who worry about compliance) and commercial PD providers (who worry about selling products).

    We need to get over the fact that meaningful, on-going teacher learning is essential and not cheap.


    • Your point about teachers having some agency in the PD budget/hiring process is the key to this discussion, I think. Sure, teachers can benefit a lot from the right kinds of outside expertise. However, a teacher’s understanding of the problem to be addressed and what type of expert might best address it is, in my experience, usually much deeper than that of an administrator. I think involving teachers more in the decision making process will benefit the consultants as well, giving them a better idea of local student and teacher needs before they arrive to facilitate the PD.


  2. The equal distribution problem plays out even in districts and schools with relatively good PD structures.

    In my district, teachers can opt-in for PD that counts toward a percentage bonus on the salary schedule. Teachers propose topics (e.g., technology integration, implementation from the ACTFL conference), attend sessions, make changes in instructional practice, and then reflect. This is wonderful because teachers learn and then reflect together over time, but it is limited to those who choose to participate. Teachers who are already interested in developing their professional practice get better. For those who aren’t, growth is optional. The unequal distribution becomes thus more unequal.

    At the site level, I serve as an instructional coach for implementation of the CCSS, released one period during the day. I don’t often end up covering classes, but do get asked to do some oddball stuff that doesn’t take full advantage of my expertise. The teachers who do seek me out tend to be those who are already grappling with important instructional and curricular issues and are seeking to deepen their practice. Again, unequal distribution.

    Although we do have time for ongoing PD with a Wednesday morning late start, meetings for my 10th grade English team focus more on “nuts and bolts” issues like how many points an assignment is worth rather than questions of why students struggle with certain concepts and how we can help them learn. Just having the structure of time set aside for PD and the instructional coach in the room doesn’t outweigh the institutional pressures. I see this at the ground level every day.

    To Darryl’s point about university involvement, I’d say the framing is key. I attended a district-wide PD session with one of the top professors in secondary literacy and my colleagues were openly disinterested. In a smaller group she might have been better received. Without relationships it’s hard to get secondary teachers to buy into what is seen as outsider knowledge.

    Thanks for sharing your ideas on this topic as teacher learning near and dear to my heart.


  3. Really thoughtful commentary, Ilana. I say this as someone who pretty regularly beats the drum for teachers-as-professional-developers. Much of my coaching is of the train-the-trainer motif, which usually puts the onus on teachers or on-site coaches. It’s worth considering the limitations of such an approach.

    I think you’re spot on if PD is give as “watch this / do this.” I mean, we just had a substantial kerfuffle reported in the NY Times highlighted the danger of propagating poor practice (I won’t rehash it here, but the school rhymes with Muck-mess Macademy).

    My goal in establishing on-site systems of teacher learning are contingent upon invoking an external standard, often the artifacts that the students are creating (Learning From Student Work). Or it’s possibly a system of routinized lesson studies (not of the “watch this / do this” variety, but more of a socratic seminar approach.) My hope is that with such systems in place, teachers and teaching teams will be able to learn their way out of their own problems of practice (which might often involve an outside resource).

    That said, I’ve also facilitated “guest lessons”, so I suppose that is more of the outside expert approach. I guess what I’m saying is this post is fantastic as it’s challenging my preconception of what’s actually best for students. And it’s often not just a demonstration of “best practice.” Thanks for the challenging and thoughtful post!


  4. Thanks for this great post! I appreciate the discussion here and have found myself thinking more deeply about my own views on PD and teacher growth.

    My personal experiences have led me to believe that there are some problems in teaching that are not uniquely defined in local settings. While they may present themselves in different forms, these problems are innate to a profession that praises outward performance and quantifiable results over the inner work of teaching and learning.

    Teachers need increased opportunities to reflect on their own practice and develop a self-understanding based on the nature of their own teaching. The emphasis on external evaluation has, in many ways, dehumanized today’s teacher and stifled opportunities for personal reflection and growth. Through my work in coaching teachers over the last decade, I have seen many instances in which teachers strive to meet an arbitrary goal only to result in professional and emotional despair.

    I echo your call for a stronger framework for understanding how teachers learn. My vote is for PD that reaffirms teaching and learning as innately human activities which require introspection, courage, and adaptation.


  5. Spot on Lani, Darryl, and others. I have been involved in HS Math teacher PD for 20+ years now and greatly appreciate the concerns expressed in the EdWeek article and the NCTAF report. While I value the general principles, I live in the messiness of trying to make “PD” work in the context of the desperate need to overhaul HS math instruction. The challenges are many: what the society expects to be mathematics, what the society expects a math teacher to do (make it easy for my kid), accountability measures that pressure teachers and school systems to work in unproductive ways, and the strong identity of HS math teachers about their role in the classroom. All these things (and likely more) work against creating HS math classrooms in which many ways of being mathematically smart here recognized and valued, children are pressed to think hard, and one teacher role is to foster and manage student-student discourse. On top of this, the professionalism of many math teachers, departments, and schools is often and understandably less than desirable.

    So for me what rings most true in this discussion is Lani’s point that “problem definition is rooted in teachers’ existing conceptions of their work.” The first question of PD is How do we evoke from teachers-as-learners a new problematic, a new image for what is good mathematics teaching?


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  9. I understand the sentiments behind losing faith in teacher professional development. I think that it has less to do with the content of a particular PD session and more to do with how the administration leads and guides its faculty. Most schools have trouble getting all parties to come together and exert effort in one direction. That’s a human management problem which professional development inherits. When you gather people together, of course you’ll have differences of opinions on best-practices, but that’s why getting people to assert and support common values is more important. We can have productive discussions on whether certain methodologies produce or do not produce our common values. Often I find that teachers internalize their practices to reflect their self-identity and I think that is a hindrance to having constructive collaborative experiences. I think of practices like a “Bat-Belt”; I equip it with different gadgets for different jobs, but no particular gadget defines my abilities.

    I notice that schools rush the process of PD, expecting certain results to be accomplished at certain times and this drives most of the discontent surrounding PD. There is not nearly enough time to ‘check in’ and for teachers to share where they are at, what’s going well, and what’s not going well. But this again is I believe a human management problem and not a PD problem. Of course teacher accountability also plays a role here. The false dichotomy of good teacher vs bad teacher echoed in media doesn’t encourage anyone to talk about their short coming. Let alone when administrators do not know when to leave so they can express these necessary concerns.

    From a purely pragmatic standpoint I get it. “We don’t do it well, so why bother doing it at all if it cost money.”

    I found this quote in your post interesting.
    “Teachers’ collaborative learning can be described as an accumulated advantage phenomenon, where the rich get richer. That is, teachers who have sophisticated notions of practice are able to identify teaching problems in complex ways and deploy more sophisticated strategies for addressing them.”

    I can see as a person in academia and as a researcher how this presents a problem for schools, but I just don’t see how someone could create a system where this does not happen. It seems to me to be more of an emergent property of statistical variance and self-selection bias than some inequality to right. It’s the equivalent to kids from the same neighborhoods and interests sitting down together at the same lunch table.

    I enjoyed your post. Lots of good ‘text-bites’ to mull over. Thanks for your contributions to the community!

    Liked by 1 person

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