By Susanna Loeb
Professional development (PD) for teachers is an intuitively appealing approach for improving schools and student learning. If we want instruction to improve, help instructors improve their methods. Yet, over and over PD is shown to have no effect on teachers or their students (though there are a few exceptions). Is there something wrong with the logic? Should the approach be abandoned? I don't think so.
Every day we make choices about whether to get done what is in front of us as quickly as possible or whether to invest in the future so we can get these things done quicker or better tomorrow. For me, this might be whether I do statistical programming in the way I know how, which is messy, or whether I spend a bit of time learning a quicker and neater way. I usually choose messy, spending today's extra time with students or colleagues, even though if I just spent that time learning today, I'd have more time for these same people tomorrow.
When teaching, it is even harder to invest in learning for the future. Students' needs today are more immediate and more compelling. How can we choose the possibility of improvement in the face of these urgent needs?
How about requiring PD, taking away the choice of the immediate? I wish someone would take away my choice from time to time, so that my programming would improve. But required "seat time" in courses or meetings can still be used to organize thoughts about current problems. I learn very little in most classes I attend because my mind isn't there. When given options, the least onerous becomes the most appealing, regardless of long-run gains.
In this light, is it any wonder that most PD, regardless of the quality of the content, is ineffective?
Is there any way of increasing the effectiveness of professional development opportunities? Part of improving PD is improving the content, but content isn't the only issue. In fact, I doubt that content is the main issue. Similarly, while the quality of implementation can be problematic, I doubt that this is the main source of the failure of PD to improve teaching either. The system in which professional development sits drives teachers' engagement, and it is only with engagement that even the best designed PD can penetrate.
So what drives engagement? The benefits of the professional development need to be clear. Some systems reward participation, but few reward actual improvement, acknowledging teacher excellence and providing opportunities for teachers who improve to take on new roles with greater rewards and more influence. Rewarding improvement requires clarity of goals and an understanding of progress towards those goals. Teachers likely differ in the supports they need and even the best PD will not be useful if it doesn't target these needs.
There are a lot of good PD programs out there - though clearly lots of bad ones as well - let's make use of them by rethinking the systems that surround them.
Susanna Loeb is a professor of education at Stanford University, the faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis, and a co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education. Her research focuses on education policy, particularly policies affecting the teaching and school leadership workforce.