A Manifesto for Effective PD
Stephanie Hirsh's important new paper, Building Professional Development to Support New Student Assessment Systems, does more than provide guidance for using professional learning to successfully implement the Common Core State Standards and the assessments that will follow. It is a manifesto for effective professional development, and a call for states and school systems to treat professional learning as seriously as the new standards and assessments themselves.
While the field of K-12 professional development has matured over the past 30 years, some professional learning experiences do not raise the performance levels of participating educators. Hirsh's paper provides a service by succinctly delineating the "components of effective professional development." Indeed, these few pages could be a stand-alone document, useful for raising the expectations and shaping the decisions of every educator and elected official who is directly or indirectly responsible for professional development at state and local levels. The effectiveness of professional learning, as well as the fate of the new standards and assessments, depends on the extent to which people understand and act on the essential elements Hirsh describes.
But is professional development really so important? Didn't teachers' pre-service education program them with all the knowledge and skills they would ever need? Aren't teachers infinitely adaptable, capable of implementing with fidelity and quality every new demand that cascades down on them from above? In a rational world, these would be recognized as the silly questions they are, but they are representative of assumptions held by many people, including some education leaders.
Because of such misunderstandings, Hirsh explains why front-line educators will need to master new learning that is essential for the successful implementation of the standards/assessments. Without effective professional development, educators will not know how to use the standards/assessments to benefit their students. Hirsh does not mince words in describing the challenge. Many veteran educators do not have the technology skills to use the new assessments productively. All educators will have to develop a more sophisticated understanding of different types of assessments and how, when, and for what purpose to use them. And central office administrators, principals, and teacher leaders will have to develop new knowledge and skills that will enable them to guide and support classroom teachers accountable for using the standards/assessments.
Hirsh's paper concludes with eight recommendations for action. Rather than an unrealistic wish list, these recommendations reflect lessons learned from the false starts of past education reforms. People do not absorb new information, or develop new skills overnight, so Hirsh urges states to create a phased master implementation plan. Educators are more likely to benefit from professional development if states and school systems organize it based on extant knowledge about adult learning. Therefore, the paper urges states and school systems to adhere to new standards for professional development that a collaborative of national education organizations will publish this summer. Because the experiences and concerns of teachers responsible for the day-to-day application of new education initiatives is often neither sought nor heard, Hirsh suggests the creation of a special teacher advisory group. Its members would be teacher leaders who, as advocates for their teacher colleagues, would provide "frequent, candid, unencumbered feedback to state and local education officials."
Perhaps one day in the future, professional development will be integral to the conception, design, and implementation of every new education initiative. Until that day, Hirsh's paper makes a compelling case for what constitutes effective professional development, why it is necessary, and how to use it to increase the effectiveness of educators and the major initiatives they are responsible for implementing. Hirsh points the way. The issue now is not whether educators know what should be done, but whether they will do it.
Distinguished Senior Fellow, Learning Forward