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Overcoming Barriers to Effective PD

Traditionally, there are two major barriers to implementing effective professional development: money and time. Professional development is labor intensive, and the ways many school systems choose to implement it are expensive. Costs can range from employing substitute teachers to replace teachers who participate in professional development during the school day, to covering travel, lodging, and other expenses associated with sending educators to conferences, to employing consultants. These costs become formidable when school systems involve large numbers of educators in professional development, which is necessary to implement school reforms, introduce new academic standards and curricula, and respond to the ongoing learning challenges of low-performing students.

With school systems in the U.S. experiencing major shortfalls in revenue, many are reducing professional development, or eliminating it. Professional development is an easy target. At the local level, it has no constituency, and there is no documentation of its impact on the performance levels of educators and their students. Because most school boards have a very limited understanding of professional development, they have not responded creatively to financial pressures, and are unlikely to reorder their priorities until they become convinced that professional development is an essential investment that yields substantial benefits for educators and students. But who will convince them of that, and what evidence will they use to do so?

Closely related to the impediment of limited funding is the issue of time. The flaw of many staff development initiatives is that they do not provide enough time, or time is not used effectively. Developing proficiency in applying new knowledge or using a new skill can require 50 or more hours of focused professional learning, which requires not only time but rigor. While some summer institutes for learning provide this level of intensity, they are not typical of the professional development most K-12 educators experience. The time allotted for professional learning (often a few days appropriated by the state legislature and a few more provided by the school system) is simply not enough to allow for deep learning.

One other barrier to implementing effective professional development is that many people confuse professional development as a strategy with the administration of professional development. When they critique or dismiss professional development, their view seems to be that it is inherently flawed, or worse. They don't distinguish between professional development as a means to improve the performance of educators and the execution of professional development. Because of ineffective implementation, over time professional development has acquired a negative patina that colors how many people perceive it. As we move forward, how educators execute professional learning will determine whether people value professional learning.

At the core of professional learning is a respect for the work of educators and a commitment to them becoming the effective educators they assumed they would be when they entered the profession. Recently, I was in a small discussion group when the conversation turned to the subject of "bliss," which someone has defined as "perfect happiness." The statement of one participant has stayed with me. Her work is helping families find appropriate private education settings for children who are in serious emotional or behavioral crisis. "My bliss," she said, "is figuring out where the hope is."

That is what a new vision of professional learning is all about, figuring out where the hope is: the hope of educators to succeed, and the hope of students to achieve. Professional learning, at its best, is a three-step process of building on hope: First, educators work together to figure out what they need to learn to more effectively help their students achieve. Second, educators engage in the hard work of new learning and mastering its application. Third, more students meet academic standards because the educators effectively use their new learning to help students succeed. It is a simple equation, but it is difficult to execute. Our job is to figure out where the hope is.

Hayes Mizell
Distinguished Senior Fellow, Learning Forward

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