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Karen Cator: Some PD is Overrated

On the eve of our second Digital Directions live event this week, I thought I'd share some of the most interesting discussions from Tuesday's program.

You can also check out archived video from Tuesday on our website. And if you're in the New England area, you can still register on-site for tomorrow's event in Norwoord, Mass., near Boston.

Professional development overrated?

It's probably a good sign for the ed-tech world when it's become nearly impossible to mention a new classroom technology without stressing the importance of supporting teachers as they learn to use it.

But Karen Cator, the U.S. Department of Education's ed-tech director, suggested that programs designed to give teachers the basics regarding a new technology tool are often redundant for teachers who are more tech savvy than we think.

"One of the things I hear over and over is that teachers don't know how to use the technology," Cator said in a question-and-answer session following her opening keynote. "We know now—the demographics are telling us—there are 40-, 50-, 60-year-old females joining Facebook, shopping online, ... .

"We need to stop saying teachers can't do this," she added. "If a product is so complex that it needs a ton of professional development to use it, it needs to be redesigned. Because with so many products now, you can get in and you can figure out what to do."

In the day's next session—which focused on virtual education—Jamey Fitzpatrick, president and CEO of the Michigan Virtual School, stressed that professional development is important, but should focus mainly on helping blend instructional theory with technological capabilities.

"I'm not aware of anyone [in Michigan] who would jump around and say we get a bang for our buck," with professional development, said Fitzpatrick, who also stressed that PD shouldn't be a "sit and get" exercise. "An eight-hour workshop is not going to transform a teacher to change practice."

Re-humanizing education

Chris Lehmann, the founding principal of Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy, warned in his keynote address that, while evidence-based education reform is crucial to improving schools, the data currently used to drive reforms doesn't meet a high enough standard.

The education technology available today presents "maddening paradox" in education, said Lehmann. Web video, audio, and collaborative documents allow the creation of the most powerful artifacts of learning ever seen, he said, while standardized tests promote a dangerously simplistic view of educational achievement.

"If you use bad data to make decisions, guess what kind of decisions you're going to make?" Lehman said. He also argued that standardized testing is popular not because it is effective, but because "it's just the cheapest way to test the most people possible."

The adaptive release dream

In her closing keynote, Florida Virtual School president and CEO Julie Young expressed hope that adaptive release instruction would represent the next step in virtual education.

Theoretically, adaptive release instruction would help students meet academic standards through lessons that mirror a student's interest. For example, if a student wanted to be an astronaut, appropriate math lessons could be geared to incorporate exercises involving space travel.

In a following video interview with Education Week that will be released in the coming weeks, Young elaborated that FLVS is only beginning to explore the concept, but said realizing the idea is a "dream" of hers. The point of a adaptive release technology, she added, is not to limit students' exposure to other interests, but to help make a transition to other interests easier by giving them a basic foundation in the necessary concepts.

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