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The state of professional development in US schools

WEDNESDAY, JULY 31, 2013 01:03 AM

While it is important for educators to take advantage of professional development opportunities throughout their career, it is especially vital during times of great change, such as right now. Currently, 45 states and the District of Columbia are transitioning to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

Said to be more rigorous in nature, the CCSS will mark a significant shift in how educators teach and students learn. However, none of this will be possible if instructors do not receive the proper training. Unfortunately, the state of professional development in the U.S. is not as strong as it should be, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP). Here are some of its findings, as well as a few recommendations from CAP for school districts:

The problem with professional development
In the report, the CAP took a look at some of the current problems with professional development from the perspective of knowledgeable educators. For example, Heather C. Hill, a professor at Harvard University, thinks that the professional development system for teachers is "broken."

Hill and other education experts believe that professional development is episodic and disconnected in nature, in addition to being short term. Ultimately, this is not an approach that will yield positive classroom results, as instructional improvements take more time than these professional development opportunities allow for.

What works
Based on past research, CAP was able to pinpoint specific characteristics of high-quality professional development that were linked to improved student achievement. If school officials want to see both their teachers and students perform better, they may want to introduce these measures.

For example, the report found that professional development that provides instructors with opportunities for collaboration can prove beneficial. The same was true of training that is aligned with school goals and standards, focusing on core content and providing a chance for active learning of new teaching techniques.

The power of teacher evaluations
According to the report, pairing professional learning opportunities with teacher evaluations could lead to positive changes in schools. However, if this combination is to be effective, CAP said educators may need to take specific approaches.

For instance, reviewing data on an area's entire teacher workforce could prove helpful. Looking at the big picture is one way to quickly identify educators' overall strengths and weaknesses, which, in turn, can help schools develop professional learning communities that will make the biggest impact.

At the same time, it is important for the individuals conducting the evaluations to receive professional development. The information evaluators receive will come in handy as they provide educators with the feedback they need and deserve. According to the report, the more instructors trust their evaluators, the greater the likelihood that what they had to say will leave an impact.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, both teachers and evaluators need to be on the same page regarding what the evaluation rubric entails. If neither party shares the same view on what high-quality instruction should resemble, there is sure to be conflict.

The time to act is now
There is no rule that says the professional development every school district provides has to be the same. However, the approaches should be of a high quality and have the ability to produce long-term, positive results.

Ultimately, Common Core implementation deadlines are only making professional development more necessary. The report stated what so many others already have: the success of the CCSS hinges on teacher training and instructional support. Should school districts fail to provide either, all their hard work implementing the Standards will have been for nothing.