Spending Professional Development Time and Money Wisely

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Perception is everything.  Despite our best intentions, when we present ourselves and our ideas to the world, how others see us or those ideas depends on the context in which the other exists, as well as how we have planned and prepared the presentation.  Our lack of understanding of the other’s condition could be our downfall, or we could get lucky and find ourselves in alignment.

In teaching, we have a few basic tenets that help us avoid misperceptions and misconceptions.  First, we believe in “starting from where the students are,” meaning that we use the students’ experiences to help them construct new knowledge and understanding.  Another important process is “differentiating instruction,” so that students can succeed with the same concept, skill, or content starting at their own level of ability and proceeding at a pace that works for them.  This has evolved into “personalized learning,” which targets that individual’s needs, not just their ability group.  Teachers’ access to technology that interacts and responds to the student has helped make personalized learning possible.  One could argue that it needs improvement, but that can be said of everything.  In fact, a continuous improvement mindset is preferable in many settings, not just educational.

Other concepts that are important to education (and there are many more than what I can write about here) include Understanding by Design, Project-Based Learning, Data-Driven Instruction, Standards-Based Instruction (Education), Evidence-Based Instruction, and 21st-Century Skills integration. These are all laudable ideas, if implemented properly and with care.

That educational researchers and mainstream literature write about these tenets of education often is a matter of record.  Therefore, it surprised me to read in The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth about Our Quest for Teacher Development that teachers perceive the professional development (PD) offered to them to be too generalized (Hasiotis et al., 2015) .  Despite the district or state’s best intentions, many teachers feel that PD is irrelevant to them and their context, rendering it not useful.  Even the job-embedded activities were not helpful, according to the report.  Teachers in the districts studied over two years were disappointed, and the millions of dollars spent on PD were, essentially, wasted.  Meanwhile, those providing PD continued to feel that they were serving their teachers well by creating, adopting, and deploying programs that helped their teachers learn about what great teaching looks like.  Why is the perception so disjointed between those developing and providing PD and those who are receiving it?

According to this report, the problem is not connected to funding.  In fact, their research concluded that districts spend an average of $18,000 a year per teacher, which translates to $8 billion being spent in the United States each year.  The problem is not connected to the amount of time spent, either, according to the report.  Teachers reported spending at least 150 hours, or 19 days, working on professional development activities per year.

The problem, then, is related to spending but not the amount of money or time devoted to the cause.  Instead, it is about how teachers and PD providers are spending their time.  The Mirage includes excellent recommendations for the improvement of professional development.  I highly recommend reading the report.  For this post, I would like to focus on personalizing professional development.

Teachers are students too

The best way to get students engaged initially with the material is to convince them that it is relevant to their lives.  They will take ownership of their learning if we can convincingly answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”  To keep them engaged, however, we need to work with them and provide meaningful feedback.  We do this through formative assessment, a process that is supportive and encouraging.  We design activities that are within the students’ zone of proximal development so that they are just challenging enough that students will learn, instead of being overwhelmed, with a bit of help from us. We challenge the students’ critical thinking, problem solving, creative, and collaborative skills in ways that we know our students can handle and then gradually release responsibility for the learning to them as they progress in their understanding of the concept, skill, or knowledge. In other words, we engage our students in cognitive apprenticeship (Collins, Brown, & Holum, 1991). Why, then, did the teachers in The Mirage study not experience professional development that way? Teachers are students too.

Use Action Research to engage teachers

Action Research is a process that makes the teacher a researcher and a participant in the study(“Action research for teachers,” n.d.; Creswell, 2005). It is a deliberate and well-planned study of one’s current practice. It is also an experiment with the following steps: identify an area of improvement, collect the data, implement a plan of improvement, analyze the data, report the results, and react to the results by proposing ways to improve one’s practice. Action research can be cyclical in that one study leads to another idea, which leads to another study. Action Research doesn’t have to be a lonely process; groups can work together if their research questions are similar, but in the end, each person strives to answer their personal questions and improve their own practice. They answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” themselves.

Professional development in situ

One advantage to doing Action Research is that it is professional development in situ. Action Research is similar to job-embedded activities, which are popular in professional development, but those activities start with prompts that were devised by someone else. Action Research, however, starts with a prompt (research question) that the teacher creates, to answer personal questions. Like job-embedded activities, it encourages the teacher to use the qualitative and quantitative data to hand, which is data related to one’s students. During the implementation process, the teacher is collecting still more data, which is still related to the students and to instructional effectiveness. The teacher then analyzes that data, striving to determine if their implementation plan worked or if more change is necessary. While all of that is similar to a job-embedded activity, that it starts with the teacher-created prompt makes it much more worthwhile.

Another aspect of Action Research that is very important is that teacher researchers are supposed to report their findings. Using in-service days to let teachers present to each other could, potentially, make those hours more productive. First, the teachers are dealing with the same student population. Therefore, teachers will hear their colleagues’ research questions and may choose to adopt that question for their next research project, as it relates to their experience in the classroom. Additionally, they may choose to implement another teacher’s solution simply because it worked for that teacher, who has many of the same students. This may lead to cross-curricular adoption of teaching strategies, allowing the students to experience similar teaching and learning methods within different subject areas. The notion of “what works in education” is, then, adapted to the culture in which the teachers and students are members.

Teachers in The Mirage study would benefit from this type of professional development. Their students would benefit, too. It could, potentially, make an instructional coach’s job much more difficult, and the program could suffer from a lack of rigor if the teachers are not taught how to collect and analyze data properly. Since these teachers think that their PD activities are nearly worthless, however, I think that making the switch could change the lives of these teachers and their students for the better.

Professional development tools

PD tools have flooded the market. There are apps for the phone and tablet, desktop applications, books in all formats, CDs and DVDs, mp4 recordings, YouTube videos, and so much more. I have tried quite a few of these tools and I like almost all of them. When doing Action Research, however, the first and last tool teachers need to use is the data collection and reporting tool, whatever that might be.

Teachers form questions for further study based on their classroom environment (or that of the school, if working in a group). Within that environment, the students figure prominently of course. Data tools can help teachers form impressions of their students. Through different lenses, the teacher can view the students’ progress historically, longitudinally, and currently. Based on these impressions, teachers can evaluate the effectiveness of their teaching and those who taught them before. Data tools with holistic data capture can unite academic progress with other factors influencing a child’s well-being, such as socioeconomic status, extracurricular activities, IEP status, and ELL progress.

Unfortunately, many teachers do not know enough about these tools to use the data wisely – if at all. Teacher preparation programs do not normally teach data analysis. This was true when I was studying to become a K-12 teacher, at least. Because teachers lack this valuable skill, some Action Research projects lack the rigor required to truly make a difference in the classroom. In a study by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation called Teachers Know Best: Making Data Work for Teachers and Students, it was clear that half the teachers studied were comfortable with using data to improve instruction, but the other half were overwhelmed by the idea and claimed they did not have the time to learn data analysis skills, or felt that their current methods worked for them (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2015) It is a fascinating study, one I recommend reading, along with The Mirage.

The last thing we want is to waste even more of the teacher’s and the district’s time. Therefore, I propose that teacher PD needs to include instruction on data analysis along with Action Research. PD providers should design the sessions so that teachers are using their data, thereby making the sessions relevant to them. Instructional coaches can work with teachers to help them understand what they are looking at, and verify the teacher’s conclusions. They can use these sessions as formative assessment of teachers, encouraging them to take risks to reap the rewards of continuous improvement. Make the data relevant to the teacher, help them to see the windows of opportunity the data shows, help them to understand where their students are and how well they can get to where they need to go, and teachers will embrace data analysis. I am sure of it because, after all, perception is everything.


Action research for teachers. (n.d.). Retrieved November 21, 2015, from http://www.nefstem.org/teacher_guide/prep/index.htm

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2015). Teachers know best: Making data work for teachers and students. Seattle, WA. Retrieved from http://collegeready.gatesfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/TeachersKnowBest-MakingDataWork.compressed.pdf

Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Holum, A. (1991). Cognitive apprenticeship: Making thinking visible. American Educator, Winter. Retrieved from http://elc.fhda.edu/transform/resources/collins_brown_holum_1991.pdf

Creswell, J. W. (2005). Educational Research: Planning, Conducting, and Evaluating Quantitative and Qualitative Research. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson / Prentice Hall.

Hasiotis, D., Grogan, E., Lawrence, K., Maier, A., Wilpon, A., Jacob, A., & McGovern, K. (2015). The mirage: Confronting the hard truth about our quest for teacher development. Retrieved November 14, 2015, from http://tntp.org/assets/documents/TNTP-Mirage_2015.pdf

This post was recently published by the SunGard K-12 blog:




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