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The Problem with PD: Redefine & Reconceptualize the Power of Professional Learning

Posted by Sarah Ottow on

We know that a major factor in student success is the quality of the teacher in front of her or him every day.  Yet, educators nationwide are still vastly underprepared to meet the needs of our students, particularly for our English language learners (ELLs), the fastest growing group of students in the country.  Unfortunately, the ELL “achievement gap” is largely an “opportunity gap” of students not having the opportunity to have highly skilled teachers. We have a serious problem with professional development in this country that is hindering, not helping, the achievement of our most vulnerable students. 

Every year, approximately $18 billion is spent on professional learning or professional development (PD) with little to no return on that investment in terms of actually changing practices in the classroom. Not surprisingly, educators are largely unsatisfied with the professional learning activities offered by districts, spending upwards of 68 hours per year on PD.  In a study from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Teachers Know Best: Teachers' Views on Professional Development, the majority of educators report that PD is not adequately preparing them for the demands of 21st century teaching and a changing population of students.  What’s worse, two-thirds of US teacher preparation program graduates report being “underprepared for the realities of the classroom.”

What’s the solution?  How do we both address and prevent this opportunity gap of underprepared teachers?  Our schools require both preventative care and remedial care.  Preventative care means stronger preservice teacher prep programs with application-based problem solving and residency models.  Teachers in training need to learn from “rock star” teachers and be immersed in the day-to-day challenges of teaching.  At the same time, we need remedial care--innovative, practical inservice PD that builds and sustains effective communities of practice focused on real time problems in classrooms that also capitalizes on the diversity in our schools. And more than anything, to fix the problem of PD, we need to reconceptualize what PD actually is.  

Instead of having PD be mainly formal workshops, educators need a comprehensive professional learning approach that is practical, embedded and has an immediate, positive impact on students.  We need professional development to empower educators to help them solve their own problems. Structured yet flexible, inquiry-based professional learning structures need to be built in to schedules so that teachers have focused time to talk about teaching and learn from each other.

PD providers need to understand that 'sit and get' alone simply doesn't transfer to changing classroom practice. (The table above shows how little impact training alone makes).  We have the power to help build in and reinforce other PD methods like professional learning communities, mentoring and instructional coaching, as well as leadership coaching. Districts need to provide teachers with choice and voice in selecting PD to meet teacher and student needs because one size does not fit all for our students or our teachers.  We need instructional leaders who have the moral courage to hold high standards for all students and for all teachers, while providing the access points for getting there.  Plus, PD needs to leverage teacher leaders' expertise through sharing their craft with others and contribute to the field.  (Recommended resources that go deeper for districts and PD providers include: EdSurge's guide, From Pre-Fab to Personalized: How Districts are Retooling Professional Development, the Gates Foundation's PD Redesign site, and Learning Forward's essential Standards for Professional Learning.)

In order to make a more responsive PD system a reality across our country, we need teaching and learning that mirrors our increasingly innovative and diverse society, rapidly responding to a global economy and 21st century innovation.  We need students to leave school every day knowing that their teachers and leaders are doing everything they can to improve their practice so that they have access, opportunity, college, career and life readiness.  Our students deserve that.  


--Sarah Ottow, Director and Lead Coach of Confianza: Educating for ELL Equity, a New England-based organization that provides practical, skill-based professional learning for educators working with English learners

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