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Focus on Professional Development: A New Context

With the onset of the dog days of August, thousands of teachers turn their thoughts to those first few days of school and the inevitable professional development crammed into the first few days of school. In 1996, when I arrived at CEA, one of my first assignments was to assist the executive director in completing a report on a survey of CEA members’ views on the topic of professional development. As I recall, there were few surprises. Most teachers were repelled by the consistent irrelevance of the professional development they were offered. Our study for the most part confirmed a growing body of research which indicated the need for a dramatic overhaul of how districts approached the notion of staff development. Over the last decade, spearheaded by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), new guidelines were developed urging that professional development be of longer duration, relevant to and embedded with the practice of teaching. Clearly progress has been slow.

With the increased focus on teacher quality in the federal law, Title II monies designated for activities to improve teacher quality have reached a level of $3 billion. In July, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), released a study on Teacher Quality.  The study looks at how the money is spent, the degree to which program coordination occurs, research conducted by or promoted by the Department of Education, collaboration within states and how the DoE deals with these challenges. Of particular note is the focus, once again, of linking student data with teacher data.

In a more pointed paper released by the Center for American Progress, “Ineffective Uses of ESEA Title II Funds”, the authors castigate the effectiveness of professional development as a vehicle for improving student achievement. They indicate that “A review of 1300 studies conducted by researchers at the Southwest Regional Laboratory found only nine studies were sufficiently rigorous to include in their analysis. These studies found positive effects, but more importantly, the greatest effects were achieved when the professional development was of extended duration. Training experiences lasting 14 hours or less showed no positive effect, whereas experiences averaging 49 hours showed a dramatic 21 % increase in student achievement. This suggests to me that placing some conditions on Title II money used for professional development (about 40% of it is used for PD nationwide) might improve the outcomes. Instead the two authors of this paper come to the following conclusion:

Clearly, funds currently allocated through Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act could be repurposed in ways that lead to greater improvements in student achievement and progress in closing achievement gaps. Until Title II can be overhauled to ensure that funds are applied in cost-effective ways that align with strategic goals, it would make sense to channel more funding to competitive grant programs that show greater promise in this sense.

Another form of PD for individual teachers is the completion of advanced degrees –  for most that means finishing a master’s degree. In Connecticut, according to another report co-authored by one of the authors of the paper mentioned above, 74% of all teachers have a master’s. You and I might think that is a good thing and, in any event, it is a requirement for a professional level certificate. This report (“Separation of Degrees: State-by State Analysis of Teacher Compensation for Master’s Degrees”) sees the compensation paid to teachers for advanced degrees as a waste of fiscal resources. The assertion once again is that there is little correlation between the acquisition of advanced degrees and improved student achievement and therefore that “salary bump” you receive for a master’s degree is a waste of money. Of course, a better way to use these freed up monies, according to the authors, would be to develop other methods of compensation based on performance – no matter that there is no research base to support the notion that such a change would have any different effect on achievement.

Raegen Miller co-author of both papers mentioned above is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Center for American Progress and is affiliated with the Center for Reinventing Education at Washington State University. Even more interesting is that he was once a local teachers union president in Palo Alto, CA. I wonder if he had a master’s degree at the time?

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