April 2009 Archives

Stimulus Money for Professional Development?

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Many school districts around the country are poised to receive stimulus package money and are trying to figure out how to spend it. Many will spend it hiring needed teachers, while others will put it toward retention. One natural place to put new dollars is professional development. However, not all professional development is equal, and in many cases, will not translate to improved teaching or student achievement. 

According to Heather Hill’s article, Learning in the Teacher Workforce, in The Future of ChildrenExcellence in the Classroom, most workshops, institutes, and study groups appear to be brief, superficial, and of marginal use in improving teaching. In short: a waste of money. 
 
But it does not have to be this way. Professional development can enhance teaching and learning if it has three characteristics:
 
1.  It lasts several days or longer;
2.  It focuses on subject-matter-specific instruction; and
3.  It is aligned with the instructional goals and curriculum materials in teachers’ schools.  
 
Such high-quality programs do exist. But they are a tiny fraction of the nation’s offerings. One problem is that researchers rarely evaluate carefully either local professional development or its effect on student learning. Most evaluations simply ask participants to self-report. Lacking reliable evaluations, how are teachers and district officials to choose effective programs? Clearly, much more rigorous studies are needed.
 
To make continuing education effective, school districts should encourage teachers to take graduate coursework that is more tightly aligned with their primary teaching assignment. And districts should select professional development programs based on evidence of their effectiveness. Finally, central planners must ensure that items on the menu of offerings closely align with district standards, curriculum materials, and assessments.

See also The Future of Children policy brief,  "A Plan to Improve the Quality of Teaching in American Schools"

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