The Trump administration, as part of its fiscal year 2020 budget proposal for the U.S. Department of Education, wants to fund and evaluate a demonstration of “teacher-driven” professional development (PD).
The budget request is based on Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos hearing that “teachers are generally very unhappy with professional development in their districts right now,” James Blew, the department's assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development, said earlier this month when the budget was released.
Over the past several years, however, several districts across the country have already been letting teachers steer their way through the array of learning opportunities available to them. And some are closely watching the impact of those efforts.
In the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) in California, for example, data on the district’s “myPD” system shows that by last August, total logins reached more than 344,000, which was on pace to exceed use by educators in the previous year by 50%.
In a report prepared for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — which has provided funding for several districts to redesign their PD systems — LBUSD also highlighted that all of the documents, podcasts, presentations, videos and other resources available through myPD have been “created, curated and assessed through a comprehensive workflow to ensure quality and alignment to core district Teaching and Learning Framework priorities.”
That’s the key, Pamela Seki, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and PD, wrote in an email. The PD options from which the district's teachers can choose “have been vetted for alignment to our district instructional framework, are standards-aligned and high-quality,” she said.
While the district has not yet evaluated the connection between using myPD and specific teacher outcomes, Seki said increasingly “when there is discussion in the district around a new initiative, new curriculum or instructional/pedagogical focus, the first wondering is, ‘How can we leverage myPD to move the work forward?’”
In Suffolk Public Schools (SPS) in Virginia, teachers’ “self-choice” represents about half the resources accessed through an online professional library, Barbara Patterson Oden, who supervises PD for the district, said in an interview.
She added that teachers also have wide flexibility in the format they choose for professional learning, whether that’s a face-to-face session, on their own or in a flipped model that "honors how the adult learner learns," she said.
Meeting teachers' and students' needs
Even with the work that districts have done to build more choice into their PD systems, however, surveys have shown some teachers still wish they had more input into how districts spend the funds they have for PD.
In a 2017 survey by Learning Forward, a professional organization for educators who lead PD, 75% of teachers responded that principals and district leaders were still making the bulk of the decisions about PD. And in the results of a Harris Panel survey, released last week by Instructure, a company that makes software for education, about 29% of teachers in a sample of more than 1,000 responded that they were dissatisfied with the current PD opportunities available to them. And about 40% of teachers responded that they were frustrated with the lack of growth opportunities in their district.
Blew suggested that if teachers received vouchers, “they would seek out the PD that best meets their needs.”
But allowing teachers to make all the decisions about what they want to learn creates challenges for district leaders and those planning and providing PD.
“Isolated examples of professional learning based on individual educator needs are a poor substitute for engaging teachers in ongoing collaborative learning that draws on their expertise to examine student data and design learning agendas that benefit everyone in the school,” Stephanie Hirsh, executive director of Learning Forward, said in an email.
As the former deputy superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools in Pennsylvania, Donna Micheaux, now a consultant, said when teachers or schools have too much control over PD decisions, “there tends to not be a shared vision of quality teaching and learning across the district.”
Both Patterson Oden and Micheaux also noted that a PD system based completely on choice would make inequities between schools worse. “Different schools have access to different resources,” Micheaux said, stressing that PD should be focused on student learning and not necessarily teachers’ personal interests. “In my view, until we have more students achieving at high levels, choice is something that we need to take into careful consideration.”
While still with the district, she oversaw the implementation of a districtwide PD system that also allowed for more personalized approaches at the local school and individual teacher level. PD institutes for principals, for example, would focus on district-wide goals and specific teaching strategies, but schools were expected to review their own data to determine what additional PD their teachers might need to address the needs of their specific population of students.
SPS, for example, is going through a “big literacy transition,” which involves book discussions, lesson design over the summer, and one-day workshops to practice those lessons, Patterson Oden said.
“We do have to create some parameters that align with district goals,” she said.
In a study of a coaching model, in which teachers could decide whether or not to participate, Evthokia Stephanie Saclarides of the University of Alabama and Sarah Theule Lubienski at Indiana University found that most teachers did not ask for coaches to visit their classrooms because they were worried they were being evaluated.
Coaches tried to build trusting relationships with teachers, but this can “undermine the perception that teacher leaders are experts with important knowledge to share,” they wrote in a Phi Delta Kappan article last fall. Finally, they found that coaches were reluctant to give teachers pointed feedback and engage in deep discussions about teachers’ practice.
Choice in PD has advantages, they write, but they advise “districts to adopt a blended approach where teachers have the opportunity to select the topics they would like to focus on, and coaches have the freedom to initiate professional development with teachers and more actively shape their learning opportunities.”
Takeaways from the Gates Foundation's work on PD included the lesson that "it’s difficult for teachers to utilize choice if there isn’t enough set time, school flexibility, or support tools for them to apply the professional development," a spokesperson said. "We learned that PD needs to be personalized to be effective."
Budget plan would cut PD funding
The Education Department's PD voucher proposal also comes as the administration is requesting — for the second year in a row — to eliminate $2.1 billion for the Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants with Title II, Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which many districts and schools use to pay for PD-related costs. The cuts, if passed, would range as high as almost $233 million in California and $185 million in Texas.
The administration says the grant program is “largely duplicative” and that states and districts can use other grant funds to provide PD.
In SPS, the Title II funds go toward stipends for mentor teachers and adding to the online catalog of PD materials. But the grant program also pays for teaching positions that allow schools to reduce class sizes. In SPS, that’s eight teachers, Patterson Oden said. “When I see 0 in the president’s budget, I see those eight people.”