Recently, Frederick Hess declared in his blog that professional development is an easy but ineffectual answer to the problems in American education. To some degree, I agree.
In my time teaching, I have sat through some of the most ridiculous professional development sessions. In one session, we were divided into groups and received a bag of items, which we then had to use in a creative story. Not sure what the point of this exercise was? Yup, me either. I’ve sat through a session on nutrition and calorie counting, a session on the book, Who Moved My Cheese, and even a session on personality profiles, including a forty-five minute analysis of the personality of my principal. It’s sad, but true that each teacher carries his or her own collection of professional development horror stories, and unfortunately, they make up the majority of a teacher’s professional learning. While 90% of American teachers report having participated in professional development, the majority of these teachers also report that most of their professional development isn’t useful.
Research hasn’t been much kinder to professional development. The majority of professional development sessions are generic, one day workshops, an approach that has been shown , time and time again, to have virtually no impact on a teacher’s practice. Such findings have led Hess to declare that professional development is often an expensive, ineffective choice in school improvement.
However, while Hess is absolutely right that most professional development is ineffectual, it’s not true that all professional development is ineffectual. Professional development that moves beyond the prevalent one-day workshop model into support of a teacher’s learning as he or she implements new skills and practices into the classroom has been found to change what teachers are doing. In fact, in a study of teacher’s professional learning, a researcher found that when participants were only given a description of a new skill, 10% could transfer the skill. When the skill was modeled, 2-3% more could perform the skill. With practice in a professional development environment, 2-3% more could transfer the skill. However, when teachers were coached as they implemented the new skill into their actual classroom, up to 95% transferred the new skill into their practice. This is because new skills are not easily transferred into practice. Think about this in the context of sports. A coach may teach the concept of blocking, even modeling it to players, and then having them practice blocking in the artificial setting of practice. However, when the new skill is brought out onto the field and all the other parts of one’s practice have to adjust to the new skill, the transfer is messy. Several have called this the “implementation dip” of practice where the first integration of a new skill into existing practice is often awkward, requiring several more practices before the skill is mastered. Because this period is awkward, and comes with a high probability of frustration, support during the implementation stage is critical to ensure one continues and doesn’t give up.
These findings suggest not that professional learning won’t change a teacher’s practice, but that changing a teacher’s practice requires getting into the nitty gritty of teaching—implementation in one’s actual classroom. In the past decade, several innovations in professional development have moved beyond the prevalent, ineffective workshop model to support teachers during implementation, such as: instructional coaching, literacy coaching, cognitive coaching, and professional learning communities. While these innovations are new, and unfortunately, not widespread, they have a research base which suggests they change the practice of teachers.
In fact, a study that Hess cites in his own blog as the “most authoritative analysis to date” of professional development doesn’t find that professional development is wholly ineffective; it finds that professional development that is more extensive than the one day workshop (anywhere from thirty to one hundred hours) is correlated not only with teacher change, but with improvements in student achievement.
These studies should tell us that the answer isn’t just to throw away professional development as a tool in school improvement. Instead, the answer lies in reshaping professional development to reflect what research tells us about how teachers learn and grow, findings that show professional growth takes time and requires support as teachers aim to implement a new skill in their classroom.
Hess’ arguments are found in the new book, Cage-Busting Leadership. However, while I agree that school leaders should “bust the cage,” I think that school leaders who are bold enough to not just throw away professional development, but to replace it with effective models are the real cage busting leaders.