Professional Development That Works

By Del Stover

Forget grand reform initiatives, cutting-edge technology, and Common Core standards. If a school board truly wishes to boost academic achievement -- or turn around low-performing schools -- it needs to focus on the heart and soul of instruction: the teachers and administrators who educate students.

In other words, school boards must place their support squarely behind professional development -- the kind of ongoing, thoughtfully designed training that raises the quality of instruction in the classroom.

“Professional development is probably the most strategic effort that a school district can do to move its academic performance forward,” says Ann Cunningham-Morris, director of professional development and field services for ASCD (formerly the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development).

To train staff effectively, however, boards and their superintendents need to set aside some old mind-sets -- particularly a reliance on traditional “sit and get” workshops in which teachers are herded into a school auditorium to listen to an administrator or consultant talk for hours on end. Although workshops have their use, more and more districts are paying attention to what the latest research says about how educators learn.

And that research says staff training must be “down and dirty” -- very practical for the classroom and including sustained coaching and support for teachers and administrators over many months as they seek to master what they’ve learned. This training must be dynamic and engage staff as much as possible, making use of professional learning communities, mentorships and coaching, online training, and classroom observations followed by immediate feedback.

 What’s more, greater attention must be given to aligning professional development with the district’s strategic goals, whether those goals are raising literacy levels or preparing for Common Core standards. Training priorities also must recognize the unique needs and challenges of individual schools. Finally, there is a growing resolve that some form of evaluation process must be implemented to identify whether training efforts are truly effective.

“Professional development as we thought of it in the past has changed,” Cunningham-Morris says. “It has to be more solution-focused. It has to be more focused on the customized needs of the school -- looking at what those students need, and looking at what teachers need to move the students forward.”

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