Professional Learning

How Should Professional Development Change?

October 16, 2014

Teachers in the United States have long known that there is a traditional “disconnect” between what teachers were expected to do and how the teachers were expected to learn how to do it. Teachers attend professional development sessions of all kinds, but unfailingly will acknowledge that the real development of teacher skills for most teachers in the U.S. is “on the job” or “learning by doing.” Job-imbedded professional development through teacher collaboration is becoming a more significant factor in more and more school systems worldwide.

This is demonstrated in the report from the National Center for Teaching Quality (NCTQ) out of North Carolina published in May, 2014. This report shines more light on not only the American professional development perspectives, but also perspectives from teachers in Shanghai, Singapore, and Canada -- nations that significantly outperform the U.S. on the Program for International Assessment (PISA).

Report Findings

In this report titled, “A Global Network of Teachers and Their Professional Learning Systems,” teachers from Denver, Seattle, and Lexington (KY) share a fairly common perspective on how professional learning is approached in the United States. They discussed the elements of professional learning in terms of time, content, and connectedness. In this report, teachers in the U.S. illustrated that time for professional was woefully inadequate at their school sites. While some of their schools required biweekly meetings for professional learning communities (PLCs), the administration typically chose the content for the three days a year, which primarily focused on some school or district initiative (for example, new curriculum implementation) rather than focusing on teacher professional growth.

To answer their specific needs for professional learning, the teachers typically sought out and often paid for their own professional development. Finally, the American teachers indicated that their professional learning was not really connected to what they do on a daily basis or even their evaluations as teachers.

While the teacher from Toronto’s experience in many respects paralleled the American teacher experiences with professional development, one thing stands out as a stark difference: the ratio of teaching to learning time. The average for the three U.S. teachers was 28 hours of teaching to one hour of teacher collaboration per week. The average for the teacher from Toronto was 25 hours teaching to almost four hours for collaboration time.

Together, the U.S. and Canadian teachers had about the same planning time average of nine hours and all worked considerably more than the contractual hours (about 50 hours a week). So the big difference was the time for collaboration. For the teacher from Toronto, collaboration with other teachers was a daily occurrence, for the teachers from the U.S. the collaboration time was either sporadic or only once every two weeks.

Professional Development in Other Countries

The Shanghai teacher and Singapore teacher ratios of teaching time to collaboration time reveal even larger disparities. The Shanghai teacher reported teaching 15 hours a week and collaborating 7.5 hours a week. The Singapore teacher spends 18 hours teaching and 15 hours collaborating each week. Spending so much time collaborating with other teachers every week is not a reality for U.S. teachers who feel lucky to chat with their colleagues at lunch or in biweekly faculty meetings.

The differences in professional development systems do not end here though. In Singapore, teachers are expected to do 100 hours of professional development (paid by the ministry of education) every year. That would be 500 hours in five years. In Shanghai, teachers are expected to do a minimum of 360 hours of professional development every five years -- compare that to the mere 120 hours of professional development that is typically required of U.S. teachers every five years.

Our current educational system does not possess the political will, nor the resources to be able to even come close to doing what Shanghai and Singapore do to help their teachers be more effective. The teachers I know would be on the one hand overjoyed to be able to work more with their colleagues in a lesson study or PLC format.

On the other hand, they might be dismayed at the increased professional development time they would have to dedicate to improving their craft, even if the government paid for it. The administrators I know would also be asking, “So if I cut the number of classes a teacher teaches in half, would I be able to hire twice as many teachers to keep class sizes the same?” They would also be asking, “ Most teachers do not know how to collaborate because they have never really done it. How much time and resources will I have to dedicate to training teachers on effective collaboration? Will my budget for professional development be tripled if collaboration time is tripled?”

While the PISA is only general indicator of education effectiveness, and it is not fair to compare nations where only the best students attend school with nations with compulsory education for all students, it is disconcerting to realize that the U.S. who has been an innovator in so many things has fallen behind so far in educational innovation. What Singapore and Shanghai are doing for teacher professional development is not new or novel. We have known about the power of professional learning communities or communities of practice since the 1980’s.

What Needs to Change

What is unique is that these two countries are providing time and structures that promote levels of deep conversations and planning that we can only dream of here in the states. While an educational “re-boot” has been prescribed for the U.S. system for a long time, the likelihood of that happening at this current time is slim. I recently conducted research on the role of the administrator in math and science teacher collaboration and came to the same conclusions as that of the NCTQ report.

Teachers need more time and a structure to engage in deep collaboration. In order to achieve the results we want, the only solution we have is for brave local school leaders to adjust instructional class loads in order to provide teachers with daily collaboration and professional development time within their contract. What successes have you had in encouraging your leaders to provide the time and resources for professional learning communities or other forms of teacher collaboration? Please share in the comments section below.

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