Professional development has long been an expected part of the continuing career for elementary and secondary educators to provide them opportunities to learn and implement new teaching methods, broaden their content knowledge, and remain abreast of changing policies at the national, state, and local levels. Recently, however, both quantitative and qualitative expectations for professional development have expanded and intensified, fueled by federal mandates and demands for accountability.
No Child Left Behind mandates states to increase the percentage of teachers receiving “high-quality professional development” each year and encourages partnerships between districts and schools of education to assist in meeting this goal. High quality professional development programs are considered those that are “sustained, intensive, and classroom-focused rather than one-day or short-term workshops or conferences” (Elementary and Secondary Education Act, 2001). Louisiana’s professional development standards provide an example of how states are working to meet this mandate (Standards for Staff Development, 2001). For example, the Louisiana Professional Development Standards are broken down into three components; context standards, process standards, and content. Context standards encompass Learning Communities, Leadership, and Resources. Process standards are composed of Data-driven, Evaluation, Research-based, Design, Learning, and Collaboration aspects. Finally, content is focused upon three core elements: Equity; Quality Teaching; and Family Involvement. Thus school districts are expending significant resources to provide professional development for their teachers. They are not only obligated to do so by law, but also because they intend for teacher participation in inservice development to help address accountability issues by facilitating accomplishment of student achievement goals. What has long been established is the connection of staff development and student achievement (National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, 1996). In that sense, perhaps professional development should be viewed as a long-term strategy for building instructional capacity.
In addition, the tumultuous changes in the educational environment of the teachers – increase in class sizes, public mandated reforms, expectations for increased performance on tests and other forms of student assessment, and achievement of “rigorous content standards” to name a few –create a pressing need for ongoing professional development (Sparks, 1995). To address the intricacies of educating middle-level students educators must engage in professional development to improve skills and increase knowledge, while also receiving support and coaching to understand new practices and to become proficient in their use in the classroom (Killion, 2002).
There has been significant amount of research conducted (National Commission on Teaching for America’s Future, 1996; Wenglinski, 2000) that support the theory that a teacher’s knowledge and action effect what the students in return know and do. To better prepare students for the demands of content standards teachers should be equipped with deeper content knowledge, content specific strategies for instruction, and a stronger understanding of how students learn. For the inservice teacher, the vehicle most readily available to meet these needs is professional development. (Killion, 2002)
The findings of Grove, Strudler and Odell (2004) indicate a need to continue the process of equipping teachers throughout the inservice tenure so that strategies and methods may be monitored, adjusted, and improved via professional development. Research supportive of professional development includes a number of studies indicating that teachers perceive professional development improves their teaching (Nadolny, 1999). Case studies suggest that changes in teaching methods correspond to participation in professional development (Bodon & Addie, 2002). Some experimental evidence suggests that learning instructional practices that teachers can readily apply is somewhat more successful than practices that are more difficult to implement (Burrows, 2001). Professional development characteristics identified by researchers as correlating with positive change in teacher knowledge and instructional practices (Cohen & Hill, 2001) include: (1) content focused on subject areas and instructional methods; (2) opportunities and resources for continuous growth over time; (3) content directly related to authentic teaching; (4) a peer mentoring component; (5) integration with local standards and initiatives; and (6) active learning experiences.
Conclusions in the report, 2000 Teacher Quality: A Report on Preparation and Qualification of Public School Teachers (National Center of Education Statistics, 2000), state that s eventy percent of the participating teachers stated that professional development somewhat or moderately improved their content and teaching practices. However only 25% reported that professional development experiences improved their teaching a lot. If however the professional development was more than 32 hours in duration the percentage of teachers who felt professional development improved their teaching increased substantially . Unfortunately the percentage of teachers who participated in professional development over 32 hours was low. For example, a only 12% of teachers indicated that they had participated in professional development opportunities on state and district curriculum standards. Similarly only 23% and 11% of teachers indicated that they had participated in professional development experiences on their subject area and methods of teaching respectively. The finding of the study report teachers who part took in sustained professional development (32 hours or longer) were nearly four times more likely to report that their teaching improved “a lot.”
The report also emphasized that teachers lack professional development in dealing with inclusive instruction for diverse student populations. For example only 41% of teachers participated in professional development in the area diverse cultural background. Even a lower percentage, 26% of teachers stated they had attended professional development on working with English as second language students. In terms of special education professional development, 48% of the participating teachers indicated they had participated (NCES, 2000).
Educators are still trying to clarify what constitutes effective professional development and how effective those programs are. In 2001 Desimone, Porter, Garet, Yoon and Briman conducted a study on professional development offered to teacher s participating through the federally funded Eisenhower Program. Their data showed that four out of five professional development experiences were traditional and without active learning and that most lasted for less than a week (approximately 15 contact hours). In their conclusion the researchers identified three key organization components as being particularly effective: (1) using reform methods, (2) distributing activities across an extended period of weeks or months and (3) including groups of teachers participating collectively from a school or local district area. In terms of methods of conducting effective professional development experiences, there were three points of emphasis: (1) improving the content knowledge of teachers, (2) regular and meaningful analysis of teaching and learning and (3) fostering connectedness and inclusiveness among participants (Birman, Desimone, Porter, & Garet, 2001 ).
Important qualitative goals such as a positive school culture, improved individual teacher skills, and opportunities for peer learning can result from high-quality professional development and the implementation of the intended practices (Killion, 2002). Professional development not only can provide teachers at all levels the tools needed to approach classroom challenges with confidence, but also can be used to build trust and access to a professional community supportive of their endeavors (Teacher Professional Development: A Primer for Parents and Community Members, 2003).
In contrast to the professional literature supportive of professional development, research that is critical of professional development includes a survey conducted by Public Agenda in which 50 percent of teachers report that professional development has made little difference to them as teachers (Farkas, Johnson, & Duffett, 2003). Farkas and associates report that all too often money, frequently millions of dollars, is spent on professional development that teachers neither want nor need; and the focus of professional development is rarely connected to district student achievement goals.
Other research suggests that traditional teaching often persists even after participation in programs seeking to foster improved instructional practices (Briman, Desimone, Portere & Garet, 2002). In a case relating to Iowa schools, the problem was that once professional development was conducted, no one monitored or supported the fidelity of implementation of the strategies in the classroom (O’Connell & Phye, 2005). In many cases, the teachers did not receive follow-up support, or the administration and support staff did not completely understand the strategy. The result was that teachers mutated the strategies, did not use them for the correct duration, or never evaluated them to see if the strategies were having an impact on student achievement. Thus, many strategies were either abandoned because teachers lost faith in their ability to perform them correctly, or strategies that had been proved effective were inadvertently modified (O’Connell & Phye, 2005).
Support is a vital piece of the professional development plan. What can be learned via the technology integration process over the last few years is that implementation of strategies and methods are not successfully accomplished by classroom teachers in a vacuum (Ronnkvist, Dexter, & Anderson, 2000). Improving teachers' knowledge, skills, and dispositions through professional development is a critical step in improving student achievement, and the overall learning environment. Ideally, professional development can also promote program coherence by supporting focused, integrated work over a sustained period of time (Bruce & Newmann, 2000).
Educators must become a force for change by planning action steps to improve teaching and learning. The action plan should include building a collective mission including the restructuring of professional development to provide time for faculties to study and make classroom decisions based on the educational mandates, research-based programs and practices, and student data. Such basis enables teachers to develop and implement a plan of reflective conversations leading to strategies which will lead to improved teaching and learning (Dearman & Alber, 2005). According to experiences and lessons learned from previous efforts, among the most essential professional development opportunities are those that focus on teaching pedagogy and best practices, creating learning communities, and providing teacher technology support .