Guaranteed, Quality Professional Development…

The Aspen Institute’s report on the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind legislation continues to draw significant attention in policy circles. Few would argue its importance and influence as Congress continues to revise a law that has become nothing short of an educational lightening rod.

One of the most interesting proposals in the Institute’s report was related to the Highly Qualified Effective Teacher designation that will require teachers to post student gains on standardized tests in the top 75% to avoid "being held accountable" for poor performance. This threat to drum "under performing" teachers out of Title I classrooms is thinly veiled behind a promise for improved professional development:

The new HQET measure will, for the first time, trigger guaranteed, quality professional development for teachers who need it most. Teachers who, after two years, are at risk of not attaining HQET status will receive high-quality professional development specifically designed to address their needs for up to three years. If a teacher after three years of professional development still has not obtained HQET status, principals and school districts that choose to continue to employ such a teacher in a Title I school would be required to notify parents of students taught by these teachers of their HQET status. After this two-year period, if such a teacher has not achieved HQET status, that individual can no longer teach in a school receiving Title I funds.

Initially, I was jazzed to hear that someone was finally advocating for meaningful professional development for educators. Studies have shown time and again that teachers are dissatisfied with both the quantity and quality of professional development available in their schools and communities. Most recently, results from the 2006 North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions survey showed that only 50% of teachers report having sufficient access to funds and resources for taking advantage of professional development opportunities.

Even more interesting is that teachers often have little input in the kinds of professional development opportunities that they are exposed to. In North Carolina, 44% of teachers surveyed reported that they had little to no role at all in determining the kinds of inservice opportunities available to them. This lack of involvement in decision making leads to a misallocation of already limited resources, as professional development opportunities often end up emphasizing areas where teachers report little need for additional support.   

Once I came off of my "High Quality PD High," I realized that the Aspen Institute’s proposal had serious flaws. Most importantly, why we are limiting access to "guaranteed, quality professional development" to only 25% of our country’s teachers? If the Commission feels strongly enough about the potential of professional development to change the instructional practices of teachers, why not advocate for meaningful professional development for all of our nation’s teachers?

I also wonder how a Congress that has failed to fully fund the first iteration of No Child Left Behind will find the resources to support truly meaningful professional development opportunities for teachers. With states already struggling to make up for gaps in federal funding, there is little hope that new programs will receive the support necessary to make them successful. As edublogger Dr. Homeslice writes, "You do realize that this will require more manpower from districts and more resources that will more than likely be unfunded, diverting vital dollars from the front lines of classrooms, don’t you?" 

Finally, I worry that "guaranteed, quality professional development" for teachers working in a system that places great emphasis on standardized test scores as a measure of success will be overly simplistic. Scripted curricula and "teaching to the test" have already changed education for the worse. What will our classrooms look like when "professional development" drifts away from meaningful instructional practices towards pre-packaged test preparation programs?

Excuse me for being cynical, but I’m not quite buying this provision of the Aspen proposal yet.