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California, Will We Keep Up?

July 20, 2010

I’ve spent the past couple days in Seattle, at the summer conference of the National Staff Development Council (NSDC).  As a California teacher, I’m a rarity here.  If Californians were represented proportionally at this conference, I’d expect that we’d be around 10% of the participants, and given that the conference is on the West Coast, you might even think there would be more of us.  Instead, I found myself outnumbered by the contingent from Guam in one session on Monday morning, and the lone Californian in a group of 35 educators on Tuesday morning.

I know there are budget issues and a weak economy, but that’s true in the other states as well.  What I fear is that as a state, California does not understand and does not commit itself to the professional development of its teaching force.

Some legislators and school boards, along with the voters they answer to, may not understand exactly why professional development is so important.  They might question why teachers need to learn more if they’re any good at their jobs, and why the state should invest in professional development when money is so tight.

In fact, professional learning is not a concept that is unique to education.  Business and management experts offer the same advice, as I’ve tried to highlight in a series of previous blogs posts (beginning here).  Ongoing learning is vital to maintaining excellence, not only because it sharpens the skills necessary in such complex work, but also because it improves working conditions and motivation, which are essential contributors to effectiveness.  Professional development is also one of the best remedies to high turnover, a chronic problem in struggling schools, and one that bears significant costs.  It is actually in the state’s best interests, educationally and financially, to invest up front in a quality teaching staff, in order to save money later in more efficient school systems, and to improve our economy in the long run by equipping students to become more productive members of society.

Stephanie Hirsch, Executive Director of NSDC, co-authored an op-ed in Monday’s Seattle Times, in which she makes this same argument, and reacts to proposed cuts in professional development funding.

For too long, professional development has been treated as something that takes place at the occasional workshop, in-service day or conference a handful of times a year. Under this model, schools are closed, substitutes are hired and results are rarely determined or reported. This model is not as effective as it should be.

Fortunately, a more cost-effective and proven approach to professional learning is being deployed in a number of schools. This approach leverages knowledge that higher-quality teaching depends on teachers having access to real-time data on their student’s performance and being engaged with their colleagues in cycles of continuous improvement.

One can only hope that Californians will also heed that message, and demand of our elected officials the changes that we need to restore a once-exemplary state education system.  Teachers cannot provide continuous improvement in instruction, as our students deserve, if the state is not committed to the continuous improvement of schools, particularly through the ongoing professional development of all teachers.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. July 20, 2010 12:53 pm

    Of course, you know that this is not just a California thing. Teachers tend to think that their state is dazed and confused when it comes to education policy, but other states have their houses in order–but you really don’t know what’s going on in a state until you talk to an experienced teacher who’s taught there (and paid attention) for a few years.

    When I did my masters’ work, in the 1970s, we were taught that California was the bellwether state–what happened there was likely to turn up in our ed policy five years later. I don’t believe that’s true any longer–and if it is, the news is not good for the rest of us.

    Hirsch’s piece could have been written 10 years ago–except, perhaps, for that little bit in there about “real-time data.” Teachers have been complaining about useless PD for decades, and pushing for in-house learning and conversations.

    This is a personal observation, and not data-based, but I believe that the reason we haven’t adopted the kind of collegial engagement and data analysis Hirsch describes is because there is a deep-seated, seldom-expressed conviction that teachers will a) waste time set aside for such professional conversation and that they’re b) unable to manage their own planning/learning time because c) they don’t generally have the intellectual skills and motivation to work professionally. That’s quite an indictment, I realize–and I don’t believe it’s true–but I think that’s where the rub is. So we keep hiring outside experts and hosting two-hour workshops.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      July 20, 2010 5:56 pm

      Nancy – I suppose it’s true that I don’t know other states well, and I have some motivation to play up our problems in hopes of provoking further questions, criticism, and change. And yet, setting aside the details of state policy and practice, I still find it telling that I’ve met more Canadians and Texans here. It should also be noted that among the few Californians I’ve met, and including myself, most of our expenses are not being paid by public school systems or the state. So, those other states might not be that much better, but they certainly have more of a presence here.

  2. Terilyn permalink
    July 21, 2010 10:38 am

    The four years that I taught in Hawaii, I was constantly being sent to PD all over the state (paid for by the district). The PD opportunities greatly enhanced my knowledge and skills for the teaching and learning process. The next six years that I taught in California, I was given no opportunity for PD, unless I paid for it and took personal leave. It was sad really, especially because over a six year period there are new discoveries and teaching strategies to be shared. Kudos to those districts and schools that push for school wide PD, such as National Board Certification at the California Desert Hot Springs School!

  3. David B. Cohen permalink*
    July 21, 2010 1:09 pm

    Thanks for adding your perspective, Terilyn. I’m done with the conference now and it didn’t get any better – I never met another Californian after the first day – and I did keep trying. One of the Californians I met on the first day was Kiela Bonelli, the principal of Corsini Elementary, which is the school you referred to above. Definitely impressive – National Board Certification for all teachers helped her completely turn around the school by stabilizing and professionalizing the staff.

  4. Terilyn permalink
    July 21, 2010 1:14 pm

    And I have to tell you David, after working at Palm Springs High School for four years and knowing the socioeconomics of Corsini, it is a huge accomplishment for them. They absolutely turned that school around through a non-punitive measure. Sure wish Duncan would take note and utilize that form of turn-around instead of the four punitive choices that he has in place. PD is awesome when it is collaborative and school wide.

  5. July 21, 2010 1:30 pm

    It was sad to read your post on professional development for California teachers. I work for a social studies education company and we have definitely seen the decline in PD. It seems to be the first thing cut. So we are trying something new. In August we plan to launch free, professional development videos/webinars for teachers through our TeacherGenius site. Of course it isn’t the same thing as school wide PD but we hope it will be something to help California (and the rest of the nation) continue the focus on PD.

  6. July 21, 2010 5:17 pm

    I wish I could say things were a lot better in Washington, but they aren’t. As described in the op-ed co-authored by Hirch and Pat Wasley (the dean of the University of Washington’s School of Education) we’ve had all of our PD days eliminated.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      July 21, 2010 8:55 pm

      Hi Tom,
      I enjoyed talking with you this week, and meeting some of your colleagues from Washington as well. Maybe it’s because I’m an outsider and the grass-looks-greener effect, but I’m impressed by some of the other activity in your state. While school-based professional development is essential, at least the National Board Certification activities are propelling some progress. More of my impressions about Washington coming in my next post.


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