The State of Professional Development

Topic this week is to talk about professional development.  What do we remember as great PD…

For purposes of full disclosure, I spent several years of my career as a Curriculum and Staff Development Specialist for a district with an enrollment of 145,000 students.  It was one of the highest performing districts in America, as measured by our NAEP scores.  Our district, along with Connecticut, led the nation in achievement as measured by that assessment.  We also had no statistically significant gaps in achievement between and among disaggregated groups of students.  The School of Education at Vanderbilt University was contracted to study our district to see what we were doing that could and should have been replicated. 60 Minutes did a story on our district. We were quite proud of our curriculum and staff development work, the study was extremely complimentary about how the quality of our professional development contributed to the successes of the district.  But we could have done better.

What follows is Reflection and a Rant of what I see as the state of professional development in our public schools.  In the spirit of Felson’s Law of Education, parts of  it are stolen from some seminal works written by colleague educators whose opinions I respect tremendously.  A big part of it is taken from a grant application that I helped write while I was the Superintendent of Schools in Center, Colorado in November, 1993.  The rest is mostly taken from “Dumbing Us Down:  The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Learning” by John Taylor Gatto, “From Master Teacher to Master Learner” by Will Richardson, and a recent blog post from Will Richardson, “5 Elephants in the Classroom that Should Unsettle Us.”  I hope this suffices for citations.  Sincere thanks to John Gatto and Will Richardson for all I have learned from you.

May the words of my mouth comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.

1.  What is the ultimate purpose and goal of education?

2.  What are the student accomplishments desired as a result of the educational process?

3.  What is the gap between the current accomplishments and desired accomplishments?  What are the root causes of the gap?  What interventions are therefore indicated?

4.  What should be taught?

5.  How should education in our schools be redesigned and delivered?

I’m sure that we have all heard the less than anticipatory exclamations of excitement as our teachers show up for PD day.  When we review the end of session evaluations from teachers, they are generally polite enough to say nice things, but what is unwritten speaks volumes.  Too often, we see our teachers acting like our students.

And why shouldn’t they, our staff development too often looks just like our classrooms.  By that I mean that it is more about teaching than about learning.  It misses the characteristics of immersion, not producing.

I would suggest that the overall purpose of our individual schools and therefore, our system, is to produces graduates who have skills, information, and attitudes to become accomplished citizens.  In other words, our graduates are workplace ready, whether they enter the workplace directly out of high school, following a credentialing program, or a post-secondary degree program.  They are lifelong learners.

So I would like to acknowledge some of the “Elephants in the Classrooms” as they relate to both our daily classrooms and our PD efforts.

  1.  Most of us will forget most of the content that we “learn” during the session.  We tend to focus on content knowledge.  True learning is unforgettable, made up of things we want to learn more about, not what the presenter thinks we need to know.
  2. Many of us are bored and disengaged.  Let’s try giving our learners more freedom and control and see what happens.  Let’s define what needs to be learned, and let the learners decide how best to learn it.
  3. We know that deep, lasting learning requires conditions that schools and classrooms simply were not built for.
  4. We aren’t assessing many of the things that really matter for student success.
  5. Grades, not learning, are the outcomes that students and parents are most interested in.  Ask a teacher what a child has actually learned as represented by the grade and you will be greeted by silence.

To move to an accomplishment base for education from the current model of quasi-standards based will require a major shift in philosophy for most of us.  Despite decades of educational reform, the content of the curriculum is virtually unchanged.  Our students still struggle to memorize facts whose near and long-term relevance seems to them to be known only by the teacher. I suggest, if the truth were told, most teachers would be hard pressed to defend what so much of the student’s time should be spent trying to “learn” most of the stuff presented.

In addition to highly questionable content, teachers still by and large employ the same teaching and motivational techniques that have always been practiced:  I talk.  You listen.  You study.  I give tests.  I sort you into piles of A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s, F’s, Intensive, Strategic, Benchmark.  Here is the next set of facts.  Literally billions of dollars have been spent to support what has become to some a hopelessly broken model.

Until we recognize that brutal fact that what we have been trained to see as educational outcomes are actually inputs into a seamless process called life, we will continue to do nothing more that rearrange chairs on a sinking ship.

Random thoughts

  1. Assessments are still more about recall rather than application.  If Siri can answer the questions, we are doing ourselves and our students a disservice.
  2. Technologies are still mostly used as an institutional teaching tool, not a personal learning tool.  We install both literal and figurative filters on technology use, the most egregious being the “Internet Use Policy.”  If students don’t sign the form, we take away a powerful learning tool.  I can’t recall ever taking away pencils and paper when inappropriate notes were written about other kids, or when kids were otherwise off task from what the teacher expected, but we will certainly take away devices or use privileges if kids are off task.  How about a “Responsible Use Policy” as a way for all users – teachers and students – to learn what is appropriate?  Will this help us embrace, rather than resist the fundamental shifts that are confronting us?

What are those shifts?  What should we see as the new fundamentals?

  • learning is valued over knowing
  • making and doing are more important than consuming and memorizing
  • learners are empowered to learn deeply, richly and authentically using tools and technologies common in their lives
  • connect, collaborate and create as foundations of and for learning.

These challenge most of the basic concepts of school, but they take us from school to education.  Think of school as a noun, learning is a verb.

School is a place where people and information meet and value is added.  At one time, that meant that teachers, kids, and books were in the same place at the same time doing basically the same things.  That is no longer the case.  Information is now available anytime from anywhere, and our ability to connect with anyone is limited only by our imaginations.  School is now  where the learners are, it is not necessarily a building.

Yet the fundamental structure of the institution of the school, and the subset called the classroom hasn’t changed much since Horace Mann’s Common School, Frederick Taylor’s factory model, the curriculum of the Committee of Ten as measured by Andrew Carnegie’s  Units.  And we wonder why more and more of us, adults and children collectively defined as learners, find it increasingly irrelevant.

The goal of the school is to learn more.  Hence, measures of No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act are SBAC, PAARC, ACT, SAT, IB, AP, or some form of alternate assessment which is a variation on that theme.  These are all great assessments for measuring the wrong goal.  The goal of learning is the ability to learn more, and these assessments are not designed to measure the capacity to learn.

Wiseman (2014) is on target when he writes, “The vast majority of us now work in environments where the ability to learn is more critical that what we know and where the most valuable currency is influence, not power.”  Since we tend to not teach from a contextual framework, it is very difficult to accurately assess learning.  It is not efficient, and probably not profitable.  I beg the question, are our graduates prepared for post-secondary schools and/or the world of workforce and careers?

Recent data suggests that they are not.  The “Meandering Toward Graduation” report released recently by the Education Trust looked at the graduating class of 2013.  It finds that 47 percent, or almost half, of American high school graduates complete neither a college- nor career-ready course of study — defined here as the standard 15-course sequence required for entry at many public colleges, along with three or more credits in a broad career field such as health science or business.  It also shows that only 8 percent of high school graduates in 2013 completed a full college- and career-prep curriculum. Less than one-third of graduates completed only a college-ready course of study, and just 13 percent finished a career-ready course sequence only.  (Education Trust, 2016)

These findings closely parallel the annual College and Career Ready reports published by ACT.  A 2013 study by the National Center for Education Statistics reported that nearly one in four students enrolling in either a 2-year or 4-year post-secondary institution reported taking remedial coursework.

The news isn’t much brighter on the career education front.  The Changing the Equation Survey conducted by the Business Roundtable reports that 95% of American CEO’s believe their companies suffer from a skills shortage.  Business Roundtable Vice President for Education and Workforce Dane Linn believes the reality is the nation’s educational system “is failing to keep pace with the demands of the global economy,” despite acknowledged improvements, and said “the long-term negative impacts of this skills gap on workers, families, businesses, governments and the economy are potentially far-reaching.”  (Business Roundtable, 2016)

I believe that our high school diplomas should lead our students up, not just out.  And it appears that we have some work to do.  With all due respect, HISET looks great on a graduation report, but does it lead up?

We don’t need to do better, we need to do different.

  • Life is different;
  • Work is different;
  • What kids must know and be able to do is different; so…
  • Learning must be different;
  • Teaching must be different;
  • Tools must be different; and
  • Leadership must be different.

The only thing I can accurately predict about the world our current generation of students will graduate into is that it will be different.  Are we teaching them to adapt, adjust, to do different?  How do we know?

Our professional development should not be focused on making us better teachers.  it should be focused on making us better learners, for ourselves and for our students.  We have never needed teachers to be the best in the room at using tools of technology to teach.  We need teachers who are masters at how the tools of technology are used by students to learn.

I would like to close with one of the many Pearls of Wisdom and Insight from Sir Ken Robinson:  “Education doesn’t need to be reformed, it needs to be transformed.  The key is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual achievements of each child, to put standards in an environment where they can naturally discover their true passions.”

And so it goes…

 

 

 

 

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