Exploration of subject area content, opportunities for discussion of teaching practices, and regular observation are three essential components of high quality professional development, according to education policy expert Jolley Christman, of the local organization Research for Action.
"Excellent professional development in science is about teachers being scientists themselves," Christman explains. "We know that teachers need an immersion experience in the content area. That's one of the big reasons you hear such good things about the Philadelphia Writing Project - because teacher writing is central to that model."
A second important part of high-quality professional development that Christman and others emphasize is time for teachers to engage in meaningful conversations about student work and their own teaching techniques. These conversations are best held with a group of colleagues who meet regularly and learn how to support one another in improving their teaching.
For example, Kelley Collings, a teacher at Central East Middle School, and several colleagues have formed a "Critical Friends Group" that meets regularly to analyze student work and discuss their teaching. Collings says it offers a space for reflection and a way to build relationships with other teachers. These teachers meet on their own time outside of school.
Christman says that a third essential practice to excellent professional development is ongoing observation of teachers by peers and coaches who can provide useful feedback. Other school systems, including Boston and New York, have had success with programs that provide opportunities for teachers to visit other classrooms and observe their colleagues and with programs that place coaches in teachers' classrooms regularly.
Coaches are currently working in Philadelphia schools, and many teachers have praised the work that their coaches do; however, only two coaches are assigned to each of the School District's nine regions, which means that teachers may see a coach only one or two times per month.
Schools in Philadelphia also use teacher leaders to conduct classroom observations and training. But teacher leaders in some schools must teach part-time, and so their availability is not consistent across the District.
Christman notes that there are several barriers to providing high-quality professional development for all teachers in Philadelphia, including time and money as well as teachers' and administrators' beliefs. "They have to believe that [professional development] is a viable pathway to improving teaching and learning, and I think there are folks out there who don't believe that," she observes.
Another barrier is the capacity to coordinate and execute good professional development programs. "I think it's grossly underestimated how much work it takes to develop the leadership to lead good professional development," says Christman.