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Revolutionize teacher development through common sense

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Across the country, in urban, suburban, and rural school systems alike, professional development for teachers is widely considered a massive failure by the very people it is intended to benefit. This sweeping accusation was confirmed in a recent national study by TNTP (formerly known as The New Teachers Project), which concluded that most of the $18,000 per teacher, on average, spent annually on teacher professional development has little, if any, impact on improving classroom practice.

Philadelphia is hardly immune to this critique. In recent years, our teachers have been subjected to: scripted training delivered by the principal, who had received the script only hours before; workshops offered by highly paid consultants clueless about teachers’ needs; courses taught by university “experts” who have never taught in a challenging urban school; and an assortment of other experiences that have failed to support their development but have wasted hours of their precious time and millions of the District’s scarce dollars.

But consider what happened in July 2015.

Nearly 700 K-3 teachers and their principals and reading coaches from the most challenging schools in the District gathered at Martin Luther King High School for a weeklong training in early literacy instruction. On Thursday, the next-to-last day, the lights went out, and power could not be readily restored. So the participants were dismissed, the Thursday session rescheduled for Friday, the Friday session rescheduled for Monday.

Based on past experience, what is your guess about the reaction to the makeup day?

A) Most of the teachers failed to show up on Monday.

B) The coordinator received a barrage of questions about whether the participants would receive extra pay if they returned.

C) Both of the above.

D) None of the above.

To the astonishment of many, the correct answer is D.  Two-thirds of the participants showed up Monday (many already had planned vacations for the following week) and no one asked for extra pay. 

What was the lesson learned? When the District provides high-quality professional development focused on proven practices in improving instruction and provides incentives – in this case, on-site reading coaches and specialized classroom libraries in the participating schools – teachers become committed learners eager to apply the new strategies back in their classrooms.

A similar lesson has been learned over the years from the path-breaking work of the Philadelphia Education Fund’s monthly Math Science Forum, which, since 2009, has provided unpaid, monthly interactive professional development on topics identified by the teachers themselves, using the expertise of the Franklin Institute, the Academy of Natural Sciences, and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Two math and two science sessions are held monthly and, voting with their feet, participation has grown from an average of 20 teachers in 2010-11 to 85 last month.

A companion of the Math Science Forum, the School District-Drexel Math Science Coalition, also convened by the Education Fund, has brought together 80 experts from 40 organizations over a year to create science/technology/engineering/math (STEM) goals that are being translated by teams of paid District teachers into instructional activities to meet the new Common Core curriculum for K-12 classrooms. 

What's the lesson learned? When given access to experts from the city’s great math and science cultural and higher education institutions, Philadelphia teachers rise to the challenge with such enthusiasm and wisdom that the curriculum office of the School District knows its very own teachers are the best resources for bringing STEM expertise into their classrooms.

Imagine the return that our schools could gain on that $18,000 expenditure per teacher if the July early literacy institute and the Education Fund's math/science work became the model for professional development across the nation.

Debra Weiner is a longtime advocate for public education at a variety of nonprofit organizations and higher education institutions. She is a member of the Notebook's editorial advisory board.

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