Skip over navigation
Visit the NCREL Home Page

Critical Issue: Realizing New Learning for All Students Through Professional Development

Critical Issue: Realizing New Learning for All Students Through Professional Development

Pathways Home

ISSUE: Never before has there been a greater recognition of the importance of professional development for teachers. Every proposal to reform, restructure, or transform schools emphasizes professional development as the primary vehicle in efforts to bring about needed change (Guskey, 1994). With this increased emphasis comes heightened awareness about the quality and effectiveness of professional development in being able to facilitate systemic change in education.

To meet the goals of reform, teachers must make changes that entail much more than learning new teaching techniques. The changes form the core of what it means to teach and learn.

Linda Darling-Hammond's PictureLinda Darling-Hammond, a professor at the Teachers College of Columbia University, New York, discusses the demands that learner-centered schools make of teachers. [QuickTime slide show, 705k] Excerpted from the video series Restructuring to Promote Learning in America's Schools, videoconference #8, The Meaning of Professional Development in the 21st Century (NCREL, 1990). A text transcript is available.

Educational reform requires teachers not only to update their skills and information but also to totally transform their role as a teacher. It establishes new expectations for students, teachers, and school communities that some educators may not be prepared to meet. Professional development is a key tool that keeps teachers abreast of current issues in education, helps them implement innovations, and refines their practice.

This issue will explore what is necessary for facilitating systemic reform and for realizing new learning for all students through a new vision of professional development. It will respond to the following questions:

OVERVIEW: Educational reform is creating new challenges for American schools. There is a movement for greater teacher professionalism and an emphasis on the school site as the locus for changes. The development of standards has created new expectations for students as well as a search for better assessment techniques. Accordingly, teachers are expected to play new roles as part of the systemic reform effort. Inside the classroom, teacher roles are changing; teachers are learning to act as coaches and facilitators of their students' learning. Outside of the classroom, teachers are assuming collaborative team-building and decision-making roles.

The results of school reform efforts depend primarily on the opportunities teachers have to learn the new instructional practices, teaching roles, and organizational roles. Professional development provides opportunities for teachers to explore new roles, develop new instructional techniques, refine their practice, and broaden themselves both as educators and as individuals. The nature of these opportunities depends largely on how professional development is perceived by the entire educational system. Educators, parents, policymakers, and the general public must understand the new expectations of teachers, the new teacher roles and responsibilities, and current definitions of professional development. Recognition by the entire school community of the complex nature of the changes needed is the first step in building the necessary support to ensure that teachers can fulfill their crucial role in systemic reform.

Beau Fly Jones' PictureBeau Fly Jones, senior researcher at the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, Oak Brook, Illinois, talks about the manner in which professional development is evolving. [audio file, 435k] Excerpted from the video series Restructuring to Promote Learning in America's Schools, videoconference #8, The Meaning of Professional Development in the 21st Century (NCREL, 1990). A text transcript is available.

Although emerging concepts and innovations--such as the school as a workplace, shared decisionmaking, site-based management, teacher collegiality, teacher leadership, and school restructuring--hold promise for reform, there are also some nagging historical realities: Schools historically have been organized bureaucratically and hierarchically; teachers have been isolated from one another and have learned to work alone -- rarely have teachers been asked or given the opportunity to work with their peers; principals usually have not been asked to support teamwork; leadership has been linked only to formal roles. In addition, professional development has relied upon a deficit model in which an "expert" imparts knowledge and information to teachers. According to this model, teachers have been assumed to be deficient and in need of outside experts to teach them new modes of working with students (Little, 1987). Such outdated models of professional development are not adequate for meeting the current educational needs of teachers.

Researchers recently have begun to examine and describe the process of teacher professional development in the context of systemic reform. The major changes required to reform schools cannot be accomplished without professional development and cannot be accomplished with outdated models of professional development.

Cuban (1992) describes the two types of school reform efforts: incremental changes, which aim to improve the existing school structures, and fundamental changes, which aim to transform and permanently alter the existing school structures. Neither effort can be accomplished without adequate professional development.

Describing the many reform efforts from school to district to state aimed at changing the structures of school and the norms and practices within them, Fullan (1991) notes that unfortunately the structural changes are easier to bring about than the normative changes. In fact, structural change alone can leave the core of the problem untouched. Fullan (1991) also warns that if reforms in education are to be successful, individuals and groups must decide what should change as well as how to go about it. Fullan (1991) further contends that the basic question is how to get good at change--that is, how to increase the capacity of individuals and groups to know when to reject certain change possibilities, when and how to pursue and implement others, and how to cope with policies and programs that are imposed on them.

Beau Fly Jones' PictureBeau Fly Jones, senior researcher at the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, Oak Brook, Illinois, talks about change as a necessary component in a teacher's professional development. [audio file, 240k] Excerpted from the video series Restructuring to Promote Learning in America's Schools, videoconference #8, The Meaning of Professional Development in the 21st Century (NCREL, 1990) A text transcript is available.

Effective professional development is necessary for all teachers involved in educational reform. Professional development also is essential for school-improvement teams to build a comprehensive framework for ongoing refinement.

GOALS: Effective professional development accomplishes the following goals:

ACTION OPTIONS: The entire school community--teachers, administrators, students, parents, community members, business people, policymakers, and the public at large--can do the following things to improve professional development:

Administrators and teachers can work together and do the following things to improve professional development:

Administrators can do the following things to improve professional development:

Teachers can do the following things to improve the learning process through professional development:

Tom Davis' PictureTom Davis, principal at Holt High School in Holt, Michigan, talks about the advantages of a Professional Development School in creating a professional adult learning community that studies exemplary teaching practices. [audio file, 465k] Excerpted from the video series Collaborations in Education: Creating a Professional Development School (NCREL, 1993). A text transcript is available.

IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: School reform efforts sometimes fail because inadequate attention is given to all stages of an improvement process. Hall and Loucks (1979) note the following assumptions about change:

These assumptions directly relate to professional development. For reform efforts to be effective, teachers must be at the core of the change.

Fullan (1991) describes the change process as consisting of four levels of individual acceptance: active initiation and participation, pressure and support, changes in behavior and beliefs, and ownership. Without understanding the complex nature of the changes required, and without creating professional development opportunities for teachers and others, school communities can end up adopting innovation after innovation without seeing any permanent improvement in the achievement of school goals. The design, implementation, and evaluation of professional development must ensure attention to all phases of the change process. Reform efforts that do not focus on teacher acceptance may fail.

School administrators often indicate that they lack the time and other resources to fully implement school-improvement models and change processes. Unfortunately, whenever any "steps" or "pieces" are missed or attention is not given to individual concerns and readiness to change, the implementation process suffers and is less successful at achieving its goals.

In an effort to make systemwide changes, school-improvement teams may attempt to make too many changes simultaneously. While always considering the broader perspective, they need to identify strategic points of intervention. On the other hand, change processes tend to be aligned with the academic year (e.g., this year reform efforts will focus on reading, and next year reform will focus on math). In designing professional development, however, activities are more beneficial if they connect specific focuses to the broader instructional framework. A school-improvement team, for example, might want to consider the common goals and principles and the underlying research across specific approaches to reading and mathematics.

During reform efforts, policymakers usually provide initial resources for professional development. Unfortunately, those resources diminish just when teachers need them most. School improvement teams or professional development committees must then creatively seek additional resources in order to continue professional growth and development efforts.

Teachers may feel torn between their classroom responsibilities and their desire for professional development. They need to realize that professional development and classroom teaching are equally vital responsibilities in education.

Change is a slow and evolving process. Yet often, there is pressure to "scale up" and quickly implement broad-based change without considering future ramifications. Unless educators take a thoughtful and strategic "systems approach" to reform efforts, the result will be little or no improvement. Educational change must be based on problem solving and comprehensive planning processes. Professional development must shift its emphasis from working on teachers to working with teachers toward improvement of teaching and learning for all students.

DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW: All teachers may not be interested in achieving systemwide change. In fact, a five-year study by the Coalition of Essential Schools (Muncey & McQuillan, 1993) noted the tendency for teachers to begin with classroom-level changes that would not impact the school as a whole. The teachers preferred to make changes that did not require broad consensus and that did not interfere with the school routine.

All teachers may not be interested in professional development. If teachers feel burdened by their regular classroom preparations, they may believe they cannot spend additional time on personal growth. If prior professional development has been a dissatisfying experience, teachers may have little confidence in its impact (McLaughlin, 1991) and on its relevance to their classroom practice.

Some teachers, especially as they approach retirement, may lose interest in professional growth. Fine (1994) quotes a typical teacher's attitude: "I have only four or five years before I retire. I'm not going to take an active role [in change]. I go with the flow and roll with the punches" (p. 73).

Some teachers want professional development to be completed before the school year begins so that new teaching approaches can be applied immediately as the children return to school. Fine (1994) notes a typical teacher's explanation: "They wanted it [professional development] done before school started so that if it is something they can use, they can pick it up and use it in the classroom. . . . The kids, once they are programmed one way, don't want to hear 'Let's do it that way.' . . . If you start at the beginning, no problem" (p. 114).

In many schools, ongoing professional development disrupts the regular schedule. Inservice meetings may require extra days off for students. Meetings held after school add extra time to the already long school day. Fine (1994) notes a typical teacher's attitude: "[The teachers in our school] want it [professional development] over and done with, like a shot in the arm. They were used to that; they didn't want it spread out after school; they were tired" (p. 63-64).

Fine (1994) suggests that teachers may have more respect for professional development if it is conducted on a regularly scheduled early-release day. She quotes a typical teacher: "I think that would be less stressful on everybody. . . . You could put forth more thought, more time, more effort because at the end of the day or after school, nobody wants to get into any lengthy discussions because they know it is going to take longer and they are going to be here longer" (p. 109).


National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST)
Teachers College, Columbia University
525 W. 120th St., Box 110
New York, NY 10027
(212) 678-3432; fax (212) 678-4170
Contact: Ann Lieberman, Co-Director

National Staff Development Council
P.O. Box 240
Oxford, OH 45056
(513) 523-6029; fax (513) 523-0638
Contact: Stephanie Hirsh

West Ed
4732 N. Oracle Road, Suite 217
Tucson, AZ 85705
Contact: Susan Loucks-Horsley, Senior Research Associate
Phone: (520) 888-2838
Fax: (520) 888-2621


This Critical Issue was researched and written by Cathy J. Cook, Mathematics Education and Professional Development Specialist, Midwest Consortium for Mathematics and Science Education and North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, and Carole Fine, Director of Professional Development, North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, Oak Brook, Illinois, in collaboration with the National Staff Development Council, Dennis Sparks, Executive Director, and Stephanie Hirsch, Associate Executive Director.

Date posted: 1996
Copyright © North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. All rights reserved.
Disclaimer and copyright information.