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Critical Issue: Finding Time for Professional Development

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ISSUE: Reform requires that teachers learn new roles and ways of teaching. That translates into a long-term developmental process requiring teachers to focus on changing their own practice. The problem is, where do teachers find the time for change in their already busy schedules? Unfortunately, "the demands posed by daily teaching and other aspects of the reform continue to absorb a bulk of teachers' energy, thought, and attention" (McDiarmid, 1995). This issue explores the vital concern of how to carve out time, opportunity, and other resources teachers need to realize the vision of education reform. Creating professional development opportunities that educators need in order to help all students achieve the ambitious learner goals of reform will require the support and ideas of everyone.

OVERVIEW: School improvement efforts over the last few decades require teachers not only to study, implement, and assess learner outcomes outlined in local, state, and national educational standards but also to provide meaningful, engaged learning (cognitively, socially, and culturally) for a very diverse student population.

Teachers are expected to understand emerging standards--such as those in math and science--and views of learning, and to change their roles and practice accordingly. Teachers who were prepared for their profession prior to the reform movement may not be prepared for these new practices and roles. In working toward change, teachers need to be continually supported with professional development. Teaching is a complex task, and substantial time will be required for teachers and other educators to test out new ideas, assess their effects, adjust their strategies and approaches, and assess again in an effort to reach all students and make learning meaningful.

A fundamental lesson learned in the past decade of school reform efforts is that far more time is required for professional development and cooperative work than is now available. In fact, time has emerged as the key issue in every analysis of school change appearing in the last decade (Fullan & Miles, 1992). Teachers' professional development in a climate of educational reform must address the additional challenges of implementing educational standards, working with diverse populations, and changing forms of student assessment. Clearly, teachers "need more time to work with colleagues, to critically examine the new standards being proposed, and to revise curriculum. They need opportunities to develop, master, and reflect on new approaches to working with children" (Corcoran, 1995).

McDiarmid (1995) echoes the connection between new expectations for teachers and the element of time: "The changes teachers must make to meet the goals of reform entail much more than learning new techniques. They go to the core of what it means to teach. Because these changes are so momentous, most teachers will require considerable time to achieve them" (p. 2).

Professional development can no longer be viewed as an event that occurs on a particular day of the school year; rather, it must become part of the daily work life of educators. Teachers, administrators, and other school system employees need time to work in study groups, conduct action research, participate in seminars, coach one another, plan lessons together, and meet for other purposes. Fine (1994) states, "School change is the result of both individual and organizational development" (p. 2).

Linda Darling-Hammond's PictureLinda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, talks about one strategy for finding time for teachers to work together. [609k audio comment] Excerpted from the video series Restructuring to Promote Learning in America's Schools, videoconference #8, The Meaning of Professional Development in the 21st Century (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1991). A text transcript is available.

Unfortunately, implementing a professional development plan is often hampered by others' perceptions of teachers' work. According to McDiarmid (1995), "Although reform has changed expectations for teachers, how the public and policymakers perceive teachers' work has not changed. They continue to think teachers are working only when they are with their students. As a result, there is little support for providing the time and resources teachers require for teachers to change their practice" (p. 2). Castle and Watts (1992) explain that "the traditional view of teachers' work is governed by the idea that time with students is of singular value, that teachers are primarily deliverers of content, that curricular planning and decision making rest at higher levels of authority, and that professional development is unrelated to improving instruction" (p. 2). This limited view of teaching does not allow opportunities for teachers to participate in curriculum development, learn and share successful methods of reaching students, discuss comprehensive and efficient ways to implement standards, and continue their own learning.

Education must respond to the changing needs of students and their teachers, just as business has reacted to its changing needs by implementing employee training. American Federation of Teachers President Al Shanker and then Vice President of the Rockefeller Foundation Hugh Price (he has since become president of the National Urban League) have emphasized the critical importance of providing additional time for professional development. Shanker (1993) points out that Saturn automobile company employees spend 5 percent (92 hours a year) of their work time learning:

Holt High School PictureThe narrator talks about how the schedule at Holt High School in Holt, Michigan, has been changed to allow teachers to engage in weekly professional development and teaming activities. [819k QuickTime slide show] Excerpted from the videotape Collaborations in Education: Creating a Professional Development School (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1993). A text transcript is available.

When professional development is redefined as a central part of teaching, most decisions and plans related to embedding professional development in the daily work life of teachers will be made at the local school level. Some reformers have recommended that at least 20 percent of teachers' work time should be given to professional study and collaborative work. Instead of being devoted exclusively to discrete in-service days, this time must be part of virtually every school day and must be closely linked to the day-to-day demands of teaching (e.g., collaborative lesson planning, assessment of student work). Schools must create time for professional development as an integral part of teachers' professional life. In Asia and Europe, teachers often are provided with more opportunities for job-embedded forms of staff development (e.g., the joint planning of lessons) and collaborative work than their American counterparts.

The reality is that teachers likely will require more than 20 percent of their work time for learning and collaboration if they are to be successful in implementing ambitious reform initiatives. The National Education Association (1994) recommends that 50 percent of teachers' time be given to professional development. Although providing even 20 percent of teachers' work time for these activities may seem like an unachievable goal in American schools, school systems need to strive toward that goal by "thinking outside the box" to revamp the working conditions of teachers so they will have the support required to plan and implement ambitious reform.

In addition to finding creative ways to carve out time for staff development, educators also must explore the most efficient ways to use whatever time is available. Using technology is one example. Fine (1994) notes, "Technologies can support and broaden professional learning communities and help teachers make better use of their time. Through a range of technologies, e.g., the Internet and video- and audioconferencing, teachers can access both instructional resources and collegial networks" (pp. 5-6). Some formats enable teachers to participate when it is convenient for them. Electronic mail and bulletin boards enable teachers to share information and solve problems with colleagues at any time. In addition, videoconferencing enables teachers to connect to different sites without spending time and money on travel.

Community support is essential for creating the professional development opportunities teachers require to help all of their students reach higher levels of learning. Parents and community members must understand that professional development is the linchpin for any reform efforts, not an addition to them. After all the reform policies are written, the true interpretation and implementation of reform is made in the individual classroom. Since 80 percent of the funding for professional development is controlled locally, the public must be convinced that professional development is an important part of teaching (Corcoran, 1995). Parental support is essential because scheduled changes to accommodate professional development may interfere with family schedules, which often are planned around the school day. If parents are to support this effort, they must feel that their children will benefit from the time teachers spend on professional development.

GOALS: The educational community will:

ACTION OPTIONS: Educators can take the following steps to ensure that time is provided for professional development:

IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: One common way of allocating time for professional activities is to hire substitutes for a day or to "float" from room to room. However, these strategies are often a mixed blessing. They create another set of dilemmas: Adequate preparation requires extensive planning. Teachers also worry about the continuity and quality of lessons when they are out of the classroom.

If schools use other time options (e.g., early-release days or late starts), they must be aware of practical considerations such as transportation, child care, student activities, negotiated agreements, and state mandates. It is also important to be sensitive to public perception about restructured professional time and to demonstrate and communicate its instructional impact.

Some suggest, therefore, the ideal time for teachers to participate in professional development activities is during the summer, when students are not a consideration and teachers do not have as many demands on their time. But teachers are more likely to apply new instructional strategies if they receive feedback and support while trying the new strategies in their classrooms. This statement suggests that teachers need regular opportunities for reflection and problem solving at the same time the students are in school.

In creating time during the school day, it is possible to overlook important participants. Some schools arrange to have all classroom teachers free for team planning but fail to include key support staff members. Professional development that is linked to overall school improvement will need the involvement and support of the whole school community.

It is also important to be sensitive to the reactions of parents and help them see the value of professional development by involving them in professional development planning that is linked to improved instruction. Parents must be kept informed of the value of professional time as it relates to their child's achievement.

DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW: Not all teachers, administrators, parents, or community members agree that teachers need more time for professional development. Many people would argue that teachers should hone their skills before entering the profession and/or on their own time. They would argue that the school district is in the business of educating students, not teachers.

It has been said that change has no constituency but the status quo has many supporters. That statement is particularly true in regard to the need for additional time for professional development. Generations of Americans are familiar with schools in which teachers spend virtually their entire day with students. Many parents and community members believe that teachers' preservice training has adequately prepared them for their work and that additional learning should be unnecessary. In addition, parents are concerned about their children's transportation and day care needs when students are released from school for teachers' professional development activities.

Some educators may see little value in investing more time in professional development if their previous experiences have been predominantly negative. Other teachers may resent taking time away from their students. Professional development can be particularly troublesome when substitutes are used to release teachers for planning and professional growth activities. Even teachers who find professional time valuable are often uncomfortable with the disruption caused by the use of substitutes.


Brandon/Oxford Professional Development School is a partnership program that uses one-half day each week for teacher meetings and professional development.

Columbus East High School has an alternative time, modular-scheduling pattern that promotes professional development and team coordination and increases educational resources for students.

Hefferan Elementary School, on the West Side of Chicago, provides large blocks of training and planning time for teachers during school hours and treats teachers as professionals.

Milwaukee Public Schools have team planning time for one period each day, encouraging communication, coordination, and cooperation among teachers as they design the instructional program.


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

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


This Critical Issue was researched and written by Cathy J. Cook, Mathematics Education and Professional Development Specialist, Midwest Consortium for Mathematics and Science Education, North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, and Carole Fine, Director of Professional Development, North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, Oak Brook, Illinois.

Development and production of this Critical Issue were supported by the Midwest Consortium for Mathematics and Science Education.

Date posted: 1997
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