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Critical Issue: Providing More Time for Professional Development

This Critical Issue was researched and written by Donna McCaw, Ed.D., Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Western Illinois University; Sandra Watkins, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at Western Illinois University; and Laurel Borgia, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Western Illinois University.

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ISSUE: This Critical Issue explores creative, practical approaches to providing the time necessary for teachers to experience effective professional development. It builds upon strategies discussed in a previous Critical Issue titled "Finding Time for Professional Development" (Cook & Fine, 1997).

The authors begin by differentiating between the functions and the structures of professional development, focusing on the latter. Although they acknowledge that it is not possible to definitively answer the question of how much professional development time is enough, the authors emphasize that the need for time is real and cite significant research supporting that reality.

The Critical Issue offers a variety of ideas to help educational leaders create professional development time for the continuous improvement of their schools. It provides several examples of exemplary districts and schools that are replacing traditional uses of time with innovative actions resulting in high-quality professional development for their teachers.

Overview | Goals | Action Options | Pitfalls | Different Viewpoints | Cases | Contacts | References

OVERVIEW: Few could argue with the view that more is expected from today's educators than ever before. Federal mandates, state accountability plans, and greater local accountability all point to the fact that continuous school improvement is not optional but required. How do educators improve their ability to retool teaching, update curricula, integrate new research methodologies into instruction, meet the growing list of the sociopolitical needs of students, and raise test scores? The most frequent answer is professional development. Yet significant challenges impede the ability of professional development to make a difference in improving student learning: rigid, antiquated scheduling; limited funding; and, in too many schools, an inadequate and ineffective follow-up and evaluation process.

Also related to the issue is the need to examine two different aspects of professional development: functions and structures. The functions of professional development are the types and outcomes of teacher learning opportunities. Functions focus on the "what" of professional development—such as study groups, train the trainer, action research, and one-shot training sessions. The function of a study group, for example, is for five or six teachers and administrators to exchange ideas, plan lessons, give feedback, and discuss school policy. An increasing amount of research is being conducted on professional development functions, their effectiveness, and their impact on student learning and achievement.

The structures of professional development are the procedures used by the educational leaders who plan professional development for their district or school. Structures must be in place in order for effective, high-quality functions to occur. Structures focus on the "how"—making time, location, and funding sources available for faculty development. Little research has been done on the effectiveness of the various structures that have been designed by creative administrators and teachers in their efforts to make time for professional development. For example, which professional development meeting times—early morning, after school, inservice days, Saturdays, or summer—yield the greatest gains in improved student learning and achievement?

Structures often are considered obstacles to the implementation of the functions of professional development. Administrators and teachers cite lack of time, money, and even space as reasons for not being able to implement a research-based professional development plan.

Time and Change—Both Are Needed

The No Child Left Behind Act (2002) requires districts to place highly qualified teachers in every classroom. To achieve this goal, policies concerning time for professional development must change. In What Matters Most: Teaching for America's Future, the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (1996) recognized the dollar-investment relationship between teacher knowledge and skills and student achievement: "Teacher expertise is the most important factor in student achievement" (p. 6). In Prisoners of Time, the National Education Commission on Time and Learning (2005) recommended that districts use a variety of means to provide adequate time for professional development: extend the contract year; lengthen the teacher day; or use full-time, well-prepared substitute teachers so that teachers can be released for planning and professional growth activities.

How much professional development time is enough to meet today's high expectations for teachers and students? Although there is no clear answer to this question, the need for time is real. The National Staff Development Council (Sparks & Hirsh, n.d.) recommends that at least 25 percent of an educator's time be devoted to professional learning. Such time is essential for mastering and incorporating new practices into classroom instruction. Darling-Hammond (1999) contends that it is unrealistic to expect teachers to learn how to incorporate complicated practices into their instructional design after only a few hours of training. Canady and Rettig (1995) suggest that schools schedule at least five, and preferably 10, days of workshops when implementing major instructional changes (such as block scheduling).

In Prisoners of Time, the National Education Commission on Time and Learning (1994) also uncovered some premises known by educators to be false. One that relates to structure is "the myth that schools can be transformed without giving teachers the time they need to retool themselves and reorganize their work" (p. 8). In its discussion of obstacles to continuous school improvement, the commission stated, "Both learners and teachers need more time—not to do more of the same, but to use all time in new, different, and better ways. The key to liberating learning lies in unlocking time" (p. 10).

The media is quick to use the international assessments—such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)—to compare U.S. test scores to those of other nations. Yet little is shared with the American public about how much time is scheduled for collaboration, training, and planning in many other nations. U.S. teachers spend more than 1,000 hours teaching per year while Asian and European teachers spend 600 to 800 hours teaching per year (Darling-Hammond, 1999; McRobbie, 2000). Missing from U.S. teachers' schedules is the time to acquire new pieces of knowledge; develop new skills; collaborate, coordinate, and plan with others; create and align curriculum to standards; observe other teachers; and self-reflect and evaluate.

According to Black (2003), policymakers must address the need for additional funding to remedy the lack of time for quality professional development in order for today's educational system to make continuous improvement. Yet the creation of different professional development structures will not in and of itself guarantee improved test scores. Very little will change in a school's classrooms without a data-driven, coordinated, focused plan; multiple-year support (job-embedded coaching, reflection, and feedback); and administrative follow-up and accountability planning (Aronson, Zimmerman, & Carlos, 1998; Richardson, 2002).

The implementation of new instructional strategies increases and improves through accompanied observation and feedback (Boudah, Logan, & Greenwood, 2001; Vaughn, Hughes, Klingner, & Schumm, 1998). Observation of master teachers using desired instructional methodologies and peer-to-peer feedback—whether in the form of critical friends, cognitive coaching, or a less formal program—are effective for improved faculty performance. Because both observation and feedback require teachers to leave their classrooms, most districts support this form of professional development through the use of substitute teachers. Teachers restructure their instructional day to allow as many visits or demonstrations as possible while substitutes move from room to room.

All these topics and concerns are equally important to policymakers, educational leaders, and teachers. And, as these groups address these matters, they ask important questions: What are others doing to create time for faculty and staff professional development? When do teachers find the time to think aloud together, to create, to change, to integrate new knowledge and methodologies? Among the emerging answers are the following strategies.

Thoughtful Planning Produces Valuable Time

Traditional Strategies
Early dismissal and fewer student-attendance days are traditional mechanisms for increasing the time for teacher training and dialogue.

Extended Calendar
Many schools are adding professional development days to the school calendar (Guskey, 2000). Although these additional days may be financially costly, they often are academically rich.

Creative Scheduling Embedded Into the Contract Day
As more is expected with fewer dollars, paying teachers for additional days or additional hours is not possible in many districts. Many structures have been born out of creative scheduling as administrators have tried to work around limited finances.

Customized Group Learning
In this structure, professional development is customized to meet both the requirements of the school improvement plan and the needs of the faculty.

Online Opportunities for Professional Development
Increasingly, organizations and associations are offering online professional development to faculty. An added benefit to using technology in this manner is the fact that professional development has been shown to be effective when technology is focused on higher-level learning (Holmes, 2000).

Business Partnerships
In many communities, local businesses or corporations are agreeable to the idea of educators joining their employees in the company's organizational or professional development. Such participatory experiences offer teachers opportunities that might not otherwise be possible.

A comprehensive list of the various types of structures that creative educators have devised, including a description and other details about each structure, is available at Professional Development Structures.

Community Support for Professional Development Time

Wheatley (1992) states, "Information informs us, forms us" (p. 97). Essential to systemic improvement is the need for all stakeholders to have access to and dialogue around the information. Past traditions have supported, if not encouraged, some leaders to hold information close to their chests, wielding with it a sense of power and authority. In schools where schedules and calendars were altered to create time for professional development, the structures were successfully implemented because the community was involved in the decision making and implementation of the new structure (Pardini, 1999). Also, information was shared. Keeping stakeholders involved and informed is not a suggestion but a mandate. Parents need to understand not only why the teachers need this "new" time but also how it will be used (Murphy, 1997). Communication needs to be frequent and focused on student learning and achievement.

Principal Robert Wennberg at Sandidge School in District 146 (Tinley Park, Illinois) understands what defines effective communication. At this school, which serves Grades 3-5, on the day before an institute day on writing instruction, for example, Wennberg announced over the loudspeaker system what the teachers would be learning. He followed up on the first day back with an announcement of what the students could expect to see their teachers doing or asking them to do. Keeping primary stakeholders—students—up-to-date about what teachers are learning, doing, and producing when not with their students is an underutilized technique. Principal Wennberg acknowledged that not only do the students go home informed, but they inform their parents. He also noted that when students grow up, they may sit on a school board that votes for continued school improvement days.


ACTION OPTIONS: Stakeholders can take the following steps to ensure that adequate time is found for effective professional development:

School Board

School Administrators


IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: Although many administrators are pursuing excellence through the creative garnering of time for faculty development, some continue to wait until legislation or funding creates opportunities for them. Unfortunately, doing nothing while waiting for something will not garner results. Instead, proactive administrators should be rethinking current strategies and creating new opportunities for professional development.

Many of the current professional development structures are honest attempts by creative teachers and administrators to create time to excel at teaching; some of them, however, leave much to be desired. Patching together pieces of time may be better than nothing, but such programs often fall short of providing teachers, and ultimately students, with the quality and opportunities necessary to lead in a global economy (Bodilly, 1998). For better results, administrators should carefully consider the various structures for professional development, determine which will produce the best results, and then develop a comprehensive plan that will provide adequate time for implementing those structures.

The United States has much to do to level the international educational playing field. Both public policy and public opinion need modification. Policy must allocate the funds necessary to provide educators with the resources (time and money) to support continuous improvement. Public opinion must adjust its paradigm of beliefs—from viewing education as a benefit or convenience to placing high priority on providing the highest quality education for students.

DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW: As discussed, various structures are possible for providing more time for professional development. However, various factors and opinions also come into play, questioning the very need for more time and more professional development. Some of those follow:

Much time is wasted in schools today. Time currently is not being used effectively for or by staff. With a little bit of ingenuity, proper scheduling, and the right structure in schools, there would be plenty of time during the workday for professional development.

If colleges and universities were training teachers and administrators effectively, there would not be as much emphasis on retraining. Universities need to become more involved in the ongoing training of these individuals in collaboration with the school districts. Is this not the role of the university to provide service to the public schools?

Colleges and universities all over the country offer summer school, evening courses, weekend courses, and distance and online courses for teachers to upgrade their knowledge and skills to perform more effectively. State departments of education, area education agencies, regional centers, and teachers unions also offer professional development to enhance teaching skills. Physicians, dentists, lawyers, and other professionals attend continuing-education courses for their professional development, often on their own time and at their own expense. Why should teachers be any different?

Parents often feel inconvenienced by student nonattendance time during professional development, because they must rearrange their work schedules, plan for child care and supervision of their children, and coordinate transportation. Parents also worry about leaving their middle school and high school students home alone and unsupervised during nonattendance time.

Does professional development, as it is done in many districts, actually make a difference at the student level? Is there any accountability for the time and dollars spent improving instruction? Or, can teachers spend an entire day learning something that no one will require them to use? Teachers themselves have complained with vigor about outmoded "sage-on-the-stage," "flavor-of-the-month," and "one-size-fits-all" professional development. Yet, in too many districts, time is put in without results being put out.


Nauvoo-Colusa Junior/Senior High School, Nauvoo, Illinois

Brown County School District, Mt. Sterling, Illinois


Learning Point Associates
Professional Services Group
1120 East Diehl Road, Suite 200
Naperville, IL 60563
Phone: 800-252-0283
Fax: 630-649-6700
Contact: Jessica Johnson, Director of Customized Services

National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF)
2100 M St. NW, Suite 660
Washington, DC 20037
Phone: 202-429-2570
Fax: 202-429-2571
Contact: Rosalyn Matthews, Administrative Specialist

National Staff Development Council (NSDC)
5995 Fairfield Road, Suite 4
Oxford, OH 45056
Phone: 513-523-6029
Fax: 513-523-0638
Contact: Stephanie Hirsh, Deputy Executive Director


Date posted: 2004
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