NCREL's Policy Briefs

Professional Development: Changing Times

Report 4, 1994

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By Carole Fine, NCREL, with Lenaya Raack, NCREL

When analyzing the failure of educational research and best practice to improve classroom instruction and student achievement, educators often overlook an obvious reason. Effective professional development must be in place in order for teachers to translate research into classroom practice. Again and again we attempt to implement new instructional innovations, yet fail to provide teachers with ongoing opportunities to study, reflect upon, and apply the research on teaching and learning.

This Overview explores changes in our assumptions about effective professional development, new visions of teaching and learning, and the implications of these new approaches for schools. It describes alternative strategies for effectively finding and using time to support professional development needs and discusses the accompanying policy implications.

Shifting the Paradigm of Professional Development

Teachers and administrators often are disappointed in the degree of relevance and impact of inservice programs. This disappointment has been due, in large measure, to the assumptions that have traditionally driven these programs, including the following:

Programs based on these assumptions too often are viewed as add-ons to the "regular" school day. Frequently students must be released early or given days off in order to accommodate them.

Yet, if we examine research and best practice in professional development, we find a different set of assumptions:

Professional development programs based on these assumptions are quite different from those founded on traditional assumptions. While districtwide workshops still will be appropriate on occasion, most professional development should be school-based. Therefore, in addition to attending workshops and conferences, teachers can be involved in a variety of ongoing, job-embedded learning activities, such as study groups, action research, peer coaching, curriculum development, and case discussions. Through collegial study, dialogue, and joint problem solving, teachers form professional learning communities that have a direct impact on instructional improvement. This approach to professional development contrasts starkly with approaches in which teachers work in isolated, noncollegial settings where traditional and outdated assumptions are less likely to be challenged. Such challenges are important because teachers tend to "stick with what they know, despite a lack of student success or engagement" (McLaughlin, 1993, p. 94).

When teachers become part of school-based professional learning communities, they are more likely to change their teaching practice by aligning it with research, best practice, and national standards such as the National Council for Teacher of Mathematics standards (McLaughlin & Talbert, 1993). Similarly, teacher networks such as the National Writing Project and the Urban Mathematics Collaboratives have been shown to be effective: "Teachers can work with others who are struggling in similar ways to learn new material and to try out different approaches for reaching students. Many became more enthusiastic about their subject matter" (Lieberman & McLaughlin, 1992, p. 674).

In order for job-embedded professional development to flourish and become the norm, the school day will need to be significantly altered. It will require a fundamental reconceptualization and redesign. The importance and placement of professional activities will require the support of all stakeholders, including parents, students, and community members.

"Traditional schools and large bureaucratic districts cannot cope with these changes because they do not have a structure that supports an environment of change"

New Visions of Teaching and Learning

These new approaches to professional development are especially critical as we align curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices with research on teaching and learning. Research finds that students learn by actively constructing new knowledge in a holistic way and connecting it with their prior knowledge. These findings call into question traditional curricula that focus on the transfer of discrete and fragmented knowledge and skills from teachers to students.

Traditional inservice programs are designed around this skill-based, "teacher-proof" curriculum. Not only do they assume that transfer of knowledge from experts to teachers is sufficient, but they also assume that teachers have little need to collaborate across subject areas or grade levels. In contrast, interdisciplinary curriculum that emphasizes holistic thinking demands integration across traditional subject and grade boundaries. Schoolwide improvement and reform requires school faculties to work as a unit, not simply as a collection of independent artisans.

The emerging content standards codify this new definition of learning into expectations for all students. Standards alone, however, cannot reform education. Setting standards without providing teachers with time to study, implement, and reflect upon them is likely to lead to another failed effort. "Traditional schools and large bureaucratic districts cannot cope with these changes because they do not have a structure that supports an environment of change" (Donahoe, 1993, p. 301). Therefore, as the standards are developed we must simultaneously restructure school time to support ongoing professional growth.

Meanwhile, as ideas about schooling have changed, so have the demographics of the teacher population. Early retirement programs are encouraging many of the more experienced staff to leave the profession, creating a large new group of less experienced or induction-level teachers. The wide range of experience from newer teachers to those who have been teaching for quite some time also creates differing needs for professional development.

Alternative Models of School Time

Professional development has begun to take on greater prominence at the federal level. The Goals 2000: Educate America Act includes a goal that calls for "teachers to have access to the professional development necessary to prepare students for the 21st century." Similarly, the National Commission on Time and Learning noted that "time for planning and professional development is urgently needed - not as a frill or an add-on, but as a major aspect of the agreement between teachers and districts" (p. 36).

The need for time will exist as long as schools strive for excellence.

Even if we recognize the need for ongoing professional development, it is still difficult to alter the way that time is structured. As many have noted (Watts & Castle, 1993; Purnell & Hill, 1992), schools are in the undesirable position of having to remain in business while attempting to overhaul the way they do business. Moreover, because family schedules are designed around the expectation that children will be in school, many parents find it difficult to accommodate even minor schedule alterations, such as occasional early release days. Furthermore, it is not a matter of temporarily making time to catch up or to update. The need for time will exist as long as schools strive for excellence.

It is critical that we explore current and potential strategies for redesigning schools to support professional growth, discuss traditional approaches, and suggest alternate strategies for allocating professional time. However, we must not confine our thinking to the current time structure, but should stretch our imagination in response to our goals.

A traditional approach is to schedule professional time after students leave for the day. Yet, many teachers, after an intense day with little more than a 30-minute lunch break, feel too intellectually and emotionally fatigued to devote the attention and energy required for true professional growth. The new approach is to embed professional time into the school day to maximize its impact.

Some people suggest that summer is the ideal time for teachers to participate in "retooling" at a more leisurely pace. But Joyce and Showers (1982) have found that teachers are more likely to apply new instructional strategies if they receive coaching while trying the new ideas in their classrooms. Clearly, these findings suggest that teachers need regular opportunities for reflection and problem solving at the same time as students are in school. Similarly, in discussing the common elements of successful restructuring programs, Fullan points to "expanding professional development to include learning while doing and learning from doing" (1993, p. 60, emphasis added). One cannot learn while doing if students are not present. If students must be present for professional development, then we should reconsider the traditional school year.

"We still operate most schools with a staffing pattern that is very similar to the one created at the beginning of the century."

In an effort to move toward ongoing professional development, schools and districts have used a number of approaches. Watts and Castle (1993) outline five strategies that have been used to create time during the school year:

  1. Freed-up time. This approach makes use of temporary blocks of time for teachers without redesigning the school day, calendar, or teaching schedule. Time can be found through early release or the temporary use of substitutes, teaching assistants, administrators, parent volunteers, or team teaching to free selected teachers.

    This temporary approach is not without its problems. Many teachers are reluctant to leave their classrooms to others, because they want to guarantee quality and continuity in instruction. Preparing for a substitute also requires considerable time. Moreover, it can be difficult for schools to find quality substitutes, and state mandates and negotiated agreements often prohibit or restrict the use of paraprofessionals and volunteers. Therefore, schools have had to find creative ways to deal with "purchased time."

  2. Purchased time. Some creative ways to find and fund professonal time have included the use of early retirees, foundation-supported "substitute banks," district credits, and compensation for evening, weekend, or summer work.

    These strategies often are temporary and transitional. The substitute dilemma is a factor that requires district policies and support.

  3. Common time. In order to provide teaching teams with common planning time without major alterations in the use of time, many schools have begun to develop schedules with common preparation periods for teachers from the same grade level or discipline, or for members of restructuring committees.

  4. Restructured or rescheduled time. This approach involves the formal alteration of the traditional calendar, school day, or teaching schedule on a long- term basis.

    Restructuring time can have implications for busing, teacher contracts, required days of instruction, and mandated instructional time.

  5. Better-used time. Many school faculties have begun to examine their current use of time. This examination includes a reconsideration and reconstruction of teachers' role so that they can focus their time on instruction and professional development. Some schools, for example, are finding alternatives to announcements and noninstructional planning that too often dominate faculty meetings. Administrators also have attempted to free teachers from some of noninstructional duties - e.g., recess and collecting lunch money. Increasingly, school teams and entire faculties are participating in training for team building in order to enhance their time together.

Ted Stilwill, Iowa Department of Education, argues that we need to take a broader view of the parameters for change:

"We still operate most schools with a staffing pattern that is very similar to the one created at the beginning of the century. As we have added to our instructional programs, we have tended to add similar kinds of instructional staffing, with the notable exception of instrumental music, early childhood education, and the education of significantly handicapped students. The clear norm is still one adult and 20 students for 90 percent of our teaching and learning environment. Hospitals, on the other hand, now greet us with a broad variety of specially prepared individuals who are neither doctors nor nurses and who receive widely varying levels of compensation. With teaching and learning, however, we tend to act as though there is only one adult role and one student role.

"As long as our vision is narrowly driven by what has been done in the past, we are apt to "tinker" rather than create substantive change."

"If we view students, teachers, and educational organizations all as learners with the need to develop new responses to increasingly complex situations, then all need to have 'just in time' access to the most current knowledge and expertise and they need a way to be part of a dynamic communication network with others involved in the same learning."

Technology as a New Vision Strategy

As we search for new alternatives, technology offers some solutions. 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. Ted Stilwill points out, "If we view students, teachers, and educational organizations all as learners with the need to develop new responses to increasingly complex situations, then all need to have 'just in time' access to the most current knowledge and expertise and they need a way to be part of a dynamic communication network with others involved in the same learning."

At the same time, routine communication, recordkeeping, and paperwork can be simplified and time can be saved if teachers have ready access to computers. Local Area Networks, for example, can play a key role in communication and decrease the need for meetings.

Policy Needs

New policies on the use of professional time and professional development may stand in opposition to existing policies for teachers, such as teacher contracts and state mandates about instructional time. School faculties also must weigh time with students against time for professional growth. In some states, where waivers are options, more flexibility with state requirements on school time is possible. Therefore, in developing policies on professional time, it is critical to consider the consistency of all policies and to keep in focus the overarching school objectives.

It also could be argued that what is actually needed is less policy. "One of the policy supports to the time dilemma may be less policy," writes Stilwill. "Schools and school districts need the flexibility to innovate and create solutions. Most of these solutions are not ready to be applied across large groups of organizations."

Policymakers need ways to assess whether restructured time and more resources yield results. How should we measure and evaluate the effects of the restructuring of school time for professional development? It cannot be assumed that more time will automatically yield results.

There are very basic, practical policy issues as well. Some people suggest that finding more time should be addressed solely at the local school level. However, adjustments in one school's schedule often affect the schedules of many others in the district. The schools in the "Profiles" section of this issue of Policy Briefs have developed creative solutions to some of these problems.

It also could be argued that what is actually needed is less policy. "One of the policy supports to the time dilemma may be less policy," writes Stilwill.


If we as educators, policymakers, and the public are committed to educational excellence for all of our nation's students and teachers, we must be innovative in our vision, undertake the hard work of change, develop the policies to support it, and discontinue policies that stand in the way.


About the authors
Carole Fine's work at NCREL as director of the professional development program focuses on the dissemination and use of research and best practice to support professional learning communities. She has been actively involved in the development and evaluation of teacher computer networks, instructional conversations and seminars, and teacher- authored instructional cases. Her own teaching experience includes 16 years as a special education teacher for students in grades K-12.

She is a doctoral candidate in instructional leadership. Her dissertation is a study of the evolution of professional learning communities in two schools.

Lenaya Raack is Senior Editor and a writer in NCREL's Communications and Dissemination Department. An accomplished writer, she makes valuable contributions to the variety of agency materials she reviews.

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Posted on March 6, 1995

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