Op-Ed: Teacher Development Should Not Be a Luxury—It Is a Must

Teacher Greg Mullenholz says we must recognize how crucial supporting teachers is to our children’s education.

If we don’t support our teachers, we aren’t supporting our students. (Photo: Rachel Place)
is an assistant principal and a 2013 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow.

Teachers and principals from across the country were recently asked what they thought were the greatest challenges facing the teaching profession.

According to MetLife’s Survey of the American Teacher: Challenges for School Leadership, more than 60 percent indicated that the time for meaningful professional development opportunities has flatlined in the last 12 months as most states have begun to implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). 

At the same time, teachers’ job satisfaction has sunk to its lowest point in 25 years. Coincidence or not? 

With new reforms around teacher effectiveness and curriculum, it’s critical that we also create strong, targeted professional development—otherwise, teacher effectiveness will go nowhere. We are at a point now where diminishing finances have forced professional development into the category of “luxury.”

With many states and districts currently revamping their teacher evaluation systems, we have an opportunity to connect evaluation scores and feedback with targeted professional development.

Strong evaluation systems are those that drive professional development as part of an ongoing process. Therefore, if evaluations are a part of the process that determines development areas for teachers, these systems must accurately reflect teachers’ practices and their impact on student growth.

These evaluations must focus on closing the opportunity gap at the individual teacher level and be driven by disaggregated student data that measures the impact of a teacher’s practice.

Learning Forward, formerly the National Staff Development Council, has replaced “professional development” with “professional learning” to emphasize the fact that when done properly, professional learning, like all learning, is an ongoing process.

Like all learning in the classroom, professional learning is differentiated to the needs of the individual, based upon data, and has its impact measured by the growth of the teacher. Done well, professional learning improves the instruction of a teacher and therefore improves the growth and achievement of his/her students.

Effective teachers are those who spur growth. They are only able to become effective through targeted development based upon accurate evaluation systems. Without the emphasis on professional development, evaluation becomes a wasted opportunity to impact student achievement.

And yet this type of evaluation is still somewhat of a pipe dream. Our evaluation systems often are binary in nature and fail to differentiate among teachers lumping 99 percent of us into the category of “satisfactory” or “meeting standard.”

If an effective teacher is one who spurs growth in her students, and 99 percent of us are rated as effective, why does the achievement gap still exist? Why do 46 perecent of these “satisfactory” educators leave the profession within the first five years at a cost of more than $7 billion per year to states and districts?

If the evaluation systems we have now are as good as they are purported to be at determining the effectiveness of teachers and targeting subsequent areas for professional learning, we would not be in the midst of the crisis that these numbers tell us we are in.

We too often use the available data to identify the achievement gap, but not to identify the impact of professional learning. This puts the burden squarely on students to close the gap on their own, as the impetus is not on helping teachers to improve or knowing how well they are performing, but on simply knowing how students are performing.

Some will blame the drop in teacher job satisfaction or the exodus from the profession on Race to the Top (RTTT) and No Child Left Behind (NCLB). They will say that these are just two of the myriad of reforms that have created stress for teachers and caused the decline. And, in a way, they are absolutely correct.

The job today is harder and more stressful, without a doubt, than it has ever been. That’s not a result of reform though.

I’m tired of losing great colleagues and our students are tired of losing great teachers.

It’s a result of recognizing the achievement gap and working toward closing it. It’s a result of expecting effective implementation of the CCSS with inadequate teacher support structures. It’s a result of the recognition that the status quo in professional learning for teachers doesn’t help students achieve.

Implementation is where reform goes to die, and if we fail to invest in professional learning and fail to recognize it as the catalyst for an increase in student achievement, then this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’m tired of losing great colleagues and our students are tired of losing great teachers. The work is hard, but evaluating teachers poorly and not providing them with opportunities for meaningful, targeted development makes the long-term problem much harder to deal with: a generation of students not prepared for the rigors of the global workforce.

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