Sunday, July 31, 2016

Some ideas on professional development for teachers

Nine days from now, the Joplin R-8 Board of Education will decide whether to spend $69,000 (plus $76,800 for substitute teachers), on the latest initiative that upper administrators claim teachers are begging for- Cognitive Coaching.

I have been critical of this initiative, as I was of its predecessor, Core Collaborative, because the best professional development, as Interim Superintendent Norm Ridder has said (even while pushing Cognitive Coaching) comes from the teachers.

That does not mean that outside consultants cannot be used occasionally, but in Joplin, as in many other area school districts, we have become used to administrators who hop on board for every educational fad that comes along.

And let's face it- it is much easier to pay $100,000 to a Core Collaborative or $69,000 to the L. B. Williams company for Cognitive Coaching, than it is to put in the time and create professional development that will truly benefit teachers and students.

Educational consulting firms have always been around, but the number exploded after the passage of No Child Left Behind and the requirements of Race to the Top that professional development be included in order for states and school districts to get federal dollars.

Those who created consulting firms came to a realization early in the game. With so many consulting firms competing with each other for a finite number of schools, the only way to consistently make money is to land long-term contracts.

In order to do that, they created programs that lasted multiple years. Instead of administrators and/or teachers attending a seminar and learning from the firms, they attended the seminars, had to bring the firms back to their school districts, and then signed up for frequent visits and training updates that would keep the cash flow going.

The training had to be different than what has gone before, so these companies latched on to  the latest fad or strung together ideas that had been used successfully in classrooms for decades, put a shiny new coat on them, came up with a catchy name and headed to the bank.

Sometimes, it goes as far as materials being copyrighted that cannot be used if the district decides to drop a consulting company. It is much easier to keep writing the checks than to change your professional development, which in most cases would be finding another consulting firm.

When I wrote about Cognitive Coaching earlier this week, a reader was critical to the point of being hateful:

Every school district, Joplin included, is given DESIGNATED federal dollars that can ONLY be used for professional development. If you don't spend it, you have to give it back. Not one penny comes out of general revenues or takes away from other programs, salaries, etc. this is motivated 100% by agenda, not at ALL about money. It's unbelievably stupid, as this is an INCREDIBLE TRAINING OPPORTUNITY for our teachers and staff to improve relationships and communications - the two issues that our researchers identified as the biggest problems impeding education in Joplin. So sit back and throw your ignorant stones, but it's truly ridiculous!

Contrary to what this reader believes, I have no problem with spending money on professional development. I have no problem with spending every penny that we receive for professional development, but once again, we are looking for simple solutions to a problem that is not so simple.

The best professional development is not what R-8 administrators have kept foisting upon a weary faculty- consulting firms that push the idea of cookie-cutter teachers, all using the same methods and teaching the same subjects in the same way.

That would certainly make it easier on administrators when they evaluate teachers. If the teachers don't toe the line and stray from the script, administrators can give them poor evaluations. It takes thinking out of the process.

When I think about the teachers who had the biggest impact on my life, I cannot think of any two in taught in the same style. They had two things in common- they cared about the students and they cared about the subjects they were teaching.

Some used more group projects; others had a strict, businesslike atmosphere in their classrooms. Contrary to the educational experts who are trying to push it out of the classroom, I had teachers who lectured and were spellbinding.

When you allow teachers to use their strengths, they flourish. When you crank them out an on assembly line, you hasten their departure from the profession and you do incalculable damage to the students.

A few months ago, just before a board meeting in which Ridder said, "Let's ask the teachers what they need," I corresponded with someone in the education field about a Denver Post article which had featured the sentiment that most professional development for educators was a waste of time.

I offered these thoughts in my response:

I have noticed quite a few articles on this topic lately and I am almost completely in agreement with the critics of the types of workshops and training that teachers receive. After No Child Left Behind was passed during the Bush Administration, hundreds of fly-by-night operators realized there was a killing to be made from this type of professional training. You have people like Bloomberg at Core Collaborative who take others' ideas, repackage them, and then present them as some sort of cure all for everything that ails education. For the most part, the ideas were not that good in the first place.

You also have the indoctrination meetings and that there are specifically to collect and work with data. There is nothing wrong with using data to improve education, but much of the data that is being reviewed at these meetings is meaningless.

As an example, I recall a few years ago that the teachers at North Middle School, threw themselves completely into the Acuity tests, to the point of designing all of their teaching around these tests. All remediation was based on Acuity. When the Acuity tests were given that year, North had the highest scores. That did not turn out to be an indicator of potential success on MAP. North was at the bottom that year. Meaningful data in this instance would have been the poverty levels in North. Poverty levels have always been more indicative of how students will fare on standardized tests.

Instead of spending hundreds of thousands on professional development that appears to be designed to make all teachers the same no matter what their strengths and weaknesses are, workshops and seminars should be devoted to things that would make it easier for teachers to succeed in the classrooms.

Rather than spending countless hours going over data, why not have workshops that help younger teachers deal with discipline in the classroom. Cutting down on the time spent trying to corral unruly students would do more to increase the level of learning at classrooms than any pre-packaged system.

Instead of talking about the need for classes to be relevant, why don't we have workshops designed to help teachers with ideas of bringing current issues into the classroom?

Why not have workshops to help teachers on methods to connect with parents. We spend so much of our professional development time working on pie-in-the-sky programs that we neglect areas that could do much more to improve students' learning and make classroom teachers more effective.

Why is it necessary to spend so much money on outsourced professional development. Even with the number of experienced teachers who have left the district over the past few years, there are still many veteran teachers in our district who could provide meaningful professional development without having to send people all over the United States and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. Why not offer stipends to these veteran teachers and see how much more relevant the professional development time would be for the teachers?

Why not work out exchanges with area school districts where we save money by having their experienced educators who have knowledge in some specific area come to Joplin, while we send ours to talk to them? This type of exchange would benefit Joplin and area schools since it would provide the required professional development at a savings. Or how about the possibility of using today's technology to hold professional development via Skype. A few years ago, someone in the district had the bright idea of having the middle school teachers in each area have the 7:15 meetings together at one school. While it did offer the opportunity for the teachers to get together, it created havoc for those who had to get back to their schools by the time classes started. I suggested Skype at that time, but it was never seriously considered and we had problems with those meetings all year.

Another thing that localizing the professional development and making it more relevant to the teachers would do would be to increase teacher buy-in.

Useless professional development and requirements to supply more and more data of the useless variety are among the reasons that excellent teachers have been checking out of Joplin and checking into other school districts.

I would also suggest making much greater use of the Southwest Center in Webb City and Greenbush in southeast Kansas, centers that were established to enable school districts to combine their resources and bring in the type of professional development that individual school districts cannot afford on their own.

Doing all of these things would require far more work than hiring another consulting firm, but they would not only build morale among faculty, they would also improve the quality of education that is being offered to our students.

Spend every last dime of the professional development money, but do it such in a way that the teachers will be able to invest in their own futures and become the best teachers they can be.


Anonymous said...

So, take the veteran teachers out of the classroom to teach the other teachers (who are taken out of the classroom) . Good thinkin. You should lead the PD initiatives for the district.

Anonymous said...

Randy wrote "The best professional development is not what R-8 administrators have kept foisting upon a weary faculty- consulting firms that push the idea of cookie-cutter teachers, all using the same methods and teaching the same subjects in the same way."

This is a valid point. Some of the choices in the past have certainly fit this description. However, Cognitive Coaching absolutely does not. This particular training isn't about lesson or curriculum or learning intentions or data. Cognitive Coaching is about empowering teachers and students to take control of their thinking so that they can solve problems without following some step-by-step process. I really think you should do some research and speak to some people who have benefited from the training.

The fact of the matter is that Joplin has money that must be spent on PD. Joplin has a tremendous number of young, inexperienced teachers who will excounter many situations in the coming year where they can either react emotionally, ask someone what to do, or collaboratively work through the situation to find the best solution. Teachers will benefit from this, their students will benefit from this, and adminstrators will benefit from this because rather than telling teachers what to do, they will collaborate with teachers to find the best way to work through a situation. Not all outsourced PD is bad. Another important point to make is that some of the people in the training are going through the process of getting certified to facilitate future trainings so that Joplin doesn't have to continue to pay the company to come in, and other districts can come to Joplin's sessions. Joplin will quickly make this money back. I think your resistance is coming from a good place, but I think you are wrong about this.

Randy said...

To Anonymous 8:01- Nowhere did I say anything about pulling teachers out of their classes to help other teachers who are being pulled out of their classes. On the contrary, I have written several times against taking any teachers out of class for professional development. Professional development should take place on days of half-days that are set aside for that purpose, in the summer, or after school.

As for Anonymous 8:27, one of the reasons why there are so many inexperienced teachers in the Joplin school system is because the previous administration had such contempt for veteran teachers. The veteran teachers who remain should be the ones who provide the leadership for professional development and we should be looking at adding veteran teachers to the system whenever possible.

Having veteran teachers helps provide the kind of leadership that the district has lacked in recent years.

Anonymous said...

Many of these "veteran teachers" are tired, old people that need to put out to pasture to allow better teachers in. Many veterans are awesome but definitely all. Most need to retire.

Anonymous said...

@7:32 I am in my 30s, but I am considered a veteran teacher. The oldest veteran teacher in my building is in their early 50s. Veteran does not mean old, nor does it refer to livestock. The term refers to experience, which, when it comes to teaching, you obviously have none of.

Anonymous said...

And those aren't those to which Turner was referring to, I assure you. Comprehension of the English...acquire some. It will serve you well in the future.

Anonymous said...

I'm a veteran teacher of 20 years in the Joplin School system and I'm hardly old and tired at 44. Do you have an overall hate for educators?