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Toward Better Teaching: Professional Development in 1993-94 / Chapter 1

1. Introduction

Teachers' professional development has become a major focus of school reform initiatives. As school reform strategies have evolved since the mid-1980s, policymakers, educators, researchers, and other members of the education community have gradually come to recognize that the kinds of changes in schooling and instruction envisioned by current reform efforts require fundamental changes in teachers' knowledge and their working relationships with students, and that traditional forms of professional development activity are inadequate for the task. Responding to these concerns, the federal government, states, districts, schools, and a host of professional organizations have launched a wide variety of efforts to improve the quality of teachers' professional development activities.

This report uses data from the 199394 Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) to describe various aspects of professional development as practiced in the mid-1990s and to examine how they vary with teacher, school, and district characteristics and across states. Specifically, it examines who determines the content of in-service professional development programs, who participates in what kinds of activities, whether teachers are participating in professional development programs on certain topics, and if so, the duration of their participation; what kinds of support teachers receive from their schools and districts; and how participation has affected teachers. To place this analysis in context, the report begins with a brief history of the place of professional development in the school reform efforts that began in the 1980s, a short description of the new conception of teacher professional development, and a summary of changing roles and responsibilities.

School Reform and Professional Development

In a review of state education reform and policymaking during the decade following publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, researchers at the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) described a major change in reform strategy during this period from a focus on inputs to an emphasis on results (Massell and Fuhrman 1994). They noted that the major thrust immediately following the release of A Nation at Risk was to develop new mandates about school inputs that called for changes such as longer school days and more days in each school year, more standardized testing, more academic credits for high school graduation, higher salaries for teachers, more rigorous certification requirements for new teachers, and upgraded technology.

These post-Nation at Risk efforts to improve the schools by issuing new rules, creating new state mandates, and investing more state funds in education brought some positive results but not the significant advances in student learning that were being sought. For example, compared with students in 1982, high school students in 1992 were taking more academic courses and more difficult ones, and fewer students were dropping out of high school (U.S. Department of Education 1995). In addition, student achievement in mathematics and science, as measured by National Assessment of Educational Progress examinations of 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds, improved between 1984 and 1992. However, by 1995, international assessments of U.S. students' science and mathematics achievement indicated that continued progress is necessary to reach the National Goal that U.S. students outperform those of other nations in these subjects (U.S. Department of Education 1997b, 1997c).

The focus of reform next shifted from a purely quantitative orientationincreasing time and test scoresto include a qualitative dimension. In the early 1990s, for example, goals expanded from more hours in class and higher test scores to standards that define both what students should know and be able to do and how teachers should instruct students to achieve those standards (Cohen 1996). States, teacher professional associations, and academic organizations began the process of setting explicit goals for students by defining new curriculum frameworks, proposing new instructional methods and materials, and devising new methods of assessment.1

These approaches to reform have placed new demands on teachers. Today, teachers are being called upon to provide the nation's children with a quality of education previously reserved for a small elite. Teachers are also being asked to use new technologies and change how they interact with students and each other. Federal, state, and local policymakers and researchers increasingly believe that the changes in teachers' knowledge and teaching practices that are needed to bring about substantial gains in student achievement will not occur solely from exhorting teachers to try harder or do something different. Fundamental change is called for. As summarized by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF 1996),

After a decade of reform, we have finally learned in hindsight what should have been clear from the start: most schools and teachers cannot produce the kind of learning demanded by the new reformsnot because they do not want to, but because they do not know how, and the systems in which they work do not support them in doing so.

This understanding has prompted increased attention to professional training at all stages of teachers' careers, including teacher education programs at colleges and universities, induction programs for new teachers, and professional development to help teachers strengthen and update their skills throughout their careers. As the importance of teacher development to school reform has become evident, there is growing pressure to initiate professional development approaches and activities that promise gains in teacher instructional effectiveness and student achievement.

A New Concept of Professional Development

For many years, professional development typically has consisted of district- or school-sponsored full- or half-day workshops and lectures held several times a year, supplemented by limited participation of individual teachers in professional conferences, course taking, and other activities offered by a variety of sponsors (Corcoran 1995a, 1995b; Little 1989, 1993). Districts have offered salary increments as incentives to participate, and states have required participation for recertification. The extent of teachers' participation has depended partly on local fiscal resources, partly on the priority schools and districts have assigned to professional development, and partly on teachers' interest and willingness to assume some of the costs themselves (Corcoran 1995b).

Many experts now believe that this approach to professional development is inadequate to the task of preparing teachers for the new demands being placed upon them. Lectures and short workshops typically have little effect on the practice of teaching or student outcomes because they lack focus, intensity, follow-up, and continuity, and often are not systematically linked to district or school goals for student improvement (Little 1993).2 Many believe that for professional development to be effective, it must become an integral part of teachers' daily work, not something that teachers participate in a few times a year on staff development days. For example, rather than presenting three unconnected workshops over the course of a year, a district might provide extended training on one topic connected to a district goal for reform (Massel, Kirst, and Hoppe 1997).

As attention has turned to professional development, members of the education community have attempted to identify and describe the characteristics of effective professional development. Various groups and individualsincluding the U.S. Department of Education, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, researchers, and othershave developed guidelines for high-quality teacher professional development and for organizing and managing schools to support it (see, for example, U.S. Department of Education 1996; American Federation of Teachers 1995; Renyi 1996; Little 1993; Hawley and Valli 1996; Corcoran 1995a, 1995b).3

Although these various sets of guidelines differ in their details, they share a common focus and address the same broad issues. A consensus seems to be emerging that effective professional development involves teachers in planning their professional development activities; that professional development for individual teachers needs to be linked to the broader organizational goals of their schools, districts, and states; and that teachers need to work closely with other teachers inside and outside their schools to share ideas and coordinate activities. The principles set forth by the U.S. Department of Education (1996) provide an example of the types of guidelines being proposed. According to the Department, high-quality professional development

  • Focuses on teachers as central to student learning, yet includes all other members of the school;
  • Focuses on individual, collegial, and organizational improvement;
  • Respects and nurtures the intellectual and leadership capacity of teachers, principals, and others in the community;
  • Reflects the best available research and practice in teaching, learning, and leadership;
  • Enables teachers to develop further expertise in subject content, teaching strategies, uses of technologies, and other essential elements in teaching to high standards;
  • Promotes continuous inquiry and improvement embedded in the daily life of schools;
  • Is planned collaboratively by those who will participate in and facilitate that development;
  • Requires substantial time and other resources;
  • Is driven by a coherent long-term plan; and
  • Is evaluated ultimately on the basis of its impact on teacher effectiveness and student learning, and this assessment guides subsequent professional development efforts.

Changing Roles

Teacher professional development has traditionally been considered primarily a local responsibility (although supported by state funds and, to a lesser extent, by federal funds as well). Recently, however, the federal government and many state governments have taken a greater interest and assumed a more active role in teacher professional development. In 1994, a goal for professional development was added to the National Education Goals, stating that "[b]y the year 2000, the Nation's teaching force will have access to programs for the continued improvement of their professional skills and the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to instruct and prepare all American students for the next century." Both the Improving America's Schools Act of 1994 and the Goals 2000: Educate America Act of 1994 provide new opportunities for teachers to upgrade their skills and emphasize flexible and creative use of resources.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Education has emphasized explicitly the importance of professional development by funding professional development activities through federal programs such as the Eisenhower Professional Development Program, the Comprehensive Technical Assistance Centers, and Title I. Federal funding is also available for professional development in categorical programs such as bilingual education, special education, and vocational education. In addition to the programs administered by the U.S. Department of Education, the federal government has supported professional development through other agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and by supporting the standards and assessment activities of the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS).

While the impact of these programs would not have been measurable in the 199394 SASS, evidence is accumulating that teaching practice in mathematics and science is being changed through such efforts. Beginning in 1993, NSF's Statewide Systemic Initiative (SSI) awarded 5-year grants of about $10 million each to 26 states for reform of science, mathematics, and technology education, and all states have focused funds on the professional development of teachers. A preliminary assessment found many examples of classrooms where teaching and learning have been improved in important ways (Zucker et al. 1995). An evaluation of the Eisenhower Mathematics and Science Education Regional Consortia Program conducted in 1996 found that nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of the individuals who had participated in the activities under study reported that they had incorporated some new behavior into their jobs as a result of what they had learned (Haslam, Turnbull, and Humphrey 1998).

States' involvement with professional development has traditionally focused on funding, mandating in-service time, and regulating recertification. While state policies in these areas have significantly influenced the amount and character of professional development activities, states historically have not played a lead role in shaping professional development except for their influence on the initial preparation of teachers through their regulation of teacher education programs. Now, however, many states are taking a more active role and trying to influence the focus, scope, and quality of professional development as well as its quantity (Corcoran 1995b).4 In a 50-state study of state professional development policies and programs, CPRE (1997) identified the steps some states are taking, which include finding out how much is being spent for professional development and how it is being spent; conducting policy reviews to determine the impact of state policies on local decision making; developing guidelines, standards, and incentives for districts and schools; and re-examining how time for professional development is being used.

New actors are entering the arena as well. Teacher networks, school-university collaboratives, and teacher unions, for example, are now taking a more active role in designing and conducting professional development opportunities. In addition, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) is working with teachers and teacher organizations to establish standards for advanced practice and a rigorous assessment and certification process. In 1996, 23 states were actively encouraging teachers to seek NBPTS certification (CPRE 1997).

As government agencies and nongovernment organizations seek to develop new initiatives, policymakers need answers to questions such as: Who plans professional development activities? What is the basis for the plans? How are school, district, and state plans interrelated? How is professional development integrated into the organization and management of schools? In what kinds of professional development activities do teachers participate? What topics do they cover? How much time and money are devoted to professional development? How do professional development activities affect teachers? At least some of these questions can be addressed with the 199394 SASS data.

Data and Methodology

The 199394 Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS:9394) is a nationally representative, integrated survey of districts, schools, and teachers. The 199394 survey was the third in a series that began in 198788, with the next administration scheduled for 19992000. Approximately 13,000 public and private schools and administrators, 68,000 teachers, and 5,000 districts participated.5 In response to the growing interest in professional development, SASS began collecting information from teachers on their professional development in 199394, and more items will be added in the 19992000 administration (Mullens et al. 1996; Gilford 1996).

Because many teacher, principal, school, and district characteristics are interrelated, it is important to take this covariation into account when examining the relationships between teachers' professional development activities and these characteristics. Therefore, multivariate statistical techniques were used in addition to bivariate analysis to examine variation in teachers' professional development experience. Logistic regression models were used to examine specific factors related to whether teachers participated in different types of professional development activities and in different content areas.6

Because of the large number of efforts to improve professional development currently under way, it is important to consider how the picture of professional development presented here matches current practice. When the 199394 SASS survey was designed in the early 1990s, teacher professional development was already becoming a major focus of attention. Consequently, an extensive series of questions on the kinds of professional development activities in which teachers commonly engaged at that time was included. Although the 199394 survey questions did not address the new approaches to professional development that have been recommended or introduced since that time, the 199394 data probably still provide a reasonably accurate portrait of professional development activities as they existed in the mid-1990s. Despite the many initiatives to improve teachers' professional development introduced in the early 1990s, researchers at the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) concluded after a comprehensive review of reform in nine states that real change had been modest, at least as of 199495 (Massell, Kirst, and Hoppe 1997).7 They found that implementation of reforms had been largely piecemeal and procedural, and that criticisms that professional development was fragmented, episodic, and loosely related to overall systemic reform remained applicable. The focus on professional development is continuing, however, and many promising reforms are in progress (NCTAF 1997). The next SASS administration, scheduled for 19992000, will be well timed to measure the extent to which local, state, federal, and other initiatives are changing how professional development is conceived and conducted.

Following a structure proposed by Mullens et al. (1996) for describing professional development, the analysis is divided into five sections, each addressing (to the extent possible with available data) one of the following aspects of professional development: design, format, content and duration, context, and outcomes. The report addresses how participation varies according to teacher, school, and district characteristics, and also presents some state-by-state comparisons, with illustrations from current initiatives in selected states. Because private schools and teachers often are not governed by state certification and other state, local, or contractual requirements, teacher professional development in the public and private sectors is examined separately. The report has three appendices: appendix A contains standard error tables corresponding to the text tables; appendix B shows the results of the logistic regression analyses; and appendix C describes the data and methodology used for this analysis.


[1] Among teacher professional associations, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and International Reading Association (IRA), and the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) have been active in developing curriculum frameworks in their respective subjects (NCTM 1989; NCTE/IRA 1996; NCSS 1994). In addition, the National Research Council (NRC) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have created science education standards (NRC 1996; AAAS 1993).

[2] It should be noted that despite the problems with the current overall system of professional development, many documented examples of effective professional development exist (see, for example, Sparks and Loucks-Horsley [1990]).

[3] See Gilford (1996) for a summary of these and other guidelines.

[4] The National Governors' Association has taken an active role in helping states by preparing guidelines for state policymakers seeking to review their approach to teacher professional development, and, with foundation support, has made grants to Colorado, Michigan, and Rhode Island to assist them in their review of state policies and policy options.

[5] For more information on SASS, see appendix C of this report. A number of reports related to the survey methodology reports are cited there.

[6] See appendix C for a detailed description of the methodology.

[7] The nine states studied include California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Texas.

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