Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Celebrating Professional Learning

obriena's picture

Last weekend I had pleasure of attending the Celebration of Teaching and Learning in New York City. As always, it was an inspiring event.

In reflecting on the overall themes of the weekend, one emerged very clearly: Children and schools are hurting because of the current economic climate. The economy worked its way into just about every plenary, breakout and lunchtime conversation that I was a part of.

Three other themes were nearly as ubiquitous. All three were also related to the context in which the Celebration found itself.

  • Assessment and evaluation. Given the recent release of New York City public school teachers’ value-added evaluation rankings to the public – an action decried by everyone from Bill Gates to Teach For America Founder Wendy Kopp to Dennis Van Roekel and Randi Weingarten, the presidents of the nation’s two largest teachers unions – and the large number of NYC education professionals at the event, it is not surprising that assessment and evaluation were at the forefront of a number of Celebration discussions.

  • Lessons from the international community. The Celebration immediately followed the second International Summit on the Teaching Profession, which brought together education leaders from both developed and developing nations to share best practices and discuss the challenges facing education in the changing world. Several of the US representatives to the Summit participated in a panel discussion at the Celebration and many Summit attendees stayed on for the weekend, influencing the tone of the event.

  • Teacher morale. One of the Celebration’s lead sponsors was MetLife, which recently released their annual Survey of the American Teacher. The survey found that teacher job satisfaction has dropped to the lowest level in more than two decades. Just 44% of teachers report that they are very satisfied with their profession, a finding that shocked many Celebration attendees and prompted much discussion.

In conversations on all three of these rather distinct topics, a common thread emerged: The importance of professional learning.

In the many discussions on teacher evaluation, no one denied the importance of assessing teacher performance. Most did question the trend of increasingly basing evaluations on what we know to be flawed measures (standardized tests and value-added scores), particularly when those evaluations are used to make high-stakes decisions about teachers, but all recognized the need for data that can be used to help drive teacher improvement.

In looking at what the US can learn from higher-performing systems, many Celebration attendees cited systems that ensure the best and brightest in the nation enter the teaching profession – and stay there. A key aspect of those systems is professional learning. One of the most striking moments in the conference for me came during a session I attended on Learning Forward’s Standards for Professional Learning. I participated in a small group discussion with an educator from New York City, one from another district in New York State, and two from Vancouver, Canada. I learned that the NYC teacher had less than three days dedicated to professional learning each year. The other New York educator had one day. The Canadian educators had six. The NYC teacher expressed concern that teacher voice is missing in the development of professional learning opportunities; the Canadian educators expressed shock teachers weren’t integrally involved. The Canadian educators were very cognizant of how far they had to go in developing high-quality professional learning opportunities in their schools and districts, but I was struck at how far beyond many (though certainly not all) places in the US they were, if only in the value they placed on such experiences.

The importance of professional learning was also evident in discussions on teacher morale. The MetLife survey found teachers with high job satisfaction are more likely to have opportunities for professional development and time to collaborate with other teachers. Another teacher survey, Primary Sources 2012 (released at the Celebration), noted the importance of professional learning in teacher retention. In that survey, 89% of teachers ranked time to collaborate as absolutely essential or very important in retaining good teachers; 79% ranked professional development that is relevant to personal and school goals as an absolutely essential or very important.

Given the importance of professional learning to teacher retention and morale (as identified by teachers themselves), as well as the international evidence we have suggesting its importance in high-performing systems, it is unfortunate that here in the US we seem to be using assessment and evaluation data to try to shame or fire our way to good teachers, rather than using it to develop professional learning opportunities that build capacity.

It is also a shame that professional learning budgets are among the first cut in times of fiscal crisis. To truly accomplish the goals we have for our education system – high-achieving students taught by high-quality educators – it seems obvious that we should be investing more, not less, in professional learning.

Image by Thomas Hawk from San Francisco, USA (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons