Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Policies That Support Professional Development in an Era of Reform

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Policies That Support Professional Development in an Era of Reform

Article excerpt

The situation-specific nature of the kind of teaching and learning envisioned by school reformers is the key challenge for teachers' professional development, and it is the chief obstacle to policy makers' efforts to engender systemic reform, according to the authors, who suggest some design principles to guide those who are struggling with this issue.

The vision of practice that underlies the nation's reform agenda requires most teachers to rethink their own practice, to construct new classroom roles and expectations about student outcomes, and to teach in ways they have never taught before - and probably never experienced as students.(1) The success of this agenda ultimately turns on teachers' success in accomplishing the serious and difficult tasks of learning the skills and perspectives assumed by new visions of practice and unlearning the practices and beliefs about students and instruction that have dominated their professional lives to date. Yet few occasions and little support for such professional development exist in teachers' environments.

Because teaching for understanding relies on teachers' abilities to see complex subject matter from the perspectives of diverse students, the know-how necessary to make this vision of practice a reality cannot be prepackaged or conveyed by means of traditional top-down "teacher training" strategies. The policy problem for professional development in this era of reform extends beyond mere support for teachers' acquisition of new skills or knowledge. Professional development today also means providing occasions for teachers to reflect critically on their practice and to fashion new knowledge and beliefs about content, pedagogy, and learners.(2)

Beginning with preservice education and continuing throughout a teacher's career, teacher development must focus on deepening teachers' understanding of the processes of teaching and learning and of the students they teach. Effective professional development involves teachers both as learners and as teachers and allows them to struggle with the uncertainties that accompany each role. It has a number of characteristics.

* It must engage teachers in concrete tasks of teaching, assessment, observation, and reflection that illuminate the processes of learning and development.

* It must be grounded in inquiry, reflection, and experimentation that are participant-driven.

* It must be collaborative, involving a sharing of knowledge among educators and a focus on teachers' communities of practice rather than on individual teachers.

* It must be connected to and derived from teachers' work with their students.

* It must be sustained, ongoing, intensive, and supported by modeling, coaching, and the collective solving of specific problems of practice.

* It must be connected to other aspects of school change.

Professional development of this kind signals a departure from old norms and models of "preservice" or "inservice" training. It creates new images of what, when, and how teachers learn, and these new images require a corresponding shift from policies that seek to control or direct the work of teachers to strategies intended to develop schools' and teachers' capacity to be responsible for student learning. Capacity-building policies view knowledge as constructed by and with practitioners for use in their own contexts, rather than as something conveyed by policy makers as a single solution for top-down implementation.

Though the outlines of a new paradigm for professional development policy are emerging,(3) the hard work of developing concrete exemplars of the policies and practices that model "top-down support for bottom-up reform" has only just begun. The changed curriculum and pedagogy of professional development will require new policies that foster new structures and institutional arrangements for teachers' learning. At the same time, we will need to undertake a strategic assessment of existing policies to determine to what degree they are compatible with a vision of learning as constructed by teachers and students and with a vision of professional development as a lifelong, inquiry-based, and collegial activity. …

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