Improving Education In School And Pursuing The New Educational Standards

Improving Education In School And Pursuing The New Educational Standards

There are many current stimulators of educational improvement and represent multi-year efforts to define new standards, not just for subject matter content but also for teaching, assessment, and programs. Using a large-scale consensus process, new documents are reviewed extensively by constituent groups and acquired substantial “ownership” as a result.


These documents and influential predecessors have much in common. They call for substantive education for all students (not just the academically elite), delineate the major content themes for the curriculum, and set new expectations for assessment, teaching, and student learning.


Careful review of these documents and case studies of schools in which the ideas are being put into action establish that the desired reforms are complex, multi-faceted, and extend into the most basic aspects of the teaching and learning process. Taken seriously, they demand sweeping and fundamental change.


Another pervasive impression from the case studies is the large effort required to make these changes. Time is a major dilemma for teachers, and it is reflected in the difficulties teachers face in finding the time for initiating change and engaging in the related professional development. The education advocated in these standards reflects values and beliefs that often differ from those commonly held by school personnel.


A related matter is that most educational personnel do not recognize either the full extent of the changes called for in the new standards. Grasping the reality of the situation is essential for initiating and sustaining significant professional development.


The purpose of professional development activities is to foster teachers’ growth into the most effective teachers possible. The teacher learning is essential for significant educational improvement, and this learning, in turn, provides a foundation for the changes in student roles and work that are the “bottom line” of educational improvement. Teacher learning requires attention to educational practices at a fundamental level, a level at which the teacher addresses the very values and beliefs that underlie his or her current practices. Without addressing the matters at this level, major changes in classroom practice are unlikely to occur, and the promise of the new standards will not be realized.


The professional development is not a simple process. The total picture of the development of a professional is never simple, nor is it appropriately portrayed in a simple linear fashion.


While there are variety of ways in which this complex picture could be described, this paper will explore three dimensions of professional development: the technical dimension, the political dimension, and the cultural dimension. Within each of these dimensions, both the process of professional development and its content will be addressed. The final section of this document addresses an outlook that underlies the total presentation, namely the need to address any programmatic professional development from a systemic perspective, i.e., with full attention to the many interrelationships among the many facets of the situation.


The technical dimension of professional development refers to professional knowledge and skills and the means by which they are acquired. Knowledge and skills pertain to the full sweep of professional practice, such as organizing curricular content, planning instruction, managing classroom activities, conducting challenging laboratory activities, fostering rigorous intellectual discussion, conducting quality student assessment, motivating student participation, and defining expected student work. The means by which these knowledge and skills are acquired include in-service education, informal learning through reading, conferences and networking, and collaboration with colleagues in the school context.


For many educators, mention of professional development brings to mind in-service education. In fact, for many people the terms are almost synonymous. A deep understanding of how professional development actually occurs, however, shows the fallacy of this thinking. By itself, in-service education cannot sustain professional development, nor is it even likely to be the key building block for professional development. On the other hand, it may be an important component of professional development, and in some cases, especially in the midst of department or school-wide curricular or programmatic changes, it may be an essential component. However, given its prominence in educators’ thinking and the important role it often plays in professional development, it will be addressed here first.


The above listing of knowledge and skills includes topics common to in-service education classes. Many of them are essential to the professional development of teachers in the midst of educational reform. New curricular content and a new role for teachers in the classroom are major elements of such reforms; in-service education is a prominent and appropriate means of addressing them. In addition, this attention to teacher roles can extend to how these new roles can lead to new student roles and new forms of student work. Obviously, this in-service education will be most effective when closely connected to the concerns of the participants and the educational changes underway in a particular school setting. It should also be conducted in a manner that is participatory and closely connected to participants’ experiences in their own classrooms.


An example of making such connections is in-service education tied to a program of peer coaching. While there are various forms of peer coaching, each has the common characteristic of focusing on a teacher’s own work in the classroom and providing specific feedback on it. Furthermore, it provides a context for collaboration with peers and potentially fosters stronger collegial relationships. While generally not simple to implement, and certainly not a panacea, peer coaching is one means of connecting formal in-service education to the “real world” and fostering another highly important part of professional development, collaboration with fellow teachers.


The means of nurturing the technical aspects of professional development are far more extensive than in-service education classes. In fact, as noted above, if the means of developing these competencies is limited to in-service education classes, the overall process will have limited success. The approach must be comprehensive and related to an overall process of educational change in the school or the science or mathematics department.


Professionals whose knowledge and skills are developing at a significant rate take the initiative for this growth and foster it in many ways. Thus, informal means of professional growth are important, including reading, attending professional conferences, and networking with fellow professionals in various ways. Studies of educational reform in science and mathematics show many such informal teacher influences. It appears that the more teachers are “self-starters” in terms of their professional development, and the more they take responsibility for their own learning, the more varied these means of growth.


Conferences are important sources of technical knowledge and skills, new visions of what education can be, and inspiration for new courses of action. Such a conference may be the context, for example, in which a teacher gains new insights into the meaning of national standards, finds educational misconceptions challenged, and even begins to reassess certain educational values and beliefs.


Networking and informal communication with other teachers are important means of professional growth. Whether established through contacts made in in-service education classes, at regional or national conferences, through working together in the same school, or other means, these communication networks are important to teachers. The isolation from fellow teachers during the working day in so many schools only highlights the importance of this communication. The benefits for teachers include specific knowledge as well as the less tangible “support” teachers need.


In the previously mentioned studies of educational reform in science and mathematics, no means of professional growth was more powerful than collaborating with fellow teachers on the day-to-day responsibilities of improving their teaching. While teachers may collaborate with other teachers in the context of some in-service education classes, the collaboration of concern here is intense, “real,” and centered on the most important aspects of teaching, because it occurs in the context of actual work on the teaching process. Rather than simply collaborating on general ideas about such tasks as conducting labs, designing assessments, or guiding discussions, this collaboration is centered on the authentic work of teaching within the context of the working day; it is an integral part of that working day. As a result, unrealistic assumptions are exposed, conflicting values and beliefs cannot be avoided, and joint decisions must be made about actions that will be taken on an ongoing basis. While professional growth can take place in other contexts, this one stands out in terms of its impact.


The technical dimension of professional development is of basic importance, has many forms, and is needed on an ongoing basis. It will not occur in anything but the most limited form, however, without appropriate political support, a matter to be addressed in the next section.


Professional development occurs, as do all aspects of education, in a political context. Matters of authority; power and influence, including the negotiation and resolution of conflicts; and moral issues of justice and fairness are all part of the picture. The mechanisms that directly foster increased proficiency in the technical dimension are present or absent largely as a result of matters that lie in the political dimension. What happens in the political arena can have a telling effect on teachers’ professional development. These influences are both formal and informal, occur at various levels (e.g., national or local), and strongly shape what happens in the technical and cultural dimensions. National and state influences, local leadership, and teacher empowerment will be addressed below.


A consistent vision and set of goals from various national spheres of influence can have a marked effect on local professional development. Similarly, state documents can legitimatize new visions of educational practice and set a new direction in the midst of competing viewpoints. Case studies show their significant influence. Evidences of their influence, however, should not cause one to abandon another important consideration, namely that these national and state influence are not a sufficient condition for either educational reform or professional development. Although vision and resources from the national and state level can be important influences, without local leadership their impact will be minor.


Although occasional individuals experience substantial professional growth in the absence of organized efforts to promote it, widespread professional development by a large percentage of teachers in a particular locality does not occur without local leadership. Although occasionally coming from informal leaders in smaller settings, this leadership for systematic professional development most often comes from persons in formal positions of leadership.


In-service education classes occur because of leaders that make them happen. If this in-service education is tied more closely than usual to the day-to-day work of teachers, including a peer coaching program, the leadership required is much greater. A program of this nature requires creating a vision for what these efforts can accomplish, acquiring the needed resources, addressing concerns of the participants, and managing the many logistics needed for its success. The required leadership will depend upon the scope and nature of the professional development. In some cases, a department chair within one school will provide the needed leadership. In other cases, it will demand the leadership of principals or district leaders.


If major professional growth is to occur on a widespread basis within a given department, school or district, one essential leadership ingredient must be present. The leader or leaders must have a systemic view encompassing the many elements of professional development which must come together to make this growth possible. Steps must be taken to foster complementary in-service education, formal programs of curriculum development and instructional improvement, collaborative work relationships, and informal communication. This systemic endeavor must include both the technical dimension addressed above and the cultural dimension to be addressed below. Such leadership is essential for major professional development to occur.


This leadership also must include attention to public support for the educational changes being promoted and the professional growth required for these changes to occur. Public support, particularly parental support, is essential if major changes are to occur. This public support is related to teacher professional development in that teachers have a major role in this education of parents. As teachers take on new roles, with the intent of fostering new student roles and forms of student work, they acquire the responsibility of preparing students and their parents, both directly and indirectly, for these changes.


Major professional growth requires teachers taking responsibility for their own learning and having a work context in which they can put their new approaches into practice. Both of these elements are closely related to what is sometimes labelled teacher empowerment, a context in which teachers are expected to have these responsibilities, and there are no major impediments to them doing so. Effective leaders capitalize on the potential of this approach.


The cultural dimension pertains to values, beliefs, and school norms. This dimension is at the heart of professional development if one assumes that this growth encompasses major changes. Although labelled here as cultural, these values and beliefs have a strong individual as well as social component. The move from traditional educational practices to those advocated in the new standards generally entails significant shifts in what is valued and in beliefs about what students should learn and how it can best occur.


In the new role, a teacher is less a dispenser of information and more a coach and facilitator. The teacher less often transmits information, communicates with individuals, directs student actions, and explains conceptual relationships. The teacher is more often engaged in helping students process information, communicating with groups, coaching student actions, facilitating the learning process, and modeling the learning process. The student role is less that of passive observer and more that of self-directed learner. The student is less often engaged in recording teacher information, memorizing information, or following teacher directions. The student is more often engaged in processing information, designing his or her own activities, and interpreting, explaining or hypothesizing. The student work is less teacher-prescribed and more student-directed. The student is less likely to complete worksheets, do teacher directed tasks, or engage in the same tasks as all the other students. The student is more likely to engage in tasks that vary among the students, design and direct his or her own tasks, and engage in tasks that emphasize reasoning, reading and writing for meaning, solving problems, building from existing cognitive structures, and explaining complex problems.


Certainly these shifts in teacher role and in the role and work of the students must be the substance of in-service education and other aspects of the technical dimension described above. Most fundamentally, however, these shifts are shifts in values and beliefs, and they may come more slowly than the acquisition of new knowledge and skills.


In-service education and related activities must attend to values and beliefs, not in an “in-your-face” manner, but in such a way that each individual has an opportunity to consider the relationship between various educational practices and these personal values and belief. Furthermore, individuals need an opportunity to consider alternatives in educational practice, the implications of these practices, and their connections to these values and beliefs.


As noted earlier, the most powerful influence within the cultural dimension probably is the work teachers do with their peers in a collaborative work context. Working together with fellow teachers on the curricular content of their classes, the instructional approaches, and the means of assessment to be employed provides a context within which one’s values and beliefs are regularly encountered along with the more technical matters. Under the right circumstances (e.g., in conjunction with in-service education), this is the setting with the greatest potential for professional growth.


A case has been made here for viewing professional development from a systemic perspective; it cannot be understood adequately in isolation from the professional work context of each teacher. In today’s climate of educational reform and pervasive attention to new educational standards in mathematics and science, educational change and professional development are inexorably tied to each other. If you expect major change in one of these two areas, you are confronted with the realization that you cannot have one without the other; educational reform is essential for teacher development and teacher learning is essential for reform. A program of professional development must be connected to all the other movement toward educational improvement.


In addressing the systemic character of the situation, it is relevant to consider a conceptual framework for staff development. All five of these models have potential and are worthy of further examination by the person developing a program of staff development. It is asserted here, however, that whichever of these five models someone chooses to adopt and adapt to mathematics or science education, it must be viewed in a broader context than this description implies. Initiating a staff development program based on one of these five models is inadequate, unless conceptualized in the broader educational reform context described above.


From a theoretical perspective, the “individually guided staff development” model, seems to be most compatible with the position advocated here because of its emphasis on the individual and the implied constructivist orientation. For many who are responsible for a program of professional development, however, it may require an unfamiliar instructional management approach, and may not be compatible with various features of their educational context.


Operationally, the “development/improvement process” model, most resembles what is advocated here in that it combines professional development and program improvement. With a more extensive conception of program improvement and a long-term commitment to fundamental change, it would be much the same as advocated here.


All five models have potential. It is argued here, however, that whichever one is employed, it must make provision for individual plans of professional development. Furthermore, whatever organized program of staff development is established, whether based on one of these five models or some other model, it must be operated in the broader context described above. It must be integrated with overall processes of educational improvement and viewed systemicly.


Finally, whatever program of professional development emerges, it must be sustained for a long time. One of the observations in the case studies cited above was that staff development activities often ended too soon. Formal in-service education in some cases ended after two years, for example, yet the overall reform process was still under way and not expected to be complete for some time. After the initial two years, individual teachers were finally realizing how much dissonance there was between their traditional approaches to education and those of the new standards, and they were recognizing the dissonance between their long-standing values and beliefs and those of the reforms. In this situation they became sharply aware of their need for help and were distressed that it was no longer available. Professional development and educational reform must continue hand-in-hand over a long period of time.


The implications of this conception of professional development are fairly obvious. The individual teacher interested in professional growth should pursue a long-term path of: (1) learning through a variety of formal and informal means; (2) attempting new classroom approaches that foster new student roles and work; (3) reflecting on and reassessing personal educational values and beliefs on an ongoing basis; and (4) possibly most important of all, making every effort to establish an intensive, collaborative work relationship with one or more fellow teachers. The leader wishing to promote professional development within his or her sphere of influence should pursue a systemic and long-term approach that unites program improvement and professional development. While moving the instructional program toward the new national standards, teacher learning should be fostered through formal and informal means, teachers should be encouraged to pursue new teaching roles that lead to new student roles and work, and collaborative working situations should be initiated in which teachers can work together on program improvement.


Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.



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