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Professional Development Is the Job

By Anthony Alvarado

The standards movement presents us with enormous challenges, and they don't always take the form we expect. We all know that if standards are to succeed in raising student achievement, there will have to be a massive change in the way we do business. Most people tend to took at the change in terms of its impact on students: The kids will have to do more challenging and rigorous work, and they'll be held accountable for their success. But after we set these high and demanding standards and we have assessments that tell us our kids are not performing to the standards, we'll turn to one another and say, "Our kids were not jumping very high before, and now we expect them to jump higher. What makes us think we can get them to do that?"

There are a million theories operating in the United States of America about what it takes to educate a kid and why we do things the way we do. When the theory is that the teacher and the child—that dyad—is where the rubber meets the road, all roads lead to professional development. But in the new world of standards-based education and helping our students meet them, it is professional development of a kind that we have not previously experienced. In the past, it has been a fairly mundane and superficial matter of speakers and workshops, with here a new technique or procedure for classroom management and there an inspirational talk about diversity. The new professional development must be different and much more powerful, and it will involve solving problems and collaborating at levels that we have never even contemplated.

Teachers and administrators will have to think together about how to create conditions that allow, in fact ensure, that kids meet the demands of standards-based education. We will have to change practice, and to do that we need a theory of action. I have a very simple one: We want children to perform at much higher levels, and that will happen as a result of an interaction with teachers. Therefore, what teachers do will have to be different and much more powerful. We will have to find ways of getting deeply into the specifics of how to help students master subject matter. And we will have to create contexts that support changes in thinking and pedagogy on the part of teachers. The standards movement is, first and foremost, a challenge to the adults because it is what they do that will determine the quality of the work the kids do.

Deciding About the Cow

A little while ago, my office got a call from a representative of a dairy association. This was the message that was left on the answering machine:

Every eight years, we bring a cow into the San Diego elementary schools, and because of the needs of the cow, it has to come in the morning. We are hearing that, because you have a morning literacy bloc, the cow is being denied entrance into the schools. We think this is a fabulous program. Will you call the schools to let the cow in?

We said, "That's a school-based decision." And of course the schools made different decisions about the cow for different reasons, some good and some bad. Some schools had already, when we talked about the literacy bloc, looked at their assembly programs and said, "You know, we have too many of these programs, and our kids are not reading enough." So they decided to pare down their assembly programs, and out went the cow. Some schools called the dairy association and said the district had said no to the cow. Other schools said, "Let's bring the cow in and create literacy work around the cow." And the next day, there were all kinds of student writing about the cow. Different approaches to the same question.

In this new world of standards-based learning, there are no uniform answers—even when it comes to making decisions about cows. You have to ask yourself, what is the right answer for a particular situation and school. That decision has to be made in a context of standards-based education, and you can't think usefully unless every teacher, every principal, every district office member, and, most important, every student, has a focused, coherent, and common vision of what is expected of them in standards-based classrooms.

When I talk about standards, I often tell the audience that if I handed out little slips of paper and asked each of them to define standards-based education, I would probably get as many different descriptions as there were people in the room. But unless, and until, we get a focused, coherent, and common vision, standards-based education is just another big idea that will wreck itself on the shoals of implementation.

Olympic Standards

There is not much in our current educational system to enlighten people about how standards work, but Olympic competition does offer some useful parallels. Take Olympic diving, for example. There is general agreement about how difficult a particular dive is and also about what is good form when a diver executes a dive. Coaches help their students train to meet those standards. When you see an athlete dive off the board, hit the water, and then come up again, you may already see him going "Yes!" or "Phhht!" because he has a pretty good idea of how well he's done. Then—and this is very interesting—you have a panel of people from different countries who probably cannot speak to each other because they speak different languages. Five seconds after the diver comes up, you see 9.9, 9.8, 10, 9, and you never see a 1and a 10 given to the same dive because the judges have internalized the standards and largely agree on what it takes to make a 10.

Students in our schools should be able to do something similar. They should be able to describe what it takes to get an A. Now, when we ask children, "What are you learning?" they may even say, "I don't know." Or, "We're studying...this is a history class." Or maybe, "We're studying the Civil War." What about...? "Oh, I don't know. Some fire." That's why education is in the mess it is. With standards, there are clear expectations, understood and internalized by students and teachers. Students know that their work has to meet those standards, and they have access to teaching that can get them there.

How would this vision manifest itself in the classroom? If you asked a student, "What are you learning?" he would say, in the context, for example, of a piece of writing, "I'm writing a descriptive composition, and I know my composition doesn't yet make the grade because my central idea is still too weak and my detail isn't rich or sharp enough. But I'll know when I meet the standard because I know what is required." And every other child in the class would also be able to answer such a question by measuring his achievement against the external standard. So would that child's teacher, all the other teachers in the school, and the principal, so that there is coherence in what is expected and what is done in the school. The parents, too, would understand the standards on which teaching and learning were based.

That is the vision for what a classroom looks like—every child able to describe what he or she is expected to do; every teacher understanding the same thing. But then-and this is of the utmost importance-the teachers have to have access to professional development, to experiences, to knowledge, to skill that can give them the power to get every kid not merely to understand the criteria but to meet them. That is a daunting task; the expectation for teachers is as sophisticated and complex as the Manhattan Project was for the scientists who participated in it. Do we understand when we talk about standards-based education what we're really asking a system to do? This is tough, demanding work, and it requires a kind of professional development that is of a different order from any we've seen before.

Learning from a Master

What would professional development look like in this new world order of standards-based education? Here are some snapshots, but the truth is they are merely suggestions because everything has to be based on what goes on in particular schools, and no two schools are alike. So schools have to invent their own versions because working on standards, above anything else, is intellectual work; it means thinking, solving problems, gaining knowledge, and applying it in situations so that one can create a new situation.

One component of the new professional development would certainly be encouraging teachers to visit one another's classes. We all know that, now, our classrooms are separate units and teachers are essentially isolated from one another. If we are to do standards-based education in a meaningful way, we must move private practice into the public sphere. In a school where classrooms are open, teachers will be talking to one another and in each other's classrooms, frequently and with a purpose. This isn't social visitation: I am going into the second-grade classroom because I am looking at "writers' workshops," and I want to find out how this master teacher uses them to link reading and writing in this grade. When I understand, I don't just take my knowledge and go back to my classroom. I have a responsibility to spread what I've learned to the rest of the faculty. And I need to do it quickly--in weeks, not months or years.

The cycles of change in our schools are very slow. We decide to try out a new little idea in September, and we're going to check in June to see how well it's working. Well, you know what schools are like in June. So maybe we say, "Wait until September," and by then a year has passed. (And maybe we never bother to check.) We have to develop a sense of urgency, to speed up the pace, or we'll all be 110 and Godot will have arrived before we get change in the schools. Or, more likely, we will lose the franchise in the meantime.

What this means in practical terms is that the teachers who visit the writers'-workshop master take her ideas and try them out. The master teacher answers their questions and goes into their classrooms to help them make the idea work. Then, they make a presentation to the full faculty. In six weeks, a school working like this can get writers' workshops up to the highest quality of practice.

And this kind of activity doesn't stop because we think we've gotten there. The underlying vision for professional development is that it is continuous, and that it is for everybody. The best people in the United States of America in any profession are the people who work hardest at improving their practice. Jerry Rice of the San Francisco 49ers is a great pass receiver, but he doesn't say, "I'm the best receiver in pro football today, so I don't have to work at it." No. He says, "In order for someone who does great work to get a little better, that guy has to work ten times harder." If you run a mile in eight hours, it doesn't take much to run it in seven hours and fifty-nine minutes. But if you run it in three-and-half minutes, each one of the seconds you knock off is a killer. You may strain a year to do it. That's the kind of attitude and approach to growth—the culture of growth—that has to be present in schools.

So, continuous visitation is one way of stimulating the professional growth I'm talking about. When I was superintendent in New York City's District 2, almost a quarter of our professional development budget always went right there: Teachers went singly or in pairs to visit other teachers in their school and they went to visit classes in other schools. We thought at the beginning that one round of visitations within a school would be enough, but that ignored the enormous possibilities for continuing growth that visitation offered. What it generates, at its highest level of practice, is what business calls "benchmarking." By comparing what they do with the work of other teachers, teachers become prolific creators of good practice. But there has to be an understanding that just that kind of constant comparison and effort to improve is the expectation—and there is a culture that supports it and money up front to carry it out.

What About the Money?

Most school districts, if they looked in their budgets for their professional development money, would have a hard time finding it because it doesn't amount to much. You can talk all you want about professional development and have high-toned conversations about models, but if the money isn't in the budget to do professional development, you don't care about it. And that's something for school board members, for superintendents, for school-based committees, for everybody to understand. They've got to put their money where their mouths are; and if professional development is the lever for change—and I'm convinced it is—they've got to put the money there.

In my first year in District 2, barely one-tenth of I percent of our budget went for professional development. By the time we were spending 3 percent, people were writing papers about our professional development program. When I left District 2, 6 percent was going to professional development—and I know that's nowhere near the amount of money necessary to do the job. By the way, I'm not talking just about getting new money but also about determining to spend the money you have in new ways. Although the federal government has been encouraging us to use Title I money for professional development, we still use a lot of it for pullouts. (And when we get rid of a pullout by making it a push-in, we often think we've accomplished something great, without even asking whether people have changed what they're doing.) In fact, there are massive amounts of money in reimbursable programs that are not being put toward professional development, often because management has its sacred cows and so does labor. Decisions to stop doing some things we've always done could be very tough. People could lose their jobs if money is rerouted into professional development to support the learning of teachers. We've never had to face these kinds of issues in a real-world environment.

Another sacred cow we're going to have to sacrifice—and this will also sound tough—is spending money on service for kids. The theory here is that better practice, not more practice in the old mode, creates learning. If I have a choice between spending $ 10 on a teacher or creating another little intervention, I'll spend the $ 10 on the teacher because, in the long run, the rise in professional knowledge and skills lifts all boats. The after-school stuff doesn't do anything to change most of the practice in schools.

The lion's share of professional development money has to go for what we usually call "master teachers," people adept, for instance, at teaching decoding to kids who are just learning to read or teaching important beginning math concepts and skills. Coaching is at the heart of this. It is stupid to believe that you can give a teacher a book and say, "Here are the second-grade reading standards. Go and implement them." Unfortunately, this is the way we generally do things. Teachers are starved for access to practice that can help them improve what they do in the classroom. They need other teachers whose practice has reached a very high level standing there with them, observing, giving them feedback, modeling the right way to do things. A generalized version of mentorship won't do. We need something specifically focused on practice if we hope to get kids' performance up.

Of course the standards for selecting these master teachers have to be high and demanding. Tennis players who want to improve their game won't get anywhere if they always play with people who are at their level. They need a tennis pro who is highly skilled—and the same goes for master teachers.

Sometimes administrators are less than enthusiastic about recognizing master teachers in their midst and using them in this way. They ask, "How can I take my best teacher out of the classroom? The PTA president's daughter is in her class." This attitude is understandable, but it loses sight of the goal, which is to raise all boats, rather than create isolated Masters.

There are many other ways to create professional development based on the idea of continuous improvement; they will vary with individual schools or districts. For example, in District 2, we sat down with the union and created the Distinguished Teacher Program, a variant of the master teacher idea. The idea was to identify an outstanding teacher and assign him or her as a consultant—or visiting expert—to a struggling school. In the case I'm thinking of, the distinguished teacher co-taught the literacy bloc with other teachers for part of the day and then spent the rest working individually with other teachers. The results were dramatic. In one year, the school moved from having only 27 percent of its students meet the state reading standard to 70 percent.

Are cadres of National Board certified teachers part of this story? They could be, but our efforts in that direction are still minuscule. If we're serious about making them part of the continuous professional development I'm talking about, somebody has to get moving. I hear, "Oh, I have eight National Board certified teachers" (in a system of 150,000 kids). Or "Oh, I have ten National Board certified teachers." Unless we step up the pace, Godot's son will have arrived before board certification has had an impact. Again, the issue is not, "Is this a good idea?" It is, "Will this work in my school?" and "How quickly?"

A New Brand of Collaboration

The professional development I've been talking about rests on money and on time. Unless teachers can visit classes in their school (and other schools), unless they can be coached and coach, there is little possibility of affecting practice in this way. It also rests on collaboration. The basic collaboration is the one between a teacher and a master teacher or coach. It is about the practice of a particular person, and it cannot be figured out in the central office or legislated by a school-based council. Ideas and frameworks for what might be done can come from lots of places, and the process can be jointly developed. But the kinds of changes I'm talking about have to be worked out where the teaching takes place—in a particular teacher's classroom.

But inventing and refining practice in one or two classrooms is not enough; invention has to go on throughout a school or school district, and to achieve that, we need collaboration among all the levels of the school or district. For example, we need a new kind of collaboration between teachers and principals—indeed, we need a new role for principals. Since professional development, as I am describing it, is not something that happens at certain times and places, the principal has to be involved, on a day-to-day basis, in making the new professional development work: scheduling, arranging, facilitating, monitoring. Instead of being a very occasional classroom visitor and the person in charge of discipline and keeping the physical plant running, the principal must now be as vitally engaged in teachers' ongoing professional development as teachers are themselves.

We will also need a new kind of labor-management pact that is geared to the intellectual expectations of standards-based education and this view of professional development. School boards and administrators on the one hand and teacher unions on the other have been struggling for a long time to collaborate over contractual and management issues, and we've been making progress; we're growing up. But the issues we've previously squabbled over are trivial compared to the ones we face now. This is no longer about who said what or how the third item in a checklist for classroom evaluations should be worded or even about a policy for hiring and transferring teachers—important though that is. These issues will not even get us into the ballpark of standards-based education, with the professional development we need to make it work. But we don't have any choice; we have to put our heads together; even though there is going to be tension and debate about how we do it.

The necessity of speeding up the pace of change will intensify some of the tensions we'll face. When we thought we had all the time in the world, we—and I mean teachers and their colleagues, teachers and administrators, labor and management—often had a hard time collaborating about mundane issues. Now, with pressure from the outside and a sense that we have to accomplish a great deal in a short time, we are also trying to get together on some very tough intellectual issues. So this is a hard nut, but we'll have to crack it if we're going to be successful.

The kinds of things that now pass for professional development—one-shot workshops on diversity training, cooperative education, classroom discipline—won't do a thing to improve practice. But we do know from research a lot of things that we don't pay any attention to. We know cross-role training works. Why? Because the principal might actually know something about how to think about and change classroom practice and might be able to help teachers make necessary changes. We even have research—David Cohen's study of mathematics networks in California—confirming that when teachers receive professional development dealing with the content that they're supposed to teach the students, the students learn more.

Why is it then, that school systems continue with the same old patterns and traditions when it comes to professional development programs? One of our problems is that we are besieged by the outside world—by herds of cows, if you like. Every snake-oil salesman who has a program comes knocking on the door, and we have to learn to say no so we can focus on stuff that's important. But in order to separate the wheat from the chaff, we have to be able to think, and we have to know what instruction is. Otherwise, we'll buy any program that's out there, because we need salvation. That's why every single program that's ever been invented, however lousy, is in use in some teacher's classroom. This is not because teachers are dumb-or administrators, either. It's because we are starved for ways to improve practice, without having any way of focusing on how to do it and, thus, separating the good from the worthless.

Many school districts—perhaps most of them—still have a very constricted view of professional development. It goes like this: Some of us are teachers; some are administrators; and professional development is something we go somewhere to have dosed out to us. The point I'm trying to make is that our work is professional development. Thinking about our work and improving what we do—these things are professional development. So is collegiality—teachers talking about their practice and how to make it better. It's a big mistake to think that teaching is what we do every day and professional development is an occasional seminar or workshop or institute. No! The job is professional development, and professional development is the job. When we learn that—really learn it—we'll be on our way.


Anthony Alvarado is chancellor for instruction in the San Diego (California) City Schools. This article is adapted from a speech he gave at the AFT/NEA Teacher Quality Conference in September 1998.