State Budget Woes Hit Teacher Professional Development

E-newsletter Issue #101 | September 27, 2012

The Odyssey School in Denver is a unique school with a common problem—like many schools across the country, the school’s funding level has dropped.

Odyssey, a charter school that has 225 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, focuses on project-based learning, which often takes classes outside of the school building. Students are just as likely to be taking water samples from a local river as they are to be sitting at tables discussing the pros and cons of randomized drug trial statistics in math class.

Executive Director Marcia Fulton said each child takes his or her own unique odyssey at the school. Odyssey is part of the Expeditionary Learning Schools Network. The network is comprised of almost 200 schools in more than 30 states that subscribe to the expeditionary model of education, which links classroom lessons to real-world issues and projects.

“Our motto is we are crew, not passengers,” she said. “It’s about all the kids and we care about how they experience education. It’s not just test scores and what they do, but how they get there.”

Odyssey has lost almost $1,000 per student in funding in the past five years. The first victim of those budget cuts across the country is usually professional development.

Professional Development Shrinking

“It does cost,” Fulton said. “It costs to have the professionals in, to pay the teacher’s time, which is so worth it. If you don’t feed the teachers, they’ll eat the children. There was a book called that; I didn’t coin it.”

Odyssey teachers agree that professional development is important.

“If we don’t have money for professional development, I think we’d be a totally different school,” said Jon Exall, a sixth-grade teacher. “It would be one thing to say we expect you, as teachers, to do great things. This is the standard. But if there is no professional development to support teachers to get there, it’s a total setup.”

Marjorie Larner is a site professor at the Denver Center for International Studies, a magnet school that stresses a multilingual, multicultural classroom setting. Larner said teachers need to dig deeper into their professional development, the same way students need to go in-depth in the classroom.

“I think what’s best practice in the classroom is what’s best practice in professional development,” she said. “I think (teachers need) enough time so that people can go deep instead of these quick introductions, where they can’t really get anywhere with it, and then they move on.”

A National Problem

“In many cases, professional development has been dismal for teachers in terms that there’s no teacher voice in it, often the programs are designed by others or sold to districts with no input as to what are teachers’ needs,” said Linda Davin, senior policy analyst in the Department of Teacher Quality at the National Education Association. “It’s a very lucrative piece of the school budget, so lots of vendors go after it.”

Not only do teachers often believe the professional development they get isn’t attuned to their needs, but they also don’t have as much time for professional development as their European and Asian counterparts. According to a report from Learning Forward, formerly known as the National Staff Development Council, U.S. teachers spend about 80 percent of their time in the classroom with students. Teachers in Europe and Asia, which have some of the highest performing schools in the world, spend only 60 percent of their time in the classroom.

Tracy Crow, director of communications for Learning Forward, said researchers have a good idea of what high-quality professional development means. Learning Forward helped craft the new definition of professional development that was used in the proposed reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“Among the things that make professional learning effective is it has to be grounded in the needs of teachers and grounded in the needs of students,” Crow said. “It’s best determined by looking at data about where students are struggling and using that data for educators to say, ‘OK, I see my students have a hard time with measurement concepts. What do I need to be teaching about measurement concepts and do I know enough?’ … It does make a difference, but only if it’s done well.”

Crow said state policymakers need to ask how their state’s goals for schools are tied to professional development.

“There are already structures in place in schools where teachers are participating in professional learning, even though many people right now say professional learning is ineffective,” she said. “It’s an instrument that has the potential to touch all the teachers in a school. Given that, how can we then leverage this tool that’s available to everybody and do it quickly?”

Even though times are tight, said Davin, policymakers and administrators need to realize that cutting professional development for teachers hurts the quality of education students receive.

“Whenever you have a budget shortfall, one of the first things cut is professional learning,” Davin said. “What message does that send to teachers, to policymakers, to the community about professional learning? It pretty much says it’s not important if it can be cut first thing.

“You can’t just have it (professional development) when times are good. It can’t be a matter of chance or luck, because that’s not a good business plan.”

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