Why teacher development isn’t the solution to all performance problems

Dennis Sparks

When “teacher training” is the default solution to all performance problems, its inevitable failure to improve teaching and student learning will be blamed on the professional development, not the faulty diagnosis that lead to the training.

Early in my professional development career I was asked by a principal to provide a workshop on classroom management for teachers. As we discussed the need for such a workshop, he admitted that only a few teachers had problems in that area. I also learned that he had never talked directly with the teachers about whom he was concerned because, as he put it, that wasn’t his leadership style. Instead, he hoped the workshop would communicate to them that there were better ways of doing things. Fortunately, we eventually agreed that a workshop was not the most appropriate solution to his problem, and we designed a more personalized strategy for the identified teachers.

Workshop-based professional development is not a substitute for:

• Candid, solution-oriented conversations regarding performance problems;

• Supervisory practices and school structures that ensure frequent, observation and evidence-based conversations about teaching and learning among teachers and between school leaders and teachers;

• A high-trust, collaborative school culture that enables continuous improvement; and

• A clear, results-oriented student learning agenda for the school system and school.

What have I missed?

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10 Responses to “Why teacher development isn’t the solution to all performance problems”


  1. 1 Jamie February 5, 2014 at 5:33 am

    I think you nailed this, Dennis, and in such a tightly written and clear package! Perhaps the only additional thought I might add is more professional developers who get what you got early on and don’t succumb to providing professional development when it’s not the right tool.

    • 2 Dennis Sparks February 5, 2014 at 6:14 am

      I appreciate your comment, Jamie…. I have a great deal of empathy for leaders who feel pressure to “deliver” professional development even when the goals are unclear and the methods weak. But it is essential that they “just say no” when PD squanders precious resources and teachers’ good will.

  2. 3 Justin Baeder (@eduleadership) February 5, 2014 at 9:44 am

    Very well-said, Dennis. A good professional developer knows the customer is asking for the wrong solution—not surprising, then, that so many good staff developers are also great leadership coaches.

  3. 4 Lisa Madden (@lisa_madden) February 5, 2014 at 10:08 am

    I recently had this experience with an admin who was looking at disaggregated data, and wanted PD on literacy strategies for Career-Tech Ed. As we dug in further, it was clear that until a “mindset” shift happened, a day of strategy ideas wasn’t the answer! Further, teachers need ongoing opportunities in an inquiry-based setting, with the opportunity to learn from each other and reflect on their practices.

  4. 6 grantwiggins February 5, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    Thanks for this, Dennis. We have gotten far more assertive – of necessity! – in talking with clients about supposed needs for our PD services. We have both an online survey and a conversation to probe their thinking about what the ‘problem’ is for which our help is a supposed ‘solution’. Invariably what they (thought they) wanted needs re-thinking once we get them to come clean about the IF… THEN… logic of the situation, as well as whether or not everyone needs to attend. (It puzzles me how undifferentiated most pD is when we all know its importance in classrooms; but that’s another post!)

  5. 7 eeisenberg1 February 7, 2014 at 11:34 am

    The once and done “drop in” professional development is ineffective and in many cases, a waste of time and resources. We know that those types of professional development sessions have no sustainability. Participants who have professional development done to them rarely make it past the various handouts and lists of strategies that often accompany those kinds of sessions. What teachers and school leaders need for school wide improvement is a well-organized, intentional professional development plan that is tied to data, teacher practices, standards, and research. It also needs a guiding energy to maintain the learning, support innovative ideas, promote teamwork in a non-evaluative environment, and help teachers become reflective practitioners. This is best accomplished through an instructional coaching framework that honors the teachers’ voices through ongoing collaboration, confidentiality, collective problem solving, and open communication.

  6. 8 Dennis Sparks February 7, 2014 at 11:56 am

    I could not agree more…. Here is something I do not understand and would deeply appreciate readers’ comments about: So much is known from both experience and the professional literature about professional learning that benefits students and teachers. How is it that far too many schools continue to replicate, decade after decade, the defective practices of the past?

  7. 9 Wanda February 10, 2014 at 8:41 am

    Your piece is spot on. I look forward to hearing responses to the question you just posed.


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