Why doesn’t professional development improve?

Dennis Sparks

During the four decades that I have been involved in the field of professional development my aspiration was that every teacher and principal in every school would learn every day from their colleagues, students, and supervisors.

I wasn’t thinking of the kind of professional development in which an “expert” speaks to teachers, although that might have been a small part of it, but the kind of rich professional learning that arises from the close observation of students, meaningful collaboration with colleagues, and deep, sustained evidence-based conversations about important subjects.

Unfortunately, as I have listened to successive generations of teachers and administrators complain about the poor quality of their “inservice” experiences it is clear that we remain a long way from achieving that goal.

For 40 years I have attended dozens of local, state, and national meetings in which solutions to this problem were sought. But in spite of those good intentions the quality of professional development remains at an unacceptably low level as it is implemented in the vast majority of schools and school systems.

There are exceptions, of course. Some schools are exemplars of high-quality professional learning and teamwork, but they remain the exceptions rather than the rule.

While barriers such as lack of time and other resources are often cited as problems, I think there are four deeper, more fundamental explanations for why professional development has not fulfilled its essential role in the continuous improvement of teaching and learning:

1. Some leaders’ have antiquated “mental models” regarding learning and change that impede progress.

• Some leaders, for example, believe that teaching is “telling” and that leading is “directing.” Therefore, “good” professional development, they believe, only requires a “speaker” who tells teachers what to do.

• Or, some leaders believe that the best way to improve teaching is through a combination of fear and incentives.  As a result, they use various carrots and sticks to “motivate” teachers. “Inservice” provided by motivational speakers often appeals to these leaders.

2. Some leaders don’t have a sufficiently deep understanding of the attributes of high-quality professional learning nor a carefully crafted “theory of action.”

• Administrators and teacher leaders often replicate the past because it is difficult for them to create what they’ve never experienced.

• Some leaders have not done the deep analysis required to create a “theory of action” that explains the steps that will be taken to achieve important goals and the assumptions behind those actions that lead leaders to believe they will produce the desired outcome. Without such an analysis continuous improvement efforts typically fail.

3. Some leaders are resigned to the status quo.

• Some leaders believe that they have little influence on the quality of teaching and learning in their schools.

• Some leaders believe that teachers’ engagement in meaningful professional development is someone else’s responsibility and that nothing can be done until those people assume their responsibility.

4. Some leaders lack the will and/or skill to engage in the challenging conversations that are almost always required to continuously improve teaching and learning.

Leaders are often reluctant to engage in such conversations because they:

• fear conflict,

• have a strong desire to be liked by others, and/or

• lack skill and experience in engaging in such conversations.

Do you agree that professional development for most teachers continues to be of low quality? 

If so, do you agree that these are the primary leadership barriers to significant improvement, or do you have others to suggest?

10 Responses to “Why doesn’t professional development improve?”

  1. 1 Katharine Weinmann May 20, 2015 at 6:29 am

    Hello Dennis,
    Now in my “encore,” I host a couple of online courses for a school district – one on the art of facilitation, and a book study of The Power of Collective Wisdom, The participants are typically aspiring leaders: department heads, assistant principals, lead teachers. From their comments, I would concur with your observations about “some leaders.”. Many of them perceive leadership from the leaders they watch and work for, as having to having the answers, as being directive, in control, as asking for input only to confirm their already made decisions, as being invulnerable, all knowing. As, what Margaret Wheatley would offer, the leader as hero, and not the leader who hosts curiosity, uncertainty, vulnerability, and challenging conversations, with self and others.
    Thank you for always insightful, and pithy posts.

    • 2 Dennis Sparks May 20, 2015 at 7:10 am

      Thank you for sharing your experience with readers, Katharine. The need to be “all knowing” too often plagues those who affect the well-being of young people, from teachers and administrators to policy makers.

  2. 3 Tagrid Sihly May 20, 2015 at 8:26 am

    I’ve been wondering a lot about this very topic lately. I believe that before we analyze the quality of the professional development we have to define what is true professional development. Is it what the school leaders determine to be necessary or needed for the teachers, or is it what teachers and leaders collaboratively deem valuable in building capacity and improving instruction? In many cases, as you indicate, PD is dictated and provided by school leaders with no teacher input. When only the school leaders are involved in the decision making and the selection of PD for teachers, then the results are less than optimal and may even be ineffective. It is true that leaders’ mindset and preparation in selecting effective professional development for teachers is a crucial part of the equation. However, I also believe that teachers have a tremendous influence in the selection and the implementation of the learning provided in PD sessions. It is not only the leaders’ responsibility for how PD is chosen and implemented. The teachers must also have a vested interest in how to learn together and from each other to promote the best learning opportunities for themselves and their students. As an aspiring school leader, I’ve tried before to reach out to my colleagues to get them involved in the professional development we receive in our program. The response was less than adequate because the teachers themselves are not willing to take the step forward and design their own learning opportunities. The leaders and teachers must be on the same page for true professional learning to take place.Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    • 4 Dennis Sparks May 20, 2015 at 9:12 am

      In my experience teacher-directed professional development isn’t necessarily any better than that designed by others, particularly if “better” is defined as making significant, lasting changes in classroom practice that benefit students. Meaningful teacher engagement in planning and implementing professional development is certainly necessary, but it is seldom sufficient. I appreciate your comment, Tagrid.

  3. 5 Mike Sherry May 20, 2015 at 8:38 am

    G’day Dennis

    I’ve ‘lurked’ around your posts for some time, however felt compelled to respond to this one. Katharine referred to her ‘encore’; in mine which continues I’ve the great pleasure of working with leaders who are the exceptions. For example, today I worked with a Special School Principal who is keen to now introduce Peer Observation as a development tool for her staff – as it’s now time and the school is ‘ready’ and can no longer wait for people to change their practice.

    I understand your comments may well be born perhaps from a sense of well-founded frustration at the snails pace of change in the way pd works, however I’m working with Principals and teachers who are learning every day from their colleagues, from their students, and from their leaders.

    How many others are out there? Thanks for the ‘prod’.

    • 6 Dennis Sparks May 20, 2015 at 9:20 am

      G’day to you, Mike! Thanks for the comment and the reminder that countless administrators and teacher leaders work diligently to improve the quality of professional learning. “Model” professional development arises here and there, and, unfortunately, too often falls with a change in system or school leadership. But if the goal is high-quality professional learning for all educators that benefits all students, we continue to have a very long way to go, at least from my perspective.

  4. 7 Robby Champion May 20, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    Dennis, Liked your succinct blog raising this depressing question, which needs to be asked. Leaders in education for students k-12 do not necessarily have any understanding of how to develop professionals!
    Maybe it’s asking too much. I do think educational leaders need to know how important it is for teams to have time to problem solve and plan together. Period. Let teachers run their own professional development!

    I have been curious for a long time about professional development assumptions and practices in fields outside of k-12 education systems. Other fields of work have at least the same barriers that we have in public education relating to professional development, but their assumptions are different. I note that in other fields they assume that the individual is in charge of his or her own professional learning and development. Whatever an organization offers to its employees rightfully should be related to the organization’s priorities and goals. It need not be comprehensive. There should be choices of how and when to learn and the responsibility to have attained particular understandings and competencies on the individual. Period. Organization-sponsored invitations to learn are a perk, not a command; they are only a small part of what individuals include in their professional development portfolio. Think of nurses, physicists, engineers, sales professionals, computer experts, small business owners — they take charge of their own development . They learn from the internet, conferences, informal conversations, trial-and-error, reading, and working on teams.

    • 8 Dennis Sparks May 20, 2015 at 4:20 pm

      You offer good examples, Robby, of professions in which individuals are expected to learn primarily at their own expense and on their own time, although those costs may be all or partially subsidized. I appreciate the mix of learning activities you note in your comment, particularly teamwork. In the professions you listed individuals often learn with their colleagues as they solve important problems. For example, doctors may attend “morbidity and mortality conferences” to determine what they can learn when patients die from complications or medical mistakes. (It would be a wonderful addition to our profession if there were a similar means through which educators could learn from their mistakes.) High-functioning surgical teams often practice new procedures together to avoid fatal mistakes that might otherwise occur with patients. Teachers are not really independent practitioners—they work within an interconnected web of relationships that both affect the quality of their work and provide a means for important professional learning, although it is often not the formal learning that occurs in the courses and workshops that first come to mind when educators think of professional development.

  5. 9 bruynss June 5, 2015 at 1:21 pm

    Let’s hope that we’re not having this conversation 40 years from now. And yet history tells us that if we don’t take the time to uncover the reasons why professional learning is not having the impact that we feel it needs to have, then we are poised to repeat the mistakes of the past. As you’ve reminded your readers on many occasions, learning (at any level of the organization ~ from student to Director) is complex. The factors involved in true learning, whereby we can no longer go back to where we once were, are multi-layered. In the professional learning that we offered through our Languages portfolio, we’ve captured a few non-negotiables which are starting to have an impact. No longer do we offer “one-ofs” (we build a year long relationship with our school teams), we want our participants to volunteer (because they see a need in their classroom), we want school teams to be a part of it, so that we can infiltrate the school culture and provide them with a common language and we require administrators to be “at the table” and learn alongside of their teachers. It is that last condition which speaks to your “four deeper explanations”. In our work, we have certainly had the vantage point of seeing the power of having a strong instructional leader at the table. And in knowing that we would be welcoming administrators, we needed to tailor the learning to meet their needs as well. We started sessions with looking at ourselves as “learners”, even before we dove into exploring ourselves as “readers”. We wanted our administrators to see themselves in the learning process (knowing that they weren’t returning to a classroom to experiment with the strategies). We also took every opportunity to model powerful presentation strategies (beyond the actual reading strategies), such as the use of social media.
    I agree that leaders (classroom, school, system) are all on a continuum when it comes to igniting a passion for others to learn. I’m wondering if more of us modeled our own openness to learning and vulnerability when it comes to embracing something new, then more of our staff (students) would be open to professional learning opportunities.

    • 10 Dennis Sparks June 6, 2015 at 4:00 pm

      You’ve said a number of important things here, Sue, but I’m particularly struck by your recommendation that leaders model their own “vulnerability when it comes to embracing something new….” Learning new things and acting on that learning, often in front of others, carries with it the possibility of failure, something that most of us seek to avoid whenever possible. Leaders who frequently step out of their comfort zones demonstrate to the school community both the risks and the benefits of meaningful professional learning.

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