I’ve been reading Linda Darling-Hammond’s new book The Flat World and Education, and while I’m finding it rich with detail about everything that’s troubling about the US education system (and the potential fixes), I’m also struck by the fact that there is very little here in terms of a meaningful discussion around what role technology plays in educating for a “flat world.” Kind of ironic.

Anyway, I’ve been particularly interested in her section on professional development and the huge disparity she writes about in terms of the time that teachers in other countries get for both individual and collaborative learning and planning as opposed to the US. She writes, “the landscape of supports for quality teaching looks like Swiss cheese.” In short, we spend more, much more time in the classroom than in other countries, we get only a fraction of the time for professional learning, and there is a huge disparity in the quality and types of professional development that teachers in the states receive. (Not to mention a huge disparity in the amount of pre-service education and on the job training we get before even entering a classroom.) And even more troubling, according to Darling-Hammond, is just the general inconsistency in the delivery of professional development. Here are a couple of extended snips that paint the picture pretty compellingly:

No high-achieving country approaches teaching in this way. These nations realized that, without a comprehensive framework for developing strong teaching, new resources in the system are less effective than they otherwise would be.: Reforms are poorly implemented  where faculty and leaders lack the capacity to put them into action; districts and schools are often unable to develop and maintain comprehensive training opportunities at scale, and scarce professional development dollars are wasted where teachers turn over regularly. Furthermore, when a profession’s knowledge is not organized and made available to the practitioners who need it most, advances in the state of both knowledge and practice are slowed (195).

If teachers, principals, superintendents, and other professionals do not share up-to-date knowledge about effective practices, the field runs around in circles: Curriculum and teaching practices are inconsistent, many poor decisions are made, and the efforts of those who are successful are continually undermined and counteracted by the activities of those who are uninformed and unskilled. The American educational landscape is littered with examples of successful programs and schools that were later undone by newly arrived superintendents and school boards marching to a less well-informed drummer. Equally common are successful initiatives that were not sustained when the teachers and principals who made them succeed moved on to be replaced by others with less skill. Good teachers create little oases  for themselves, while others who are less well prepared adopt approaches that are ineffective or even sometimes harmful. Some seek knowledge that is not readily available to them; others batten down the hatches and eventually become impermeable to better ideas. Schools are vulnerable to vendors selling educational snake oils when educators and school boards lack sufficient shared knowledge of learning, curriculum, instruction, and research to make sound decisions about programs and materials. Students experience an instructional hodgepodge caused by the failure of the system to provide the knowledge and tools needed by the educators who serve them (196).

And in terms of the effectiveness of the professional development we deliver when do make time for it?

Short workshops of the sort generally found to trigger little change in practice are the most common learning opportunity for US teachers…A summary of experimental research found that short-term professional development experiences of 14 hours or less appear to have no effect on teachers’ effectiveness, while a variety of well-designed content-specific learning opportunities averaging about 49 hours over a 6- to 12-month period of time were associated with sizable gains: students of participating teachers gained about 21 percentile points more than other students on the achievement tests used to evaluate student learning (205).

I know there is nothing earth-shatteringly new with any of this, but what is particularly daunting is coming up with a solution. I know in the work that Sheryl and I have done with PLP has attempted to change the model to at least give teachers an extended period of time in an immersive environment, one that addresses most of the issues that Darling-Hammond cites. But even with 6-7 months to learn deeply, we know that many of our participants struggle with time. A few schools actually give their teams release time on a regular basis to talk about and reflect on their experience, and there’s no question those teams get further down the road than most others. Most who participate have to make or find the time on their own, and those that do walk away with a deeper personal and practical understanding of what’s changing.

Darling-Hammond advocates for state and federal intervention in much of this, writing that “ultimately, a well-designed state and national infrastructure that ensures that schools have access to well-prepared teachers and knowledge about best practices is absolutely essential.” I’m not optimistic that will happen anytime soon. We can’t seem to agree on much in this country these days. I’m wondering instead when we’ll get to the point where a major part of teacher preparation is teaching teachers how to teach themselves, how to be transparent, networked and “do it yourself” learners. Not that there still wouldn’t be a need for structured professional learning, but that we’d be a lot further down the road, I think, if the culture of teaching moved toward a more open, collaborative, shared enterprise than it is today.