Monday, June 9, 2008

Disconnecting Policies from Best Practices

As part of my work as a graduate assistant in Curriculum and Teaching, I had the opportunity to read David Cohen's book, Learning Policy.  What struck me the most in Cohen's work was his ability to study the implementation of the California math reforms in the 1990s and synthesize from that data some concrete findings about the way professional development should be structured in order to achieve optimal results.  Cohen notes two main concepts about successful professional development: 1) it is lengthy and 2) it focuses on curriculum areas, not general or "gimmicky" topics like differentiated instruction, collaborative learning, etc.  At the same time that I was reading Cohen's work, I happened to be enrolled in a Curriculum course taught by an adjunct professor who is a middle school vice principal.  Dishearteningly, this professor's expressed views on professional development seemed almost completely antithetical to Cohen's research.  The vice principal/professor talked highly of how his school offers exactly the type of professional development programs that Cohen argues do not provide much in the way of real results.  I would love to say that this astonished me, but sadly, it did not.  Having two family members who are both public school teachers, I have heard a lot about what a waste of time the vast majority of professional development opportunities are precisely because they mimic what the vice principal said and went against what Cohen argues.  What I do find surprising here is that clearly, we have research that outlines best practices, but we don't follow it.  I can't think of another field (except maybe politics) where inefficiency is the norm.  If medical research strongly advocated against using Drug A to treat illness B, you wouldn't find an adjunct professor in a med school, who is a doctor, advising you to use Drug A to treat illness B.  Yet, this seems to be the very thing that we find in education, if not from all of our professors, then definitely from administrators and BOE members.  

I think our class discussion today might have hit upon one of the reasons for this disconnect: a culture of anti-intellectualism coupled with a widespread belief that anybody can teach and/or solve the problems of teaching.  But honestly, I hope the reason is more sophisticated than that, because those reasons, as true as I think they are, are absolutely nonsensical.

1 comment:

Edubabbler said...

Real sustained professional development takes time, commitment, and money. The reality is that to do it well, teachers would need to have additional free time as part of their teaching day in which they were engaged in active learning that could directly translate into changes in the classroom. There would also need to be stronger mentoring and that's just not an efficient use of person-power.

All that said, you make a great point about this. I am often shocked by the drive-by PD that they ask us to do. For a while there, I did it, and then decided not to because I did not want to be party to the game. If a school were to come to me and say we want you to work with us for an entire year on curriculum development, I would jump at the chance, especially if I could work with teachers on a weekly basis.