Why is staff development so bad?

at the TechLearning blog

We have known for a long time (decades!) about what constitutes effective
staff development. As the latest version of the National Staff Development
Council Standards for Staff Development
notes, effective staff

  • has small groups of educators working together over time in professional
    learning communities;
  • is based on principles of effective adult learning; and
  • deepens educators’ content knowledge.

Yet what does staff development look like in most school districts? Typically
it involves three or four one-shot “sit and get” (or “spray and pray”) sessions
spread across the year, each on a different topic than the one before, that are
attended by most or all educators in the organization. A “one size fits all”
model is used, meaning that there is relatively little differentiation between,
say, music teachers and math teachers and industrial arts teachers. Sometimes
schools spice it up a bit and have a buffet day where educators can pick from
multiple choices throughout the day, much like a professional conference.

Rarely is there follow-up. Rarely is there sustained, focused conversation
about a specific learning issue over time. Rarely does educators’ staff
development satisfy any of the three bullet points listed above. In fact,
schools make deliberate structural choices that directly violate the three
bullet points above. The end result, of course, is that most school
organizations’ staff development practices have little to no meaningful impact
on instructional practice and/or student learning outcomes.

This is a shame, because staff development time and monies might possibly be
the most scarce resources in schools. Staff development also is one of the only
mechanisms that schools have for giving employees new skills and turning the
organization in new directions. It’s embarrassing and disappointing that schools
take this precious, limited resource and squander it.

So the question is… Given that we know what effective staff development looks
like, why is most staff development still so bad?

12 Responses to “Why is staff development so bad?”

  1. Doing good staff development takes work. That means that someone, usually an administrator, has to take time away from other things they have to do. Training teachers seldom gets the priority that other things get. Things like keeping the PTA happy, or making sure a fight doesn’t break out after the basketball game, or any of 100 other things.
    Of course teachers need some training for certification if nothing else. So these boring and mostly useless events are set up so everyone can check the right boxes and send in the right paper work for re-certification.
    I find that the best teachers often go outside, often on their own money, to get real training.

  2. We are creatures of habit. We teach the way we were taught. I am happy to report that our new exc. director is not a creature of habit and has started a Professional Learning Community. She has asked me to teach 4 one hour workshops on wikis. The workshops have 2 groups of 12 teachers, so that each teacher will have a wiki with content linked to all the other wikis in the school. It is a start.

  3. Staff development is treated in the same fashion as teaching students in most classrooms. Most teachers don’t complain because they just zone out during these trainings. They use this time as time to not do any work for their profession. It is actually very sad when you hear teachers talk about how they are going to take a personal leave day on the day of staff development. This would not be the case if the administration understood how learning happens. Passion is missing in the education system. It seems as though everyone is just going through the motions, rolling with the punches, picking their battles, and waiting for someone else to fix the problem.

  4. Hi Scott,

    While I am not sure any ONE thing is always best practice, including PLCs, we stay the course because:

    1. It’s how we’ve always done it.
    2. It’s cheap (especially regarding time spent.)
    3. It results in “safe” change if any at all.

    You may as well ask why we still run schools on an agrarian calendar, make all kids spend 13 years in school, or put 25 kids in desks in a square room. See reasons above.


  5. Complicated question Scott. I think the main reason may be the fact that SD sessions are usually one day or even part of a day. They are held because they are required by the state, thus they are “shunned” as another wasted day. Teachers are very hesitant to try something new and thus they wish to stay with what has worked before. (maybe) Topics chosen for staff development are many times unrelated to anything the teachers, or a large group of teachers either can’t or refuse to use. Instead of developing a many faceted SD Day and giving choices as to where faculty can go, we tend to “forcefeed” things that are boring and as I said above, of no, or very little use.

    Something that has always sort of amused me is the hiring of “experts” to do SD training instead of using district staff members to share what they do effectively. Most districts have many innovative educators who would really enjoy sharing what they do well and assisting, in small groups, their friends and fellow teachers to do something different. Here’s an example, our local district has an art teacher who is very talented with technology, especially Photoshop and all its add-ons. Why not use him to train those who might be interested in using it.

    My point is to ask him/her to share with a group of peers what works well for them. I’ve rambled enough, there are more reasons/suggestions to be shared. I also agree with Doug Johnson’s post above. He has broken it down very well too.

  6. Scott.

    I think your comment about the lack of follow-up is important. We’ve all been to conferences and workshops where, if we’re lucky, we leave with a handout. There is nothing to take with us other than some notes we may have jotted down.

    I gave a workshop recently and used a wiki. I gave the participants a hand out with some information, but it also included links to that wiki (which I continue to add to) and other online resources.

    We need to be giving them something to continue to access if we expect them to use what we’ve talked about. This could be via a wiki, a discussion board, or other such tools.

    True, many won’t ever use these, but we should provide the opportunity to those who want to.

  7. I deliver professional development and have been a professor for about ten years. I concur with many points but there are some critical issues;
    1. “One-shot” training isn’t very effective as people usually return to old habits pretty quickly.
    2. It would be great for districts to use people from within but they can’t be paid from their own budgets normally because of nepotism. Bringing people in that read and study and observe in specific areas is important.
    3. The building of relationships is essential. I ALWAYS tell schools that it is worth their money to extend beyond professional development and get assistance with implementation. This doesn’t matter if it is a skill implementation or knowledge/paradigmatic shift. People need help.

    The one area that has frustrated me as a consultant is that there is little to no funding to provide executive coaching services to principals. If a principal needs help, they often can’t speak up or they are admitting weakness. Education seems to be filled with many odd nuances where people that ask for help moreoften get suspicious eyes following them rather than support.

    The most successful trainings I have done model good teaching…provide basic information and have the participants do the work. I can facilitate and lead discussions and the work is generated internally.

  8. Change is uncomfortable.

    That’s it.

    We don’t live in a sustained, on-going environment.

    We break it, we buy another. We don’t like it, we return it. When bored, we upgrade our cable package for $9.99 more a month.

    We Tivo. We DVR. We consume and delete.

    Why should we expect our PD to look any different?

  9. Why? Easy. Teachers are not valued and are consulted less and less often about anything having to do with education. Hired for their professional credentials, expertise and experience, they are entirely discounted when the time comes to make decisions about policy and any practice beyond the classroom doorway into the wider educational world.

    It’s like the classic Monty Python skit where the idiotically insular hospital administrator barges into an operating room where a woman is about to give birth and begins to discourse, to the appreciative and simpering applause of the medical staff–the people who actually do the work of medicine–on accounting and hospital management. Ultimately, the mother to be asks of the doctors: “But what do I do?” They reply: “Nothing. You’re not qualified.” And so it is with teachers these days.

    Teachers have nothing worthy of consideration to contribute, hence to many administrators, putting a number of them in a room together to share and learn is foolish and counterproductive and won’t look good on the paperwork they must generate to justify the unjustifiable: their jobs (the Underundersuperintendent to the Assistant of the Assistant Vice Superintendent for Advanced Curriculum Manipulation and Obfuscation). Thus we end up with expensive “consultants,” who are almost uniformly inordinantly fond of butcher paper and stick on notes, whose education experience consisted entirely of teaching 3rd grade, and whose primary strength as an educator consists of an uncanny ability to rapidly cause teachers to seriously contemplate suicide as a quick means of ending the agony.

    What? Cynical? Me? Realistic.

  10. Just found your blog, some interesting stuff. There is a small sign of hope in our district, in that our building pds (as opposed to the district-wide ones) are in fact choice-based and run by teachers picked to do workshops on x or y. There’s one next Monday that people are at least not moaning about.

    Still, enough of the stuff that we do seems so tacked on and irrelevant, and people are so unwilling to change, that most PD just inspires a ton of whining and “why can’t it just be a work day?”

    It’s really frustrating. Our district has all these great goals and spouts all the right words about what they’re trying to be, and yet the reality is the same-old same-old because of the top-down, paperwork-oriented way they try to implement change.

  11. Scott — you definitely raise some interesting and valid points. In recent years I have moved towards a theme based professional development approach. It used to be that I would design a workshop around a tool — “Come and learn Power Point”. Today it is about the concept and then I plug in the tools along the way — “Come for a 3-part series to turn your classroom into a Global Production Zone.”

    One of the most innovative models of staff development I have come across in years is the Learning at Night series, developed by a fearless group of educators out of the North Vancouver School District.

    Here is a link to a video documenting their unique process of bringing teachers together for “LAN Parties”.


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