A middle path for professional development

The most critical element to the success of any school or organization is its human capital – the talent, knowledge and skills of its leaders and staff.  Schools and organizations – and the professionals within these organizations— often follow one of two types of training to maximize talent, expand knowledge, and strengthen skills.  These two types of training are in many ways polar opposites – one is short-term and low cost; the other longer term and higher cost.  Unfortunately, both approaches share one key factor in common: too often they fall short of improving staff performance, and ultimately, organizational performance. describe the image

On the one hand, schools and organizations spend significant resources every year on a range of traditional short-term professional development activities—workshops, conferences, consultants, and contracted coaching.  For example, it is not uncommon for a large school district to spends anywhere from $30-$50 million annually on professional development and professional support services. Yet while large-scale investments in these types of approaches can reach large numbers of employees, they frequently yield marginal results. These approaches lack the rigor, intensity, and continuous support to improve practice. Thus, schools and service organizations still struggle to improve performance outcomes or sustain initial gains over time.

On the other hand, many leaders and staff pursue more in-depth training by enrolling in college continuing education courses or certification programs, often with tuition assistance from their employer. While this more intensive training frequently results in greater content knowledge and skill development, it comes at higher cost, both in terms of money and time.  Many professionals are challenged balancing work, family and college-level coursework. For example, the College Board reports that just 34% of full-time certificate-seeking students at two-year colleges graduate in four years or less.

Both types of professional development are also undermined by another key factor: they are process -based, rather than outcome -based. Too often the goals and impact of professional development begins and ends with covering a range of content, completing a requisite number of hours, assignments and assessments, or receiving a credential. There is little focus on whether training improves actual work-place practice, and even less on how training impacts the participant’s student or client outcomes. For example, a school might send a team of teachers to a two-day institute to learn a new math curriculum. However, upon training completion, the school has no plan in place to assess the new curriculum’s impact on instructional events in classrooms and student performance in math. In other words, attending and completing the training was enough.

A Middle Path

If these two professional development approaches often fall short, what then is the alternative?   The answer lies somewhere between these two approaches – a middle path. In other words, not all professional development should take place over a one or three day workshop or several semesters, as with a certificate program.  More professional development should be designed based on what it will take a participant to successfully demonstrate new knowledge and skills, rather than on the amount of material to be covered, the hours and work to be completed, or the type of credential to be awarded. For instance, this type of training might include several rigorous sessions completed over two-three months.

Further, this middle path would include the following components:

  • Learning cycles.  Training should allow for a cyclical learning process that includes: (1) introduction to new knowledge/skills, (2) application of this knowledge /these skills, and; (3) clear evidence of mastery of this knowledge /skills.
  • Learning both outside of and within context. Training should include both time to learn content (e.g. literacy development and assessment theory research)  outside of the demands of one’s job (this could be through online or through face-to-face lessons), and time for applied learning in the work-place (e.g. conducting literacy assessments, analyzing results and developing individual student literacy plans)
  • A focus on outcomes. The end result of training should be mastery of knowledge and skills that improve work-place practice and outcomes. Thus, professional development should seek authentic ways for participants to demonstrate that they are applying what they learn, and that this is changing their practice. Technology—videos, online assessment tools, etc., increasingly allow for this type of documentation.

There have been several recent, encouraging shifts towards this middle path – see competency-based training, badge programs, etc.  What we call this training is not important. What maters is that more of it is accessible and of high quality, and that schools and organizations understand is value in addition to other professional development approaches.

Jake Murray has served as the director of Aspire since February 2009. Prior to joining Aspire, he served for four years as a child and youth planner for the City of Cambridge, overseeing strategic planning, quality improvement, and program development for early education, out-of-school-time, and youth development services. He also served for five years as a director of community partnerships for the Harvard Children’s Initiative, leading a range of collaborative efforts to improve education outcomes in Boston and Cambridge. His research interests include professional learning models, new teacher development, and school-community partnerships.


great thoughts, and the “middle path” concept is profoundly applicable to the direction in which the education of our children needs to move! the place for learning cycles in the classroom is obvious and we’re all familiar with the focus on outcomes for schoolchildren (though i believe the current iteration of this focus to be perverse on many levels), but the idea of learning within and outside of context is one that’s traditionally underutilized in primary and secondary education. perhaps if we pushed kids to think about real life application of skills and concepts—not only when it comes to very specific and tangible examples like how to calculate the tip at a restaurant, but also when it comes being a productive member of our society rather than perceiving education as a means to pass tests and receive pieces of paper that prove that you passed those tests—they’d be better prepared for success and productivity in their professional lives!

Posted @ Tuesday, January 08, 2013 1:06 PM by dana fitchett