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Originally published July 18, 2010 at 4:02 PM | Page modified July 22, 2010 at 8:58 AM

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Guest columnist

Teacher development not a smart cutback in tough times

Congress should invest in professional learning for education, something that has been cut dramatically at schools throughout the country, write guest columnists Patricia Wasley and Stephanie Hirsh.

Special to The Times

BUDGETS across the state and nation are being slashed, forcing education leaders to confront economic shortfalls unseen in recent memory and make do with less.

One area especially hard hit by the cuts is professional development — the process by which we ensure our educators are well equipped to meet constantly evolving demands of helping students succeed. Often overlooked, high-quality professional learning is indispensable in generating the outcomes — like better test scores and higher graduation rates — that should be expected of our schools.

Absent high-quality professional learning and support for professional growth, the ability of teachers to meet new challenges becomes compromised and their practices habitual. This makes it more difficult to achieve higher outcomes and is not what we want for our teachers or students.

Unfortunately, under the recently adopted Washington state budget, the Legislature appears to have ignored this fact by eliminating all state funding for professional learning. Local districts will have to scale back or eliminate entirely their professional-learning budgets, actions that will harm the quality of teaching and learning.

We as educators share some responsibility for these actions.

For too long, professional development has been treated as something that takes place at the occasional workshop, in-service day or conference a handful of times a year. Under this model, schools are closed, substitutes are hired and results are rarely determined or reported. This model is not as effective as it should be.

Fortunately, a more cost-effective and proven approach to professional learning is being deployed in a number of schools. This approach leverages knowledge that higher-quality teaching depends on teachers having access to real-time data on their student's performance and being engaged with their colleagues in cycles of continuous improvement.

Modeled on quality improvement theory and the best practices of the world's top-performing school districts, this approach seeks to infuse professional learning into every school day. The content is grounded in research, addresses the latest student performance data, is customized to meet specific school and classroom-level challenges, and is shared in a team setting.

For example, in Seattle, specially prepared teacher leaders help their peers implement the new district math curriculum. To improve student performance in science, the district uses up-to-date performance data to identify specific learning needs at every school and provides corresponding team-based professional learning and coaching to address particular areas in need of improvement.

In Federal Way, the district supports a school-based coaching model that leverages the expertise of peer teachers. And the White River School District in Buckley operates a professional-learning-community initiative that is seen as a model program by other districts.

As Bill Gates recently noted before the American Federation of Teachers, the heart of our education challenge lies with providing great professional development and in helping every teacher do better.

The districts noted above are proving teacher-focused and customized professional learning is doable and is achieving results. But professional learning must rise above the state and district and be seen as a national priority.

As Congress works to rewrite education laws that will govern our schools for the next decade and beyond, lawmakers in Washington must ensure federal education policy provides incentives for high-quality, continuous professional learning.

Ultimately, Congress must revise the federal definition of professional learning so it focuses on student performance, is grounded in research and occurs on a regular basis to achieve continuous improvement in classroom instruction.

Better schools and improved student performance are impossible without high-quality and well supported teachers.

Patricia Wasley is dean and professor of Education, Leadership & Policy Studies at the University of Washington College of Education. Stephanie Hirsh is executive director of the National Staff Development Council.

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