In donor-funded TPD, the focus is arithmetical, not educational. The most important indicator is “numbers of teachers trained.” This is an input, but we treat it as an output and we worship it as a measure of success, conflating numbers with impact.
This fetishism elevates quantity over quality and drives the use of training mechanisms (like the cascade approach) that we know don’t work but that help us reach that most sacred of metrics—“numbers of teachers trained.”
Idolatry of numbers is the foundational sin of donor-funded TPD, accompanied by its own iconographic language and incantations (“scale,” “reach,” “sustainability”). It is also deterministic—driving the transgressions below.
In many areas of life, less is more. But when it comes to teacher professional development, less is less and more is more. Experimental studies show that more—not less—professional development yields better student learning outcomes (Wei et al. 2009; Yoon, et al. 2007).
More time for TPD allows teachers to do more. For example, sustained TPD can accommodate in-depth study of particular areas of practice, help teachers grasp the many threshold concepts of good teaching, and provide time for lesson design, practice, ongoing support and repeated interaction with new content and approaches (Darling Hammond & Bransford, 2005).
Many programs often try to “fix” poor teaching by focusing solely on one actor on the educational stage—the teacher. Yet poor teaching is not just a cause of low quality education systems; it is also a symptom.
This exclusive focus on teachers results in a dangerous reductionism causing us to ignore the many educational actors who influence teaching—principals or local education authorities. It results in misdiagnosing the root causes of poor educational achievement (for example, characterizing teacher-centered practice as an instructional issue when it may actually be a curricular or assessment one) and prescribing incorrect remedies to correct these maladies (for example, promoting learner-centered instruction when curriculum reform is what is needed.)
By over-prescribing teacher training at the expense of larger ecosystem-related issues like leadership, organizational culture or working conditions, TPD becomes a panacea for all that ails a system. This is despite the fact that research suggests that addressing non-instructional issues may have a greater impact on improving teaching quality than innovations focused exclusively on teachers and teaching (Hanushek & Woessman, 2007).
While many education programs focus on training as many teachers as possible, the vehicle for doing so—TPD—is often conceptualized, designed and implemented without consulting the intended end user—the teacher.
By excluding the teacher’s voice we risk imposing one-size-fits-all interventions that do little to address the array of diverse challenges teachers face and that fail to incorporate teachers’ own knowledge and successful practices. This is TPD that is done to teachers rather than with them. As such, it is often ill fitting, ineffective—and resented.
A lot of professional development epitomizes the soft prejudice of low expectations. Teachers are tabulae rasae—“blanks to be filled in” (Highsmith, 1952), problems to be fixed.
If we think little of teachers, we demand little, we give little, and we receive even less in return. This teacher-as-deficit model of TPD leads us to avoid addressing areas teachers find difficult and that could have real impact—because many of us believe that teachers aren’t up for it. The over simplification of concepts that are genuinely complex strips the rigor from much professional development and reduces interventions to clichéd language and thinking. And when teachers struggle, are confused, or fail to implement what they have learned, we take this as further evidence of their lack of ability, rather than a natural part of the learning process itself—or as a failure on our part.
Concomitant with the sin of denigration is that of hubris. If teachers are problems to be fixed, then TPD providers are the fixers of those problems—though many have never been teachers, or taught so long ago that we forget what classrooms are like, or have never taught in that teacher’s context (I’m holding up my hand at the last two).
Teacher educators who lack experience focus on information versus experiences; they cannot deeply model intended behaviors; they can’t problem solve what they’ve never experienced. They lack empathy—the capacity to "imaginatively place oneself in the in the situation of others who have had dramatically different experiences” (Paul, 2014).
Above all, hubris can produce three harmful outcomes. First is the educational version of “iatrogenic harm”—the practitioner making the patient sick, or in this case, TPD providers furnishing misinformation or modeling poor practice. Second is “pedagogical naïvety” (Miles, 1995)—promoting theoretical approaches that are irrelevant or inappropriate in certain contexts. Finally, it breaches professional trust—teachers should expect that their coach or TPD provider has both experience and expertise.
At the very moment that teachers need the greatest support—the point of transferring learning from the idealized lab of the hotel conference room to the messy reality of the classroom—training and support often end. Teachers need supervisory support, external and peer support, and school-based models so they can, as Deborah Ball notes, have “opportunities to learn about practice in practice.” Of these, supervisory support is most critical. Research from other professions shows that employees who participate in formal trainings and report supportive organizational cultures are far more likely to transfer learning than those who do not enjoy such organizational support (Bennet et al. 1999).
These sins of poor professional development often drive out good professional development. Bad TPD is often time delayed—its deleterious impacts are not immediately felt. As the sins of the father are visited on the son, the sins of poor professional development of the past are visited on teachers and students of the present and future.
Donor-funded teacher professional development offers access to and equity of learning experiences. It also suffers from severe systemic weaknesses—bureaucratization, massification, depersonalization, and over-standardization—that dilute its value for intended beneficiaries.
Yet we can still work toward reformation in three ways. First, by genuine reflection regarding our own performance, beliefs and values, as organizations and individuals, as we commit to improvement. Next, by developing a shared doctrine and epistemology about teaching, teacher learning, quality teacher professional development and change management that guides, humanizes and diversifies the funding, design and implementation of donor-funded teacher professional development.
Finally, we need faith in the teachers with whom we work, devotion to developing the very best professional learning possible, and the same infusion of mission and zeal for teaching teachers that we hold for teaching children.
If every child deserves a great education, then every teacher deserves great professional development. Donors and contractors have a fiduciary obligation to ensure that this is always true. More importantly, they have a moral one.
Darling-Hammond, L. & Bransford, J. (2005). Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
Hanushek, E.A. & Woessman, L. (2007). The role of education quality in economic growth. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 4122. Washington, DC: The World Bank Group.
Highsmith, P. (1952). The Price of Salt. New York, NY: W.W. Norton Company.
Miles, M. (1995). Foreword. In T. R. Guskey and M. Huberman (Eds.), Professional Development in Education: New Paradigms and Practices (pp. vii–ix). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Paul, L. A. (2014). Transformative Experience. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
Yoon, K.S. et al. (2007, October). Reviewing the Evidence on How Teacher Professional Development Affects Student Achievement. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education