The two most dreaded letters in the teaching profession: PD.

Professional Development.

On this matter, I give you a Passionate Diatribe.

Part I: PD 

The structure and execution of PD in Baltimore City Schools is Positively Disgusting. So bad, in fact, it would seem Purposely Deleterious. Yet, I think the true Problem Derives from either a lack of imagination or Profound Distrust of educators.

On a typical day of Professional Denigration, teachers will trek across the city to a Predetermined Destination, where they will sit for anywhere between 4-7 hours watching Perfunctory Demonstrations of mediocre teaching strategies. On one Particular Day of Public Disparagement, I sat through an hour long read-aloud of a 3rd grade level text (I teach 7th grade Social Studies). First of all, that’s just Poor Didactics – modeling a read aloud should never take more than 10 minutes or so… because the students should be Participating, Duh! Second of all, Please Don’t insult our intelligence by using low level texts in a Pedagogical Demonstration. In fact, teachers might better understand the frustration of struggling readers if they had to Patiently Dissect a Painfully Difficult text – perhaps something from the New England Journal of Medicine? When I left the session, I felt not Professionally Developed, but rather, Powerless/Demoralized.

Under the Teaching strand of the new BCPS Instructional Framework and Rubric, teachers are evaluated on their ability to facilitate Peer Discussion (student-to-student academic talk), yet teachers are forced to be Passive Diminutives in their own Professional Development. Why not encourage Public Discourse and allow teachers to share their own experiences and best practices?

We’re instructed to Practice Differentiation, personalizing instruction to meet the unique needs of every learner, yet the district insists upon using precisely the one-size-fits-all approach that it Publicly Disparages when it comes to educating its teachers. I’m mandated to attend sessions that are Presumptuously Decided upon to meet my needs or Possible Deficits, but it always turns out to be another Pointless Day.

In another case of Pure Dysfunction, I was made to sit through the exact same PowerPoint presentation in a Preemptive Discussion of the Common Core Standards (effective 2014) on THREE separate occasions. On the third occasion, I Publicly Disgraced myself by crying – softly, at first, tears dripping into my lap, then choking, heaving sobs. It was a Petulant Display of my frustration, and not my Proudest Day, but the Patent Disregard for our time is infuriating.

Part II: A Little Autonomy Goes a Long Way

Wasn’t that obnoxious? Having all that ill-fitting, gratuitous PD thrust upon you?

Enough of that.

The nature and structure of Professional Development in Baltimore City is a symptom of larger problems in the district that stem from trying to micromanage teachers. Wendy Kopp spoke to this point in her piece in The Atlantic last week, “How Micromanaging Educators Stifles Reform,” which confirms that this problem is not restricted to Baltimore City. Kopp advocates for increasing autonomy for educators in the classroom, based on the example of several successful schools in New Orleans, but increasing autonomy for educators could also be the key to improving professional development.

The majority opinion of news editorials will lead you to believe that the fate of the American public education system rests on our ability to attract and retain smart, innovative educators. If that sentiment is true, school districts will need to transform their operating models to make teaching more attractive to smart, innovative people. Schools and districts cannot hope to retain intelligent, creative people in a system that not only fails to recognize or appreciate these qualities, but stifles them. Smart, innovative people will never be satisfied in a top-down system that treats its employees like drones.

How do schools and districts create an environment that is conducive to innovation? This starts with transferring classroom level decisions to the classroom. With the adoption of Common Core Standards, which are broader in content and fewer in number, teachers can design curriculum tailored to the needs and interests of their students – if they’re permitted to do so. Let’s scratch the Draconian checklists and one-size fits all curriculum.

Let’s motivate teachers to develop creative curriculum by recognizing and rewarding the most transformative curricular units of study. Let’s offer Innovation Grants to support teachers with the time and money they need to experiment in their classrooms. Let’s encourage learning from failure. Let’s sponsor semi-annual Hack Daysto empower teachers to develop their own tools for instruction and learning. Let’s eliminate Internet filters and encourage teachers to leverage social media. Let’s allow teachers to direct their own professional development.

Part III: The PD Market

What if Professional Development was not only useful, but also offered the potential for monetary gain?

What if we create a PD Market in which teachers are both the producers and consumers of the professional development experience and supply and demand direct the market?

Let’s imagine that Baltimore City Schools slashed its entire PD structure and replaced it with a PD market. In this market, all funds previously allocated to the top-down provision and management of Professional Development would be reallocated directly to teachers in a lump sum of, say, $1000 at the beginning of the school year with the sole guideline of using the funds for 40 hours of PD during the school year. Any teacher in the system may become a Professional Development Supplier to gain monetary benefits for his or her personal expertise.

Let’s say Mrs. Smith has become an expert at leveraging Social Media to improve her instruction through increased access to resources. Mrs. Smith decides to enter the PD Market as a Supplier and offers a two hour course on Leveraging Social Media for $50. Any other teacher in the system may register for Mrs. Smith’s course and pay for it using the money in the PD Account. Mrs. Smith will keep 80 percent of the money and 20 percent will go to the district.  If 50 people register for Mrs. Smith’s course, she will earn $2000 that weekend and $500 will go to the district for operating costs.

After the course, every attendee will evaluate their experience.  If every educator found Mrs. Smith’s course profoundly useful to his or her professional development, Mrs. Smith will probably receive many glowing 5-star reviews. Other educators will be intrigued by the reviews and want to take Mrs. Smith’s course in the future. Conversely, if everybody finds Mrs. Smith’s course a waste of their Saturday, she will earn negative reviews. If she does decide to offer it again in the future, it’s unlikely that people will register for it, diminishing the returns on Mrs. Smith’s time investment. After a few rounds in the PD Market, excellent courses will gain popularity and terrible courses will cease to exist.

I suggested this PD Market idea to a friend and his response was highly negative. People will game the system, he said. Let me return to my point about distrusting educators. Why do we assume that teachers’ natural impulse will be to abuse the system? Furthermore, I seem to recall a few brazen bankers abusing the housing market recently, and nobody put the kibosh on that.

If we create a system that simultaneously provides personalized, relevant development and rewards teachers for their expertise, industry, and innovation, teachers might stop trying to avoid PD and may actually become excited about opportunities for growth. In my experience, teachers only dread and avoid development experiences because they are a complete waste of their time.  Conversely, teachers will readily shell out hundreds of dollars to attend education conferences like EduCon, ISTE, and EdCamps all around the country because they value the professional experience.  These conferences are useful primarily because they are led by expert educators and attendees can navigate their own development by choosing seminars that are interesting and relevant to them.

Let’s recruit smart, creative people to be teachers. And then let’s keep them.