Potential students are often warned about education scams, especially when they look to online postsecondary schools. For example, students may find a college and program that sounds too good to be true, one that offers a quick degree, promises of financial aid, and flexible, convenient hours. Then the student ends up overpaying for an education from an unaccredited institution that in reality, turns out to be an education scam.
Although most schools and programs are accredited, the rapid advance of technology and the war on education has exacerbated a similar situation in a new area. As an increasing number of non-academic entities enter the market with promises of providing high quality educator training, is professional development (PD) becoming the new education scam? How can educators protect themselves from potential scams?
A review of the need for and benefit of professional development, along with an overview of the current state of the business should provide some insights.
The Road to PD Is Paved with Good Intentions
One of the main benefits and perhaps drawbacks of the concept of ‘professional development’ is the definition of the term itself. Education Week defined it as: “ongoing learning opportunities available to teachers and other education personnel” and added that, “effective professional development is often seen as vital to school success and teacher satisfaction” (29 June, 2011). Such a description has also been typical of the secondary and postsecondary institutions where I have been employed over the last 25 years.
The benefit is that there are no rigid parameters around what constitutes professional development. As long as educators can make a reasonable connection between an activity and their job duties, it is often accepted for PD credit. For example, all of the following are typical examples of what is approved:
• Attendance at meetings
• Participation in workshops
• Training sessions
• Courses at the undergraduate and/or graduate levels
• Certification programs
• Engagement in informal professional groups (e.g., online discussions via social media)
• Writing (academic and creative)
• Other activities with supervisor or institutional approval
Such a broad definition allows educators the leeway to learn more about what may make them better at their respective positions. For example, although technology is not strictly a part of my own studies within the humanities, I have benefitted from PD opportunities that allowed me to learn more about software for possible use in my courses.
The overarching criteria for PD, according to Education Week, is that it “ relies on a two-part transfer of knowledge: It must inculcate in teachers new knowledge and skills such that they change their behavior, and those changes must subsequently result in improved student mastery of subject matter” (29 June, 2011).
A couple of additional observations are worthy of note:
• PD is not intended to imply that educators are incompetent. Education, like many professional fields, exists within an ever-changing context. Consider the rapid growth of technology and that educators deal with a new, often diverse mix of students at every term, semester, or academic year start. The same approaches will not work all the time, year after year.
• PD has traditionally taken the form of internal workshops within which an institution provides an expert who then seeks to impart new knowledge or skills to the audience. In fact, a National Staff Development Council (NSDC) report showed that 90% of teachers participated in PD workshops compared with other activities, such as university courses (36%) and observational visits to other teachers’ classes (22%) (Darling-Hammond, L. et al., “Professional Learning in the Learning Profession: A Status Report on Teacher Development in the United States and Abroad,” 29 February, 2012).
The downside to all of the above is that often the internal workshops within this broad definition turn out to be non-educators who have no clue what it means to teach a group of students or to perform the duties of an education staff or administration. Furthermore, these three groups are usually placed in the same PD workshop, and institutions tend to confuse PD with job training. For instance, I remember one excruciatingly painful “PD” workshop in which a secretary spent two hours demonstrating how to fill in a travel request form. In fact, less than half of teachers in the NSDC study found PD workshops offered internally to be of any value because they offer little, if any, time to devote to collaboration and sharing of best practices (Darling-Hammond, L. et al., “Professional Learning in the Learning Profession: A Status Report on Teacher Development in the United States and Abroad,” 29 February, 2012).
The Business Side of PD
Education Week contributor Liana Heiton recently summarized the growing potential for PD abuse (“What Works in PD? Even Experts, Feds Aren’t Sure,” 1 June, 2012). In her article, Heiton mentions the following facts:
• The U.S. Department of Education provides over one billion dollars annually for teacher training.
• There is almost no reliable research on the companies that provide the training or the effectiveness of the PD activities offered.
• New York schools spent over $100 million on PD, and principals were left to choose between more than 900 private vendors. (1 June, 2012).
The educators in Heiton’s piece seem to agree with educators in the NSDC report cited above that PD workshops by external presenters from outside of academia are largely useless and that the expense is mostly unnecessary. What is really needed is time for educators within the same fields or areas to collaborate and learn from one another. What is often missed is that if given the time and opportunity, most educators would leap at the chance to get together with colleagues to collaborate on improving professionally and serving their students better.
As it is, funneling PD funds in excess of $1 billion annually to 900+ vendors that have not been able to demonstrate improvement in instruction or student success over the course of decades qualifies as an education scam.
Educators do have some control over their own PD, so the following general tips may be helpful:
• Exercise what influence you may have over in-house PD to make events as valuable as possible. Suggest outstanding educators to lead these, offer ideas for collaborating with colleagues, and other such activities that may be more beneficial.
• Pursue PD activities with professional organizations within your own field and/or academic institutions.
• Advocate for a responsible application of PD funds internally and with larger entities that provide the funding (e.g., the U.S. Department of Education).
• Get involved with studying educator PD and its effects on student success.
Overall, it’s time for educators to take control of the time, energy, and funds devoted to our own professional development to avoid potential scams and to serve our students better.
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