Secretary Duncan exchanged ideas about professional development with six teachers from the VIVA Project’s National Task Force, who visited the Department of Education on Dec. 17 to present their recently released report, “Voices from the Classroom.” The report is the culmination of work done by more than 150 teachers from 27 states who worked together online. In her opening remarks, VIVA CEO Elizabeth Evans acknowledged to Arne, “The roots of this project are in the work that you are doing to bring teachers in,” including recent discussions that Duncan held with teachers from the Center for Teaching Quality and Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching awardees.
In their time with Arne Duncan and staff from the Department’s policy and communications offices, the teachers were interested in discussing ways to improve the professional development that teachers receive. Freeda Pirillis, who teaches first grade in Chicago, raised the issue of pre-service training, noting the disparity between what teachers know coming out of education programs and what they need to be able to do in the classroom. She argued for “a more rigorous process” of teacher training and more in-depth clinical experience so that teachers will have “the tools that they need.” The group also stressed the need for schools of education to raise standards for admission and even suggested that states consider adopting a national curriculum for teacher training. And they asked for schools to build in more time for planning and ongoing training to help teachers do their jobs better.
Arne shared that while the federal government spends about $3 billion to support professional development each year, “the bang we are getting for our buck is a disaster.” Michigan teacher Lesley Hagelgans suggested that much more effort should be spent on teacher evaluation. Specifically, she urged drawing from a variety of measures of effectiveness and using evaluation data to direct very specific professional development. Blake Unger Dvorchik, who teaches math at Bronx Mathematics Preparatory School (NY), cited a Gates Foundation study that targeted professional development to the specific needs of teachers and argued that more schools need to follow suit. (See Dvorchik’s guest blog post on his method for teaching students to monitor their own progress.)
One highlight of the session was when participants reflected on how much they gained from the process of working on the VIVA Project’s “Idea Mine.” They said they found the experience of collaborating online with other teachers empowering because instead of simply complaining about problems, they were working together to propose real solutions. Teacher and VIVA board member Jill Bass explained that it is important for teachers to work with one another to improve the profession. “Schools (have) become the place of cynicism where it’s not okay to be idealistic.”
Others spoke about the power of having someone with authority asking for their input. “It was knowing that someone was going to listen to what we had to say,” Pittsburgh teacher Nicky Kenline Lewis said, that made their work together “inspirational . . . I haven’t been motivated like this in a really long time.”
Laurie Calvert is a Washington Teacher Ambassador Fellow who teaches English outside of Asheville, N.C.