The Emerging Role of Professional Development in Education Reform

By Richard W. Riley
Secretary of Education

We are at the beginning of a series of remarkable changes that will transform American education. The nation has its first set of National Education Goals which establish our expectations for the performance of the nation's schools. Soon, we will have voluntary national standards for what students should know and be able to do in all of the core subjects. These standards can serve as models for states as they develop their content and performance standards. And finally, there is a revolution underway in our thinking about the nature and use of assessments. States are developing exciting new kinds of "performance" or "portfolio" assessments that provide us with richer understandings of students' knowledge of their subjects and their ability to reason.1

While setting high standards and developing assessments aligned with those standards are key parts of systemic reform, by themselves they are not sufficient to transform American education nor dramatically improve the academic performance of our students. Students need opportunities for learning in order to reach these challenging standards and teachers are the primary creators of those opportunities. However, what it takes to create such learning opportunities is changing. New challenging standards, like those of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, make new demands on teachers. In mathematics, they require teachers to have a better understanding of the nature of mathematics, as well as how to teach mathematics so students can solve complex problems, communicate in mathematical terms, and reason mathematically.2

The development of national and state standards will have significant and long-term implications for the professional development of teachers. Providing students with opportunities for high-quality instruction will require us tobegin to view professional development as a necessity and not merely an add-on, and as an integral part of the daily work of teachers rather an occasional break from classroom instruction.

Changing opportunities for professional development

Emerging standards create a need for professional development, but they also create a unique opportunity. Standards provide a policy focus for professional development. Too frequently, professional development activities have been "one shot," offer limited follow-up, and are isolated from school and district goals. This has been true of many federally funded professional development activities as well. Most of the professional development supported by United States Department of Education program funds particularly under the current Chapter 1, Chapter 2 and Eisenhower Math and Science programs has been relatively brief, not part of a comprehensive plan, and not sustained. 3

Brief professional development programs, such as half-day or one-day workshops, are helpful for informing people about reforms, but they are unlikely to significantly change classroom practice. Among Chapter 1 teachers, who on average participate in professional development more often than regular classroom teachers, only one-third receive more than four days of staff development a year. And Chapter 1 teachers' aides receive even less.4 There also has been little coordination among professional development activities. For example, professional development for early elementary grade teachers is often separate from that of their preschool counterparts, including Head Start teachers. Both research and current successful programs, however, have demonstrated the value of sustained and intensive high-quality professional development that is based on new models of teaching and learning, tied to high content standards, and located within professional communities of teachers.5 A study of Eisenhower-supported teacher training found that funds were more likely to be well spent in school districts with well-focused agendas for improvement.6

The Department is trying to encourage professional development that is sustained, intensive and high-quality and will lead to changes in classroom instruction and student learning. Professional development for teachers and other school staff will need to be ongoing from recruitment to retirement. It must focus on increasing educators' knowledge of their subjects and pedagogical skills specific to these subjects, as well as on general pedagogical skills. Such professional development should have a strong research base and be an integral part of improving the school.

Professional development for school administrators should focus on increasing their ability to recognize and foster excellent teaching and learning. School administrators need to understand the integral role of professional development in the operation of the school and how to organize the school day to provide staff with opportunities for ongoing professional development.

A new partnership

To encourage sustained, intensive high-quality professional development will require a new partnership of the federal government with states, universities, local school districts and schools. Such a partnership based on cooperation is central to the Administration's education agenda. It recognizes that education is and always has been primarily a state responsibility. It also recognizes, however, that the federal government can and should have a leadership role in promoting reform throughout the nation.

The Administration's first education bill, the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, establishes a framework for this new partnership. The bill sets into law the six National Education Goals, promotes the development of voluntary national standards of what students should know and be able to do, and establishes a council to review and certify these standards. The heart of the bill, however, is to provide resources to help states and local school districts to involve public school officials, teachers, parents, students and businesses in designing and reforming schools. Through an extensive consultation process states will develop systemic reform plans, to guide state and local efforts. They also will establish challenging state standards of what students should know and be able to do in the core academic subjects and to develop assessments aligned with those standards.

Goals 2000 provides a framework for the new partnership as well as for other federal legislation. The Improving America's Schools Act of 1993 is the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the largest federal investment in elementary and secondary education. The bill is built on the principles that all students can learn to high standards, that students living in high poverty areas need to be taught to the same challenging state standards as other students and that schools should be held accountable for students' progress in meeting these standards.

Professional development plays a prominent role throughout the Improving America's Schools Act, though most notably in the Eisenhower Professional Development Program. This program is a large formula grant program that provides money to state and local education agencies and schools for professional development activities. State activities will be guided by state plans for professional development that will outline a long-term strategy for obtaining and providing the sustained and intensive high-quality professional development required to improve teaching and learning. In these plans, states will identify their professional development needs; outline a strategy for using technical assistance to address those needs; describe how the state will work with local districts, schools, and colleges/universities to ensure that high-quality support is provided in the core subjects; and monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of professional development activities.

States will also be required to include in their plans a description of how the activities funded by the Eisenhower Professional Development Program will be coordinated with other professional development activities; including professional development activities sponsored by Title I and by other federal and state programs. University-school partnerships have a critical role to play in providing professional development activities that will improve classroom instruction and learning. Many of these partnerships provide high quality and sustained professional development to teams of teachers in schools and support the development of professional communities within and across schools.

States may use Eisenhower funds to implement their professional development plans, which may include revising licensing requirements for teachers, other school staff, and administrators to align them with challenging state content and performance standards, providing financial or other incentives for teachers to become certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and developing or supporting professional development networks of educators.

For the local educational agency, the Eisenhower program will be pivotal for professional development. Districts will submit professional development plans that reflect the needs of local schools to states and describe a strategy, tied to state content and performance standards, for addressing those needs. Of the funds received by districts, up to 20 percent will be spent on districtwide professional development activities, with at least 80 percent spent on professional development of teachers and other staff at individual schools in a manner determined by the teachers and staff and consistent with the LEA's plan.

The Improving America's Schools Act focuses professional development for teachers and administrators on providing students with the opportunities to meet state performance standards. It also asks states to develop a knowledge driven professional development system that is aligned with challenging state content and performance standards and develop procedures that rely on assessment and peer review to complement or replace existing credit-based certification requirements.

There is increasing recognition of the need for professional development and a better understanding that professional development needs to become an integral part of the daily life of the school. The federal government can play a constructive role in promoting professional development by establishing a new partnership with states and locals. Such a partnership based on cooperation needs to recognize the key roles all levels of government have to play in reforming American education. The Goals 2000: Educate America Act and the Improving America's Schools Act of 1993 are attempts to redefine this partnership and to provide support to states and locals as they go about the hard work of transforming America's schools.


1. S.H. Fuhrman and B. Malen, eds., The Politics of Curriculum and Testing (New York: The Falmer Press, 1991).

2. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics, (Reston, Va: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1989).

3. For example, a study of training supported by the Title II/Eisenhower program found that the median amount of training teachers received over a one year period was six hours. M. Knapp, A. Zucker, N. Adelman, M. St. John, The Eisenhower Mathematics and Science Education Program: An Enabling Resource for Reform (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 1991).

4. M.A. Millsap, et al., Chapter 1 in Public Schools (Cambridge, MA: Abt Associates, 1993).

5. D.K. Cohen, M.W. McLaughlin, and J.E. Talbert, Teaching for Understanding: Challenges for Policy and Practice (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1993).

6. M. Knapp, A. Zucker, N. Adelman, M. St. John, The Eisenhower Mathematics and Science Education Program: An Enabling Resource for Reform, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 1991).

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