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Professional Opinion

Schools must get smarter about teacher PD

Rigorous professional development can close, and possibly prevent, learning gaps
Tracy Epp is the executive vice president and chief operating officer at the National Math and Science Initiative.
Tracy Epp is the executive vice president and chief operating officer at the National Math and Science Initiative.

A teacher’s time is precious—I can attest to that as a former teacher and school principal. School years are jam-packed with teaching, planning, data analysis, testing, and supporting students as they meet their learning goals.

Throughout, teachers make time to hone their skills and to stay current in their subject areas through observation, feedback and practice. And yet, despite billions of federal and local dollars spent every year on PD, far too many teachers say the experience does little to help them support their students. From the classroom to the district level, teachers want more from their PD.

They want, and deserve, professional development experiences that challenge them and translate directly to the classroom in meaningful ways. Fortunately, the education community has come a long way in its understanding of valuable PD. Teachers must have the opportunity and support to connect with worthwhile programs. Anything else is a lose-lose.

Linking content and instruction

The most effective programs provide content-rich instruction for teachers across all grades and subjects. Too often we try to solve complex college-and-career-readiness challenges in high school—the tail-end of a student’s K12 academic career. By providing teachers in elementary and middle school with rigorous PD, we can close, and possibly prevent, learning gaps.

Additionally, effective PD understands that content and instruction are inextricably linked. This cannot be overstated. If we expect teachers to meet the challenges of college and career-ready standards, and to deepen student understanding of key concepts, PD must include “what” and “how” to teach.

This dual emphasis, particularly in math and science, is especially important for early-elementary teachers, who face the tall order of mastering content across almost every subject.

Teachers in middle and high school must strengthen their knowledge and skills to meet another equally important set of challenges—they must dive deep into specific subjects. Yet nationally, only 30 percent of eighth-graders are taught by math teachers with undergraduate degrees in the field.

Engaging activities

The National Math and Science Initiative’s Laying the Foundation program spans three years for participating schools, so teachers can build on their learning from the prior year. Teachers must understand how students experience lessons and they must practice applying what they have learned. They must be allowed to embrace the hands-on nature of the work.

As Laying the Foundation teachers practice new skills, they also receive feedback from the master teachers leading the session. This mentorship—with opportunities for real-time improvement—provides the evidence of learning that is too often missing from professional development.

Laying the Foundation teachers also practiced instructional strategies that have the potential to excite and engage students. For example, some teachers used lab instruments and soda cans filled with water to measure heat transfer. Calculus teachers used Wikki Stix and yarn to plot slope fields. Algebra teachers used Barbie dolls and rubber bands to evaluate linear functions.

These are just a few examples of effective and rigorous lessons that teachers are now taking to their classrooms.

Fund effective programs

If our nation’s students are to develop the knowledge and skills to succeed in college and career, they need to learn from teachers who receive deep content knowledge and ongoing support beginning in elementary school.

Teachers can get PD through all sorts of conferences and mandated trainings, but they don’t want—or benefit from—sessions simply built around a handful of strategies or resources.

With the school year underway and full of possibility for students and teachers, we must insist that states and districts fund high-quality PD that has immediate and lasting results. When we empower our teachers with top-notch professional development, our students win.


Tracy Epp is the executive vice president and chief operating officer at the National Math and Science Initiative.