Ultimately, every school is the same in one critical way: Rural, suburban or urban; private, public or charter; high-performing or in crisis, every school allocates about 75% to 80% of its resources to staff salaries and benefits. In the end, a school buys people’s time, effort and expertise and, you could argue, not much else. Every school is a collection of people with the shell of a building around it.
Which is why the current state of training and development for teachers is so important — and troublesome. Professional development is too often an afterthought.
This is costly in more ways than one. The Milwaukee Public Schools, which has just over 4,600 full-time-equivalent teachers, spent more than $3 million on “districtwide professional development” and more than $5 million on what the budget identifies as “teacher quality” programs in fiscal year 2011.
“It’s very ineffective if you ask me…It’s just a big huge room, a bunch of teachers in a room, one person up there trying to talk, and sometimes it’s nothing to do with nothing, talking about the reading that day. I hate to say it, it’s almost a waste of time; I’d rather be working in the classroom,” said one Milwaukee teacher who was part of a focus group put together by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute as part of its yearlong examination of education in the city.
The key to turning that around is a new commitment to practice that can improve teacher performance, build a positive school culture marked by collegiality, help make incentive systems more productive and result in higher rates of teacher retention. In short, though it is humble and may seem unspectacular at first, the idea of practice can improve teacher quality dramatically.
In using the word “practice,” I am referring to the word in a limited and (to some) mundane sense. Practice is a time when colleagues meet together and participate in exercises that encode core skills. That is, the thing you would see a basketball team or an orchestra do as a matter of course but that teachers are rarely asked to consider. Among teachers it might involve teaching parts of their lessons to one another, revising lesson plans in groups, or even role playing interactions with disruptive students. High-performing schools routinely approach training in this manner with outstanding results.