Remaking Professional Development

Chris McNutt
December 28, 2019
Professional development in education is defective and I think almost everyone knows it...PD tends to promote fads, one-and-done workshops, and the latest district initiative that fails to make any long-lasting change.

Professional development in education is defective and I think almost everyone knows it. Instead of promoting pedagogy that builds on the inner motivation, purpose, and desires of our students, PD tends to promote fads, one-and-done workshops, and the latest district initiative that fails to make any long-lasting change. It’s difficult to find an unbiased account of PD spending, but The New Teacher Project reports that the large districts in their study spent $18,000 average per teacher on PD. Just imagine if even a fraction of that money went to teacher stipends, salaries, or just general classroom improvements!

And for teachers seeking conferences in 2020, costs are high:

None of these costs include room and board, and only a few compensate all meals. For the average teacher — especially for those in small or poorly funded districts — these costs are unreasonable. Even more egregious, many of these conferences do not compensate presenters (ISTE is a whopping $100 less at $450 if you choose to present.) For conferences that provide free registration, they rarely pay for room and board. Considering that most conferences are held in metro centers, the price of attendance is dramatically high and would likely weigh out any compensation one could receive. (SXSW recommends their group-rate hotels at $300 a night, which for their 4 night event is $1,200.) Therefore, the real cost of SXSW is more like $1,685, plus additional meals. Even small conferences have costs way beyond a typical teacher’s spending money.

And, most PD sessions and conferences rarely achieve the revolutionary goal of transforming one’s classroom. At best, conferences expose educators to a new trend that may impact their intention of trying a new methodology, or will bolster their support of a practice they’re already doing. The networking element of conferences is useful, but these relationships tend to remain at the conference themselves which are largely lecture-centric, leaving little space for relationships to develop. Most educators stay within their social groups. Little information has time to process after conferences because teachers are thrown back into the classroom with little time to reflect or implement their plans.

At worst, PD reinforces banal platitudes of “improving education for all our students”, wastes teachers’ little planning time, spends a boatload of money, and reinforces the notion that a teacher’s job is not respected, valued, or trusted. After all, many education conferences are set up to bolster those who are doing something outside of their classroom, as paying to present at an event is more advantageous to someone who wishes to sell or promote something. Further, in-house PD tends to promote group-think, which may cause negativity or a lack of perspective.

I have rarely attended PD that was worthwhile. Although I’ve been to multiple of the above conferences (and I’ve had a great time at most of them), I have never walked away with anything more meaningful, educationally speaking, than my individual research — or at best, something that I could have Googled and found countless of free resources. There is a rush of seeing a ton of impactful educators, talking lively about cool things in our classrooms, and enjoying San Diego or Austin — living like a rock star of sorts in a nice hotel and concert-style lecture halls. But I’m not sure if that’s a great use of our limited budgets — I’d rather have a fair stipend for the individualized work I do outside of school.

None of this is meant to imply that an educator can’t obtain valuable insights from PD, nor that attending or presenting PD cannot be useful. Being accepted as a conference presenter can speak volumes about one’s work and offer new avenues to further explore one’s ideas. Yet, I want to argue that the vast majority of PD is horribly outdated and seeping away funds that could be better utilized for both individuals and schools — and that better alternatives already exist.

Individualizing PD

Educators are trained to be experts at learning information. Most of our training is centered on absorbing a lot of content then putting it into practice in our classrooms. Many of our backgrounds are centered on high academic performance in school — and almost all of us have college training in research and academic reading. It’s incredibly odd that PD tends to center an expert voice delivering content, especially when we know most won’t be able to longingly pay their full attention, nor connect everything to their classrooms.

A keystone of progressive education is providing students with voice and choice, connecting to one’s purpose, and disestablishing the teacher as an authoritarian leader. All of these are the same for teacher PD. Letting educators choose their own path — one that connects to their values and classroom commitments — would revolutionize how educators take in new ideas. Many educators already do this; they read books, write blogs, meet up online, and listen to podcasts, but not much of this is recognized by districts or administrators as “official” school-based PD.

What’s preventing educators from individualizing their PD is a lack of time, space, and finances. Some districts have begun shortening or eliminating school days to allow for in-house PD , and others have shifted from whole staff PD to individualized goals. Ultimately, putting PD in the hands of educators would reap the most reward:

  1. Establish multiple paths for educators to meet professional development goals (e.g. SMART goals). These goals should be open-ended and mostly based on an educator’s choice combined with conversation with an administrator. These initiatives are well-documented by EdSurge.
  2. Give time and space for educators to plan out how to meet said goals. As mentioned previously, providing time off during the school day is needed for professional growth.
  3. Finance educator initiatives with school/district funds, as opposed to expensive whole group PD models.
  4. Support individualized research, podcast listening, visiting another’s classroom, reading, workshops, and large-scale planning (e.g. cross-disciplinary projects.)
  5. Provide CEUs (continuing education credits) and financial opportunities for educators who complete PD.

Educators should not be burned out by finding ways to improve their practice. Using a small portion of PD funds to offer stipends to educators who complete their self-selected initiatives would further motivate teachers to improve their practice, and build a better overall workforce. Treating educators like professionals is key to establishing a solid education system, and one major incentive is pay.

There is still room for some whole school PD, especially in concepts that may not naturally be sought out (e.g. bias and sensitivity training, suicide awareness.) But again, the vast majority of PD could be thrown out (e.g. the latest ed tech, SEL, PBL, other buzzwords, standardized test prep.) This isn’t because I believe these concepts aren’t important — it’s just that educators will self-select PD that works for their students regardless, and it will be more empowering.

Change on the Horizon

Finding content online about education is not an easy task. There’s not one trusted hub to find perfect information, nor will there ever be. Still, educators have so many resources available to start an individualized journey such as the Edcamp unconference movement, which are free of charge —like this Edcamp on social justice in February, 2020, or the Leading Equity Virtual Summit, an entirely free online conference from January 2nd to 7th, 2020. Cult of Pedagogy offers many examples of schools attempting to redefine PD.

Edcamp claims that 80% of administrators exposed to their model allow it for teacher training credit. They offer a template that could be engineered for any learning event. Further, connecting to microcredentials could allow districts to point educators toward specific trusted outlets, where educators would be “certified” in a particular focus. (This is the next goal for us to offer through the Human Restoration Project.)

Creating a global alliance of educators learning and benefiting from one another, without financial burden or challenges of physical location, would improve the profession substantially. No more 45 minute lackluster PD sermons after school; no more expensive conferences; no more valuable time and energy wasted. By promoting a self-directed PD model that awards teachers professional time and financial opportunity, we would instill the progressive values we want in the classroom for both students and teachers.

A Hypothetical Progressive Microcredential

Human Restoration Project is in the process of building a microcredentialing platform, launching in early 2020.

We want educators to feel rewarded for investing in progressive pedagogy, beyond the inherent benefit of radicalizing the classroom toward pro-student outcomes. Through an entirely free online course system, educators will be able to read, discuss, watch, and reflect on key tenants of progressive education, such as critical pedagogy and gradeless learning. Upon completion of each course, one will receive a certified microcredential which can be displayed on LinkedIn, social media, or a resume via code that ties to our organization. This means that we can publicly display what you’ve created via the badge!

We believe this will open up many opportunities for progressive educators across the world:

Our goal for microcredentialing is to allow educators, administrators, and districts to interact with HRP’s resources, podcasts, and research collections and receive credit via through institution. By partnering with schools, networks, and universities, we’ll be able to certify our offerings. We will provide instructions for one to provide evidence for CEUs/district PD regulation. Further, we’re actively seeking partnerships for college accreditation for a standard course credit fee. As always, all materials offered through HRP will be entirely free, including all microcredentials.


Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
The YouTube symbol. (A play button.)

watch now