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National Center for Research in Vocational Education
University of California, Berkeley
Number 2
February 1999
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Using Professional Development to Meet Teachers' Changing Needs: What We Have Learned

CURTIS FINCH

Preparing Teachers for Change

The 1990s will probably be remembered as a decade of major educational reform in the United States. During this period, the quality and focus of education has been a topic of frequent public debate. Many government and business leaders asserted that schools were not preparing students adequately for today's workplace. This was why, they claimed, the U.S. was falling behind other nations in its competitive economic position.

Unquestionably, teachers must be at the center of any effort to improve education. But how can teachers be prepared to meet the educational challenges of the future? To do so, teachers themselves must build the capacity to change and evolve as their educational institutions undergo change. Professional development offers teachers the opportunity for lifelong learning in their careers. Ideally it builds upon what new teachers have learned in teacher preparation programs, and upon what other teachers have learned through years of classroom experience.

Unlike the more traditional "inservice training" approach of earlier decades, today's professional development is designed with teacher input and builds teachers' capacities for working in teams to educate children. In the 1990s, professional development has largely meant helping teachers implement educational reforms and strategies such as school-to-work, tech prep, integration of academic and vocational education, career pathways, and smoother connections between secondary and postsecondary education.

All reforms involve change, and those who are willing to take part in educational reforms know they must change as well. But as the following story illustrates, change is not easy (Schmidt, Finch, & Faulkner, 1992):

Six years ago, Fred Hamilton[1] became the principal of Southport Technical School, a high school located in an urban area of an eastern state. After half a year of careful observation and planning, Fred decided there was a real need to integrate the school's vocational and academic curricula. His goal was to make the total set of course offerings more meaningful for students so they would understand why they were taking particular courses, and how the courses contributed to career choices. He also felt it was important to deliver the best content in the most effective way to all students.

With the help of faculty and other staff, the school developed a plan to create four content clusters at Southport. Vocational teachers served as the cluster nucleus, and academic teachers were to work with vocational teachers to provide academic content in vocational settings. The plan was phased in over a three-year period. Year one was devoted to planning and model development. During year two, Southport operated with its four new vocational clusters, but retained separate academic departments.

At the beginning of year three, the academic departments were abolished and academic teachers were assigned to the clusters. One of the project's critical moments occurred that day. About 10% of the academic teachers fully accepted what was happening, 10% objected, and 80% waited to see what was going to happen. Several teachers, including English teacher Jim Hightower, immediately filed grievances and went to the local school board, complaining that the curriculum would be destroyed and Southport graduates would be denied admission into college. However, the board, which had been supportive of the integration plan from its beginning, continued to support Principal Hamilton.

Two years after the plan went into effect, Jim Hightower showed up at a school board meeting and asked to speak. What he said caught a number of board members by surprise. "I just wanted to tell you how wrong I was about Southport's integration plan," he said. "It's the best thing that has ever happened to our school."

Southport High is now one of 12 showcase schools in the nation and has been named a national model by the U.S. Department of Education. It is also one of the featured schools in an integration manual that is distributed nationwide.

Educational reforms demand that teachers assume new roles and work in new ways. According to research from the National Center for Research in Vocational Education (NCRVE), teachers are more likely to change their teaching practices--and thus help to implement school reforms, as well as encourage colleagues to do likewise--when the professional development they receive meets the following criteria:

Recent NCRVE research offers a number of suggestions for improving teaching and learning in high schools and community colleges where educational reform is being implemented. First, this CenterPoint will describe three promising professional development approaches NCRVE has investigated--work-based learning, the mini-sabbatical, and the case study method.

Second, this CenterPoint will discuss new teacher roles as they relate to two main areas--integration and school-to-work--and the professional development strategies that have proven successful in preparing teachers for these roles.


[1]All proper names are pseudonyms.
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