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Professional Development: Apple Pie or Raw Rhubarb?

Johnny W. Lott, Editor
dialoguesFor the Editorial Panel
May / June 2001

In Before It's Too Late: A Report to the Nation from The National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the Twenty-First Century, the Glenn Commission observed that "the most direct route to improving mathematics and science achievement for all students is better mathematics and science teaching." Further, "evidence of the positive effect of better teaching is unequivocal; indeed, the most consistent and powerful predictors of student achievement in mathematics and science are full teaching certification and a college major in the field being taught." With the graying of the mathematics teacher force and the expected retirements in the near future, North America faces two distinct challenges: producing enough new teachers to replace those who retire and convincing middle-aged teachers who were trained in traditional content and pedagogy to adopt new and better methods and curricula. Although both challenges deserve much more discussion, this issue of Mathematics Education Dialogues concentrates on the professional development necessary to face the latter.

Beginning a dialogue about professional development or in-service education for mathematics teachers is a bit like making an apple pie. There are many different recipes, and different recipes produce different results; different baking times produce half-baked or well-done pies just as different ovens do. The cost of ingredients may be a factor, so perhaps the best result may be to have a government-produced national recipe for all. Each recipe has its proponents and its detractors, and the proof is in the tasting.

What should a state or district do about professional development to produce the best results for the students? This issue of Dialogues discusses the benefits of long-term in-service activities and the need for shorter opportunities, as well. You will read about the ease of using distance models and a pitfall when they are used. You will read about nationally recognized professional development and the potentially unaffordable monetary costs to the mathematics teacher if such a model is used. You can read about a program developed with an infusion of federal funds, and you can read what one can do alone. You will read about professional development through conventions, and you will see a bird's-eye view of the pitfalls of this method. Finally, you will see that readers think that colleges may be the place to get content, but you will read the claim that the best professional development for teachers of grades K–12 is done by teachers of grades K–12 themselves.

Overall, this issue of Mathematics Education Dialogues indicates that almost everyone agrees that professional development for mathematics teachers is a necessity, but that little agreement exists on the characteristics of good professional development. If, as the Glenn Commission suggests, the time is ripe for improving classroom teaching and if professional development is the best way to achieve it, the dialogue should begin in earnest so that more time is not squandered with fruitless discussion. Let's learn how to make the apple pie so that we will not be left standing with a piece of raw rhubarb.


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