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Distance 'Professional Development'

by Polly Burke
May / June 2001


One of the following two vignettes about professional development is true, and I hope that the other one never comes true. First, the true one:

I recently took my first "distance course" on children's literature. It included 14 assignments. The first assignment was to read the resource packet, which I purchased from the instructor for $35, and to write a one-page-long e-mail response. The packet contained several short articles and a few brief pieces of mediocre children's literature. The second assignment involved reading 20 children's books of my choice and submitting, by e-mail, a three-page commentary on the potential uses of these books in my curriculum. This assignment, like the first, was not difficult. I teach kindergarten, and most books are brief. After completing and submitting the first two assignments, I waited several weeks for a response while I continued to work through the syllabus. I received no response. Finally, out of frustration, I called the host institution, requested the telephone number of the instructor, and talked to her. My instructor said that she was only requiring the first two assignments. If the host institution wanted anything else from me, it would contact me. Needless to say, the host institution wanted nothing else, and six weeks later I received an A and two semester (graduate) credit hours for the course. The total cost, including resource packet, came to $270: $50 to $80 less than what I would pay at my local public university. (Postscript: Later that summer I received a letter from the host institution inviting me to become an instructor in this distance "professional development" program.)

That very disappointing experience has made me think about professional development. In the current structure of our school systems, professional development is the responsibility of the individual teacher. In most instances where graduate credit or renewal units are earned, teachers pay for professional development with their own time and their own money. Professional development enables teachers to move up on salary scales, an absolute economic necessity in such low-salary states as Montana. Unfortunately, within this structure, districts and states can only set guidelines and the outcomes are rarely predictable. The course that I took passed, at least on paper, the state and district guidelines; the reality was disappointing.

Now for my second vignette:

Looking into the professional development crystal ball, we see salary-scale steps quickly filled with cheap and accessible professional development courses that make few demands and that have little impact on classroom performance. This professional development is offered by for-profit dotcoms that have little or no connection with the districts and states being "served." State universities that insist on high standards cannot compete and cease to be significant providers of postbaccalaureate teacher education. Ironically, districts that do not provide significant professional development experiences for their teachers still pay dearly for the teachers' professional development in the form of higher salaries but no classroom impact. Finally, with few incentives to offer teachers after they have risen up the salary scale, districts find that the potential for school improvement has been greatly diminished.

This second vignette must never become reality. Now is the time to change the structure of professional development in our school systems. National commissions and the NCTM's Principles and Standards for School Mathematics (Reston, Va.: NCTM, 2000) call for professional development that is tied to improvements in schools and in student achievement. We should get behind them. "Working Together to Achieve the Vision," Chapter 8 of Principles and Standards, is a great starting point.


Polly Burke is a kindergarten teacher at Emily Dickinson School in Bozeman, Montana. A master teacher for 23 years, she works with both student teachers and student interns, is a member of NCTM, and is active on her school district's mathematics committee.




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