Since, like many other professions, the field of education is constantly changing, instructors need to stay up to date on instructional methods and best practices. Continuing education, also called professional development, helps instructors learn and implement new pedagogies and technologies to improve student outcomes. Many of these initiatives are funded by the federal government, and are used to help meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. Continuing education can take many forms, ranging from the general instruction of large groups, to individualized training sessions, to online distance learning. With such a wide range of options available, schools and districts need to carefully plan and evaluate continuing education programs to ensure that they are effective and helpful to instructors.
Keywords Class Size Reduction Program; Continuing Education; Distance Education; Eisenhower Professional Development Program (EPDP); Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965; Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB); Professional Development; Standards-Based Reform
Teacher Education: Continuing Education
Research has shown that the best prepared instructors have the most successful students (Lieberman & Wilkins, 2006). One of the most important goals of teacher continuing education is to provide teachers with the latest information on instructional methods and best practices. Once armed with this information, they are better prepared to face classroom challenges, elicit change, and improve student achievement (Barnett, 2003).
Continuing education came to the forefront education discussions during the late 1980s and early 1990s when states and school districts began adopting standards-based reform programs. In order for standards-based reform to work, instructors needed to be able to promote the growth of basic knowledge, advanced thinking, and problem-solving skills in their students (Loucks-Horsley, Hewson, Love & Stiles, 1998; National Commission on Teaching & America's Future [NCTAF], 1996, as cited in Desimone, Smith & Ueno, 2006). This agenda required instructors to have a deeper comprehension of the subjects they taught (Ma, 1999, as cited in Desimone et al., 2006). As a result, teachers needed to update their instructional methods to reflect the new emphasis on deeper understanding as opposed to the old method which emphasized teaching facts (Cohen, McLaughlin & Talbert, 1993; Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 1995; Porter & Brophy, 1988, as cited in Desimone et al., 2006). Because professional development was considered an effective way to increase instructors' knowledge and help them develop more sound instructional methods, schools, school districts, and states began focusing on continuing education (Corcoran, 1995; Corcoran, Shields & Zucker, 1998; Sykes, 1996, as cited in (Desimone et al., 2006). With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the focus on continuing education has continued.
The federal government recognized the importance of continuing education and assisted schools with providing continuing education by establishing the Eisenhower Professional Development Program (EPDP) in 1984. This program was reauthorized in 1988 and 1994 as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended by the Improving America's Schools Act of 1994. In 1999, $335 million was appropriated for state and local activities. Colleges, universities, and nonprofit organizations were allocated funds by competitive grants or contracts to provide professional development to instructors and prospective instructors. EPDP originally focused on mathematics and science instructors, but the 1999 reauthorization expanded the program to allow states and school districts to use $250 million to provide professional development to instructors who teach in other main courses, such as reading and English. The 1994 reauthorization clarified that the intention of the act was to support systematic education reform and promote deeper learning among instructors, goals which were designed to ultimately improve student performance in the classroom. The EPDP program supported high-quality professional development activities; the legislation and its guidelines stipulated that the funds should be used to sponsor professional development that was sustained, intensive, ongoing, and grounded in current research on teaching and learning ("The Eisenhower Program," 1999).
With the passage of NCLB, government support of professional development continued, but the EPDP program and the Class Size Reduction program were combined into performance-based grants for states and school districts. The grants are intended to improve academic achievement by providing high-quality, scientifically-based training for instructors. Combining the programs and converting them into grants was meant to provide greater flexibility for effective professional development. States and nearby school districts are allowed to use the grants to meet the needs, strengthen the skills, and improve the knowledge of instructors and school administrators. The combined programs are not only meant to fund professional development, but can also be used to reform teacher certification or licensure requirements, reform tenure and merit-based instructor performance approaches, offer mentoring programs, and provide differential and bonuses for instructors in subject areas or low-income schools and districts with high need (Bush, n.d.).
In 2005, $2.9 billion was allocated by NCLB for schools to provide professional development, reduce class sizes, and adopt other initiatives to improve teacher quality. NCLB decides what qualifies as “high-quality professional development” and mandates that programs be "sustained, intensive, classroom-focused and are not one-day or short-term workshops or conferences" (Viadero, 2005, ¶ 11). NCLB also includes a requirement for a National Education Technology Plan. While the plan is not specific, it does state that instructors must receive training for the effective use of technology. It also recommends that states, school districts, and schools ensure instructor's the opportunity to take online learning courses as well as the improvement of the overall quality of teacher education (Fletcher, 2005).
Continuing education programs can be delivered in several different ways. Schools can offer general training opportunities, group instructors according to subject or grade level, or train instructors individually. General training sessions are suitable for situations in which an entire school needs to receive the same information. Grade level or subject groupings, on the other hand, are better for specific training. Participants will find it easier to tailor training material to their unique needs and, if the group is small enough, can help the instructor adapt materials to their learning styles. In designing these types of programs, the people who will be participating in the training should be consulted; their input can help pinpoint an appropriate training subject. Continuing education opportunities can also be developed on an individual basis (Lieberman & Wilkins, 2006). This type of program works best if the training can be completed online, or if the training is in form of a college course.
Qualities of Effective Professional Development
The 1990s began an era of considerable research on professional development, instructor learning, and change (Borko, 2004; Richardson & Placier, 2001, as cited in Desimone et al., 2006). In keeping with the government's requirement of 'high-quality' professional development, this research has helped define the qualities of professional development opportunities that successfully enhance instructors' knowledge and skills, positively change teaching practices, and improve student performance (Desimone et al., 2006).
Research has shown that high-quality...
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