Why PD Vouchers Won't Elevate Teacher Voice
As we look ahead to another budget season, I find ironic (and honestly, sad) that for the third year in a row, the U.S. Department of Education faces cuts in professional learning for the very individuals responsible for students' day-to-day learning experiences - our teachers. The USDOE is attempting to mask the elimination of $2.1 billion in Title IIA funds with a $200 million investment in "teacher-driven PD." I have worked with schools and districts designing and facilitating personalized professional learning pathways for almost decade, and I am not buying it - here's why:
Studies by the Gates Foundation, The New Teacher Project, and Learning Forward all report that teachers are dissatisfied with their current professional learning offerings. This isn't a secret, and I don't think it's unique to the education field. Adult learning experiences, on the whole, are poorly designed and facilitated. However, giving teachers vouchers to be spent at the vendor of their choice with little oversight for quality, alignment to student achievement goals, and lack of implementation accountability does not address the core concerns of professional learning design.
Some will argue that PD vouchers give teachers a choice in their professional learning selections. While this is true, the very language used to describe this investment should be a clear indicator that those designing the program know very little about teacher agency and standards for professional learning. In a true teacher-empowered model, the focus would be on learning and growth, not development. Those crafting the programmatic components would recognize that learning is not a commodity to be sold but rather a collaborative practice to be experienced. Terms such as "PD" and "voucher" don't elevate teacher voice. Instead, they imply that teachers can get better simply by picking the right course from a catalog.
In a well-constructed personalized professional learning model, district and school leaders would have the funds and capacity necessary to offer a wide variety of co-created professional learning offerings that meet teachers' needs all along the learning continuum. These offerings would be informed by student achievement and growth data, observation data, and teacher needs assessments. Teacher leaders would have time and space in their schedules to co-create the experiences with their colleagues to meet their learning preferences and resource modes as well as ensure collaboration was sustained between sessions through peer observations, co-planning, and resource sharing. Teachers would socially construct knowledge together, shoulder-to-shoulder, not alone behind closed doors. They would be given ample space for reflection and self-discovery to refine their practice over time.
While PD vouchers provide the illusion of a teacher-driven model, the reality is that, in their current form, they detract from the development of a culture of continuous inquiry at the school and district level. If implemented as a discretionary grants program, teachers could end up with even less access to professional learning than they currently experience. If spread evenly, each teacher would receive $62.00. As a former teacher, this figure doesn't convey empowerment, especially as 29 other education programs are simultaneously being eliminated. At a time when it has become mission critical to support the whole child, we face a proposed budget that eliminates 21st Century Learning Centers for after school support, zeroes out Comprehensive Literacy Development, and increases class sizes. As students' needs increase, funding for Title I, special education, and English language acquisition remain flat.
PD vouchers don't elevate teacher voice - they sell teachers and their students short. Learning is not commodity-driven, it's community-driven.