Secretary Duncan Mines PD Ideas from Teachers

Secretary Duncan Mines PD Ideas from Teachers

Members of the VIVA Project’s National Task Force discuss education reform with Arne Duncan. Teacher Freeda Pirillis told the group afterward, “We knew that something was going to come of this. That was the incentive.”

Secretary Duncan exchanged ideas about professional development with six teachers from the VIVA Project’s  National Task Force, who visited the Department of Education on Dec. 17 to present their recently released report, “Voices from the Classroom.”  The report is the culmination of work done by more than 150 teachers from 27 states who worked together online. In her opening remarks, VIVA CEO Elizabeth Evans acknowledged to Arne, “The roots of this project are in the work that you are doing to bring teachers in,” including recent discussions that Duncan held with teachers from the Center for Teaching Quality and Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching awardees.

In their time with Arne Duncan and staff from the Department’s policy and communications offices, the teachers were interested in discussing ways to improve the professional development that teachers receive. Freeda Pirillis, who teaches first grade in Chicago, raised the issue of pre-service training, noting the disparity between what teachers know coming out of education programs and what they need to be able to do in the classroom. She argued for “a more rigorous process” of teacher training and more in-depth clinical experience so that teachers will have “the tools that they need.” The group also stressed the need for schools of education to raise standards for admission and even suggested that states consider adopting a national curriculum for teacher training. And they asked for schools to build in more time for planning and ongoing training to help teachers do their jobs better.

Arne shared that while the federal government spends about $3 billion to support professional development each year, “the bang we are getting for our buck is a disaster.”  Michigan teacher Lesley Hagelgans suggested that much more effort should be spent on teacher evaluation. Specifically, she urged drawing from a variety of measures of effectiveness and using evaluation data to direct very specific professional development. Blake Unger Dvorchik, who teaches math at Bronx Mathematics Preparatory School (NY), cited a Gates Foundation study that targeted professional development to the specific needs of teachers and argued that more schools need to follow suit. (See Dvorchik’s guest blog post on his method for teaching students to monitor their own progress.)

One highlight of the session was when participants reflected on how much they gained from the process of working on the VIVA Project’s “Idea Mine.” They said they found the experience of collaborating online with other teachers empowering because instead of simply complaining about problems, they were working together to propose real solutions. Teacher and VIVA board member Jill Bass explained that it is important for teachers to work with one another to improve the profession. “Schools (have) become the place of cynicism where it’s not okay to be idealistic.”

Others spoke about the power of having someone with authority asking for their input. “It was knowing that someone was going to listen to what we had to say,” Pittsburgh teacher Nicky Kenline Lewis said, that made their work together “inspirational . . . I haven’t been motivated like this in a really long time.”

Laurie Calvert

Laurie Calvert is a Washington Teacher Ambassador Fellow who teaches English outside of Asheville, N.C.


  1. We need to look closely at administrators and their attention to shaping good instruction in their schools. They should be held accountable for the data along with the classroom teacher. Teachers need instructional leaders, not building managers. It’s all about instruction and the monitoring of instruction. Administrators should have to continue their educaction as the teaching profession is constantly changing. They should not be allowed to “settle in” to their role and keep current only through Marshall Memos or reading an article now and then.

  2. I taught sophomores Biology in the public schools and in a Jesuit H.S. Three daughters were teachers as were the parents of my wife. My father taught my mother.
    1. The school should be open the year round.(3 months vacation X 12 years is two or three years of time lost).My Hat is off to the Algebra teacher who must spend the first couple of weeks reviewing the material forgotten during the summer.)
    2.Sports and most extra-curricular activities should take place outside of school (Pop-Warner etc.already does). but P.E. should be part of the curriculum. (If one drives by most large highschools, one first sees the sports complex and finds that the school leader (Principal and Superintendant) was probably a successful coach. [He] is most likely more interested in a state championship than a top academic program. Of course, there are exceptions, but in general this is the situation I have observed. A good bit of money is paid to the coaches. I was a football player (All-State,O.U. and Central State U. in Okla.) and began coaching-teaching in 1960 and coached each year until my retirement in 2001. If the money spent on sports facilities and coaches was available for Math,Physics,Chemistry,Biology,Language,Social Studies etc. and the teachers recruited were gifted in teaching the academics —-wow.Many now are interested in coaching.
    3.Departmentalize the academics. Although I know that mathematics is the tool of science, in many schools (at least in my school) the math and science departments did not spend much time together. It would be preferable to prepare a high school teacher to teach all the math and science classes (she would probably never teach because of the low salary). A language teacher with skills in social studies would be preferable. The ability to see connections beween the disciplines (in my opion)are necessities in the improvement of our schools. Group teaching is a way to foster these connections as is a different form of college preparation. We still use the Model-T assembly line model of 30 students rotating from specialize teather to speceialized teacher. I know that no one will read this, but it is late at nicht and I have been thinking about these things. Year-round school.Pure academics. Break down of Depts.Group teaching etc.etc.

  3. Regarding Debra’s well-written, well considered entry: Thank you. Right on. Well-said. There’s nothing more that can be said. The emperor is wearing no clothes.

    We all know it. We are being good little boy and girl teachers and shaking our heads and agreeing with our “bosses” because, well, because we LOVE what we do–helping kids realize their fullest potential. But trends, but films, but the media, but the financial crisis and the political swings and the . . . etc., are getting in our professional way roadblocking us. We know how to do it. We know how to teach. What we need is support. What we need are lower class sizes so that we can tackle the issues my well spoken colleagues, like Debra, address in the blog. Allow us to be our creative, enthusiastic, joyful selves and we can inspire the same in our students. Being tested via computerized formulas four times a year IS NOT THE WAY TO GO. While well-intended, the 2014 Race to the Top inspired mandate will cause teachers to teach to the test four times a year instead of once. Ugh. Talk to Milton Chen from Edutopia, author of “Education Nation” about this idea. Talk to Bill Gates. Talk to the progressive educators contributing to this blog. This craziness is NOT helping our students. THEY AREN’T SPREADSHEETS OR COMPUTERIZED DATA. Children are works of art as diverse as a Jackson Pollack from a Claude Monet.

    For instance: My current group of eighth-graders is rebelling. They aren’t doing the fill-in-the-blank robotic assignments. But give them something creative, out-of-the-box, interactive (all non-scantron testable) and they excel beyond any expectations. These are exactly the kind of skills and remarkable Americans our nation desperately needs: Real Thinkers. Real Creators and Inventors. But we are testing the joy out of teaching and learning. Let’s talk. Let’s work this out. Teachers aren’t the enemy. We’re the dawg gone heroes.

  4. Debra,
    Thank you for your thoughtful and passionate response to this article. I am a Teacher Ambassador Fellow at the Department for one year, and I wanted to let you know some things that may help you to feel a little bit better about what’s going on in Washington. Since starting this job in July, I have been completely surprised by the degree to which people at the Department—including Secretary Duncan—are actively listening to teachers across the country. Many of your concerns have been voiced by others, and I have seen how these conversations over time have impacted plans for everything from teacher evaluations to parent and community involvement. It is not that one person’s suggestion tips the scales, but the collective conversation over time has had an impact.
    As a teacher, I also wanted to thank you for your service for your kids. I know how hard the job is, and Secretary Duncan has the greatest respect for the work that you and millions of other teachers do every day. Thank you for continuing to be a leader and a voice for your students and teachers. I hope you will stay plugged into our blog and look for more about the plans to overhaul No Child Left Behind this year.
    Laurie Calvert
    Teaching Ambassador Fellow

  5. I won the San Francisco mayor’s teaching award distinction last June for excellence in teaching. I also teach at a SF state teacher training program for new teachers “How to teach English while teaching content material” in lower elementary grades.

    I am passionate about education and am deeply upset about the dismantling and attack on education and teachers.

    I imagine this won’t really get read. I don’t believe anyone cares about what teachers think any more. And I am too tired to dance in the dialogue.

  6. I think that a great way to develop education and teaching (including teachers) is the creation of nationwider or even global standards. In Europe we have the PISA study (, a OECD program for international student assessment. Something like this should also be developed for teachers. It is similar to accreditations such as AACSB for business schools and Management Masters ( However, assessing is not sufficient. It needs to be combined with support. As students assessed in the PISA study need to be supported so need teachers be supported after being assessed. Bobby

  7. I agree with PD needing to be tailored to teacher needs, not just some “canned” program from some for-profit company. Also, the comment made by Drew is spot on….teachers need parent support and accountability. Let’s take some of that 3 billion spent on Teacher PD and spend it on parent responsibility and accountability as it pertains to their child’s education.

  8. I won the San Francisco mayor’s teaching award distinction last June for excellence in teaching. I also teach at a SF state teacher training program for new teachers “How to teach English while teaching content material” in lower elementary grades.

    I am passionate about education and am deeply upset about the dismantling and attack on education and teachers.

    I imagine this won’t really get read. I don’t believe anyone cares about what teachers think any more. And I am too tired to dance in the dialogue.
    I need rest. But I would like to express a few thoughts.

    1) TESTING: Tests can be used as a check for a teacher to monitor the skills of the students.

    2) TEACHERS: Teachers are getting demoralized by the disrespect for the very creative process of teaching. It seems that scripted curriculum is coming down for all subjects and the magic of teaching is being lost and diminished. It seems that teachers are thought replaceable now that everything is scripted. And, I would add, robotic. Thematic teaching is going out the door and is being replaced by rigid “everyone on the same page in the whole state” and by computer education as pedagogy. Children are not exploring their world with their hands and bodies, and their experience is being “marketed to” by the computer companies and publishers who may or may not have pure motives about pedagogy (teachers are NOT in it for the money). Computers are a nice tool, but, truly, EVERYTHING CAN BE LEARNED WITH A PENCIL. Magically there are current STANDARDS for using computers at every grade level. The computer companies must be laughing their way to the bank. Now we all need a thousand dollar set-up to learn. And if there is any money for the school, they’re investing it in a power optic cable because the school servers are slow. (And here’s a thought, what will speed and immediate gratification do to children’s senses and brain development?) All while the class sizes increase, the schools have ZERO money for school nurses, PE teachers, and learning and psychological support to traumatized children. Which these days can be half the class. Our school has a mixture of new immigrants and a very low income population.
    3) OUT OF COMPLIANCE: Law suits are now dictating what must be taught. “You better teach this. We’re out of compliance.” I’m spending all my time in workshops learning how to teach ESL in isolation and small groups, when I’ve already been teaching it in an integrated and meaningful way. (Our school exits all children to proficiency by 5th grade but now the inspectors are coming at exact hours to check us.) Q: Where is the money coming from to pay these inspectors to check us I wonder? We are so out of compliance for so many things these days I feel like I’m stuffing the kids so I can keep my job. There’s no time any more for the quiet reading and classical music listening just for enjoyment after lunch, that’s been lost the last few years. And honestly, this year’s group is losing its joy of reading. I have less time to act out all the stories we read. I’m busy trying to learn how to be a PE teacher and put them through their gross motor skills practice for another inspector. I can hardly read the PE instructions when I bring the kids outside, the type is two pages and I need my reading glasses, then I need to take them off and watch the kids.

    4) FAMILIES IN CRISIS: Families in crisis and poverty are never mentioned in this perceived crisis in the schools. Everyone has been to school and seems to have an expertise about what is wrong with it, especially those in power. I love my classroom families, mostly immigrants. They know that education is the key out of poverty. PROJECT KIDS. It’s so hard to talk about African American children in severe poverty, because I might be called a racist. Educators at all levels are afraid to use the phrase “project kids” . I have contacted parents: Can you meet with me – let’s work together to create a consistent learning environment for your child.” I’ve gotten answers like “You just like putting black kids in special ed.” There is so little comfortable language in discussing these children that it makes me uncomfortable writing about it here. My Vice Principal agrees with me, “Even administrators struggle with finding comfortable language around these families.”

    5) TEACHERS ARE PARENTING: Teachers must do more parenting these days, because the children are upset, parents are working two jobs, and they are being raised by TV. It seems like the parents who have more time available to dialogue with their child raise a different kind of child. The TV / computer playing kids can be very shut down.

    A child cannot learn if s/he is depressed, anxious, fearful, hungry, upset. I spend a lot of time making the classroom a safe place to risk and learn, because God knows what they go home to. Some children can’t be comforted. What should a person do when a child cries and cries and when you say, “do you want to speak to your mom or dad?” they run away from the phone. I would get merit pay at my school because immigrants know that the only way out of poverty is education and they support the program. If i taught at a school that served primarily project children, i would not earn the merit pay.
    Enough said for now…

  9. Spending 3 billion more dollars on improving the schools or curriculum or teachers will not result to much. The problem is not the system or teachers , it is the lack of parental support. I once talked to an elementary teacher in a nice suburb. She informed me that as long as you don’t inconvience the parent you’re doing a good job. Ask the parent to help his child or come to school for a conference proved to be more than the parent wanted to do. Complaints were made to the principal and the teacher was chastised. If this happens in the suburbs what happens in big cities like Chicago. If the parent doesn’t support the teacher there isn’t much a teacher or curriculum can do. The student mirrors the parent. What is needed to improve education is to get the parents doing their child rearing better.

  10. How do we improve student achievement? It starts with revamping K-12 curriculum around the Common Core State Standards. We are too content-heavy. I see it in my own children’s homework. For the most part, it is memorization of facts. When asked what skills are you learning, they look at me perplexed. “Skills? What do you mean? I don’t know.” This shows me we continue to teach the same way as teachers did in the fifty years ago; a series of facts that students cannot connect. As far as professional development, teachers still look for the newest activities to implement in the classroom to change things up. I finally realized that effective professional development does not comes from a one-day workshop or one-hour webinar. Professional development is a mindset. It is the inner-desire to take-in all proven research and implement curriculum. It is reading research. It is staying on-top of current articles. It is the challenge to break through the walls of your school and connect with educators across the country. Here is my recommendation (start small):
    1. Find 2-3 change agents in your own school.
    2. Review Common Core State Standards
    3. Choose 2 standards to build a unit of study with your colleagues.
    4. Develop a common assessment that measures the skills from Common Core
    5. Incorporate content that is relevant and engaging that matches the skill being taught.
    6. Use 2-3 proven instructional strategies to teach the skill.

    If we want to raise achievement and prepare 21st century citizens, then we must become 21st century teachers.

  11. The problem is not that teachers di not get apropriate PD or training, it is that there is not enough support towards implementation. it is like teaching students something once and then expecting them to pass a test with a 100%. what happened to scaffolding? teachers need that too.

  12. First, all the ideas suggested are good but shouldn’t the students at each school District be included in the plans. Second, all schools in each State, City, Townships etc., and children are different (ages, races, nationalities, cultures…)

    If possible try to reach the illiterate youngsters also.

    It’s not only the teacher’s problem but some children are not interested in school work so no matter what u do they will cause a problem, or not focus, or be unattentative.

    Basically we have to find a way to get them involved and be interested in what they’re to learn and why they need to learn what their being taught.

  13. While the Federal government may disburse over $3M towards teacher professional development, by the time that snakes through the bureaucratic processes to the school level, it often works out to be a paltry 1 – 2% of total budget. Also, these funds are often tied to specific grants and the requirements within them for particular types of PD, versus empowering teachers to select and address their most pressing classroom or instructional needs.

    Secretary Duncan is doing the right thing by reaching out and listening to teachers on this topic. Hope the trend continues and deepens.

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