Accessing High Quality Professional Development Part 3

Note: This is cross-posted with

This is the third of three posts describing obstacles that art educators may encounter when attempting to access high quality professional development that takes place outside their schools. In this post, I describe issues of power and trust as an additional obstacle.

Have you ever been involved in designing your own professional development? Hawley and Valli (2007) describe the importance of including teachers in the process of identifying what they would like to learn and the process through which they might learn it. Professional development experiences are most meaningful when they align with teacher needs (Watson & Manning, 2008). My experience working to support art teacher learning tells me that when given the opportunity to articulate their own learning goals, art teachers quickly identify things that they would like to learn. Yet, I’m not convinced that art educators are often invited into this process.

I have observed a variety of reasons that art teachers do not play a more significant role in the design and implementation of their own professional development. These reasons include:
* a lack of knowledge about the unique professional needs of art educators,
* district attempts to standardize professional development in response to political pressures,
* a general distrust that teachers can define and investigate individual learning goals, and
* a lack of resources that support this type of investigation for art teachers.

Knapp (2003) describes the role district policy plays in defining and offering professional development to its teachers, however, districts may lack knowledge of art teachers’ needs. While Jeffers’ (1996) survey attributes some of the variety of art teachers’ professional development needs on their years of experience, other needs vary depending on the school and broader contexts in which the teachers work.

As school and district-level administrators face increased pressure to raise students’ test scores, much of the professional development content offered within districts is likely to center on a fixed set of topics chosen by administrators. Attempts to standardize a professional development agenda works against recommendations in the professional development literature that describes the benefits of teachers creating their own learning goals (Fenwick, 2004). Unless teachers have access to additional time and resources for professional development, a fixed agenda also discourages teachers from methodically investigating problems of practice that emerge in their classroom throughout the year.

Allowing teachers to define and investigate their own learning goals is a logical way for professional development to be effectively differentiated based on individual teacher needs. However, this process assumes a level of trust that may not be present between teachers and those responsible for designing the professional development. Even when the goals are teacher-defined, Fenwick (2004) writes, “in practice, school districts and supervisors sometimes exert intentional influence on these goals” (p. 265). The silencing of voices and the promotion of certain lines and modes of inquiry creates situations where “the inquiry stance described with such power by Cochran-Smith and Lytle may potentially be co-opted and misinterpreted until it appears as frozen as the methods it was intended to replace” (Beiler & Thomas, 2009, p. 1033).

In addition, districts that utilize teacher-directed inquiry as a professional development model may lack adequate resources to appropriately support it. Instructional coaches or mentors can significantly enhance the learning experience for teachers, especially when the coach is not also an evaluator (Fenwick, 2004). Data presented about district spending in five urban districts (Miles, et al., 2005) reveal large percentages of professional development contract money spent on instructional coaches, mentors, and outside consultants. Current pressure to increase student achievement scores in reading and math has created a felt need for districts to help their teachers improve the quality of reading and math instruction. Currently, literacy and math coaches are in place throughout U.S. schools. Until there is political pressure for increased student learning in the arts, it is unlikely the resources currently spent on literacy and math coaches will be available for art educators. These obstacles, though not an exhaustive list, demonstrate the challenges art teachers experience in accessing effective professional development.

-Leslie Gates


Bieler, D., & Thomas, A. B. (2009). Finding freedom in dialectic inquiry: New teachers’ responses to silencing. Teachers College Record, 111(4), 1030-1064.
Hawley, W. & Valli, L. (2007). Designing and implementing school-based professional development. In Hawley, W. (Ed.). The keys to effective schools: Educational reform as continuous improvement (2nd Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Fenwick, T. J. (2004). Teacher learning and professional growth plans: Implementation of a provincial policy. Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 19(3), 259-282.
Jeffers, C. (1996). Professional development in art education today: A survey of Kansas art teachers. Studies in Art Education, 37(2) 101-114.
Knapp, M. S. (2003). Professional development as a policy pathway. Review of Research in Education, 27, 109-157.
Miles, K. H., Odden, A., Fermanich, M., & Archibald, S. (2005). Inside the black box school district spending on professional development in education: Lessons from five urban districts. Washington, D.C.: The Finance Project.
Watson, R., & Manning, A. (2008). Factors influencing the transformation of new teaching approaches from a programme of professional development to the classroom. International Journal of Science Education, 30(5), 689-709.