|Courtesy of lostateminor.com.|
It’s late summer, a new school year’s afoot, and for most educators the mere prospect of Christmas vacation is so remote right now as to inspire morbid depression.
But for the professional-development business, the yuletide is already here, at least in terms of commerce. Just as Black Friday traditionally kicks off the retail sector’s most profitable season, in public education each Labor Day tends to coincide with a renewed frenzy of workshops, institutes, convocations, conferences, retreats, and other assorted, candy-colored happenings aimed at rejuvenating teachers with all the festive flair (but not the potency) of a spiked eggnog. And like your Aunt Tilly’s fruitcake, they show up whether you want them or not.
The PD industry absorbs (absconds?) around $6 billion a year in taxpayer funds. That’s one hell of a gift bag—the equivalent of 12,500 full-ride college scholarships, or 500,000 iPads, or 1.1 million gold-flake cupcakes. Okay, so not all of these examples would necessarily improve the lives of students, but at least they’re all tangible. The PD industry, on the other hand, surpasses them in at least one dismal-yet-miraculous aspect, which is that it manages to consistently, often gleefully, year in and year out, provide nothing of tangible value in return for its high-priced services. That’s right: nothing whatsoever.
How is that possible? Oh, we can talk specifics. We can talk about my own experience, which is hardly atypical, as a for-instance. We can talk about this as well. We can talk about the relentless stopwatch activities, the infantilizing crowd-control tactics, the incessant “turn and talk,” the brazen shilling by the presenters of their own products, the perpetuating of bad research, the armchair opinion presented as empirical fact, the “well poisoner” stereotyping, the churchy moralizing, the childish hand-clapping, the overwrought techno, the pop psychology, the hypocrisy, the platitudes, the poster-making, the Post-Its, et cetera.
But let’s not delve into all that. Every teacher in America knows what I’m talking about, and naturally every vendor behind these top-dollar travesties will only nod in agreement when confronted with such examples and chime in with Yes! We know! Isn’t most teacher-training the pits? That’s why you should try us, because we’re different! For a $6 billion industry, it’s amazing how the PD sector remains both large enough and obscure enough to afford everyone involved the constant comfort of plausible deniability.
Having just endured, under district mandate, yet another daylong deluge of drivel from one of those ubiquitous superstar expert-led PD firms whose name is now synonymous with elite, pre-packaged, “research-based,” jet-set proselytizing, I was struck for the jillionth time, somewhere in between the presenter’s casual exhibiting of the book titles she’s co-authored on the overhead screen (“No big deal,” she assured us) and her mentioning that she has to fly to Guam next week to give another training, how so many presenters at these events are ex-administrators. There are, to be sure, many veteran teachers who conduct excellent subject-specific trainings, usually at the professional-association conferences like NCTE or at College Board institutes, but throughout my career I’ve always had to seek out and specifically request that kind of professional development, and somehow I don’t believe those veteran teachers, invaluable as they are, are earning $6,500 for a day’s work as this presenter did.
Her handout bio made reference to her “passion for education” along with the customary litany of impressive job titles spanning thirty years. Of those titles, “classroom teacher” seemed lucky to have made the list, as humble and pedestrian as, say, “homemaker.” Apart from the book plug, she comported herself with sincerity, humor, and keen, unrehearsed insight, and also with obvious concern for her audience (the air-conditioning failure that afternoon was that of the meeting facility itself). Much as I like to pigeonhole these people as curbside hucksters and used-car salesmen from the first instant, I am usually frustrated in that regard. True, they seem to have made an easy adjustment to the showbiz aspects of their work, but they are almost always intellectually formidable. Our presenter was indeed accomplished, intelligent, erudite, and genuinely funny. In fact, she was exactly the kind of person who most school-aged children would benefit from interacting with.
Why would anyone claiming to be passionate about education choose to work in a field that is most far-removed from the reality of teaching? Why would someone who preaches that “research” and “data” are the keys to school improvement choose to apply that belief in the most statistically pointless of occupations? Why would they accept money for doing something they know is the least likely way to change the life of a single child? The evidence is clear that professional development doesn’t work, certainly not in the manner it is usually provided by the most expensive PD firms in today’s marketplace—both for- and non-profit—yet the absurd, lavishly priced, infomercial-style junk inservice sessions go on and on, year after year. And the providers, the evidence also shows, are smart enough to know better.
Like your Aunt Tilly’s fruitcake, some nasty things are too nasty to go ignored for very long. That so many smart and therefore culpable educators are capping their careers—hell, building their careers—by participating in such a racket, and that such a racket reaps such an obscene and thoroughly unjust windfall from a public-school system already in financial straits…well, let’s just say it stinks. At the risk of hurting a few feelings, why don’t we toss this smelly fruitcake in the trash?