A New Approach to Teacher Professional Development Gets a Big Boost

In many school systems, teacher professional development activities often take the form of a day in "seminar land," where teachers pack an auditorium, classroom, or school cafeteria to listen to a district-contracted consultant. The extent to which teachers incorporate the training into their instructional practice often varies widely.

Enter a new nonprofit called Edcamp. The Pennsylvania-based organization began in 2010 as a group of Philadelphia teachers who met to exchange ideas. Since then, it has grown into an international network of educators united by the idea that the best professional development for teachers comes from, well, other teachers.

Edcamp activities are independently organized, free of charge to participants, and completely participant-driven. Participating teachers develop and facilitate the sessions, in contrast to traditional professional development workshops. Since its beginning in Philadelphia, Edcamp conferences have been presented in 25 countries. Past training topics have included "Twitter Activities for Students," "Digital Citizenship for Elementary Students," "Fostering Student Learning Networks," and "Use Design Thinking to Solve Real Problems."

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a funder with a long interest in teacher effectiveness and professional development, took note of the Edcamp approach to training, awarding the organization a $2 million grant. The funds will support Edcamp's growth as an organization, enabling it to provide home office support for hundreds of field organizers. In addition, Edcamp plans to establish the Edcamp Discovery Grant program, which will award more than 100 teachers grants to implement new ideas in their classrooms. Finally, the grant will fund regional Edcamp conferences and support the "Edcamp-in-a-Box" program. The latter is an effort by Edcamp to make it easier for teachers to organize an Edcamp conference by providing them with a box of the needed essentials, including nametags, markers, poster paper, a copy of the Edcamp Model, and even gift cards for coffee and breakfast pastries.

This award from Gates for a new approach to teacher training comes in the wake of a recent study that casts doubt on the efficacy of most professional development activities. The report from TNTP, titled "The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest For Teacher Development," examined professional development activities in three urban school systems and one charter school network, as well as several years worth of student performance data. TNTP concluded that the fortune spent nationwide on teacher professional development is largely a waste that has little or no effect on student achievement.

Those findings aside, the overall verdict is not yet in on teacher professional development. Past analyses funded by the Institute for Education Sciences have found that teacher training has modest effect on student learning. And what is clear is that an effective teacher is the single most important factor in student academic success. The question remains as to what makes an effective teacher. Edcamp's contribution lies with other teachers and their ability to help their peers improve in the classroom. We'll be paying close attention to this organization — as well as watching for other new approaches to teacher training and development.