NJ Teachers Remain Committed as Second Decade of Professional Development Begins

John Mooney | November 9, 2010 | Education
Professional development takes on new significance as teacher accountability comes to the fore

The requirement came in nice round numbers: Every teacher in New Jersey must complete 100 hours of professional development every five years.

Launched in 2000, the program was meant to issue a clear demand for teachers to continue to learn on the job, something that previously did not come with explicit statewide requirements.

And in the first couple of years it sent off a flurry of memos and guidance as to what counted and what didn’t. The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) convention that first year proved an infamous one, overflowing with teachers looking for hours.

A Decade Later

But 10 years later, New Jersey has completed its second five-year cycle, and as the state begins to collect data on how districts are doing with the requirement, the 100-hour requirement isn’t appearing as much of a stretch.

State officials said just 127 teachers out of an estimated 60,000 failed to reach the century mark five years ago, and a good majority well exceeded it. This time, officials said they don’t expect much difference.

“That was 0.2 percent of the teacher population, and usually the reason was an illness or that sort of thing,” said Victoria Duff, teacher quality coordinator at the state Department of Education and one of the early architects of the requirement.

Counting the Time

That’s not to say the 100-hour rule hasn’t seen its detractors over the years, including a couple of education commissioners. While a widespread requirement in other states, critics have contended it would prompt teachers to spend more time counting hours than finding valuable professional development experiences.

And confusion abounded to what counted, whether a couple of graduate-level courses could suffice, for instance, or how a district would count all the hours a teacher spends working with other teachers in teams.

There are no specific consequences for not making the 100 hours, either, with districts left to monitor their teachers and weigh it among other measures in evaluating their performance. Few if any teachers lost their certification over it, but instead either made it up eventually or retired, officials said.

The Next Step

As such, some are beginning to think about what should be the next step required for teachers, especially at a time when teacher accountability is moving up in public attention.

Gov. Chris Christie has appointed a nine-member task force to devise a statewide system for evaluating teachers and principals, and while the professional development rule is not a specific task on the agenda, one member of the group said these issues are all connected.

“The number of hours should matter less than the quality of professional development and its impact on teaching and learning and teacher performance,” said Ross Danis, an associate dean at Drew University and member of the new Education Effectiveness Task Force.

“Some teachers may require more, and others less. It should be focused on what data reveals is a need that the students have,” he continued. “The challenge is when the goal gets confused with compliance or simply tracking hours, not impact.”

Teacher Development

Other experts in teacher development agreed that the state should look deeper than just counting hours.

“The 100-hour requirement is a first step to addressing the serious professional development needs of teachers in New Jersey — not an end point,” said Ada Beth Cutler, dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Montclair State University.

“It is time to go beyond the diffuse 100 hour requirement toward a more meaningful, rigorous and focused system of professional learning for teachers that can directly impact student engagement and achievement,” she wrote in an email.

Duff, the state coordinator, said that is very much a new focus in professional development and within the existing requirement.

“It’s become a more and more focused conversation on student learning and outcomes,” she said. “Instead of hiring a consultant or a one-shot workshop, there is much more focus on using them to support teachers in their work.”

But she said the 100 hours minimum remains an effective tool in keeping track.

“I think it helps the teachers, and I think it helps the principals be able to assess how well their teachers are doing,” she said.

And the hours still mark an important gauge at the annual teachers convention in Atlantic City, which gathered last week with more than 300 workshops for teachers to attend and be marked dutifully for their hours.

“The NJEA Convention is the best one-stop shop for educators working to hone their skills and fulfill their state professional development requirements,” said Steve Baker, a NJEA spokesman.

“We believe in the 100-hour requirement and are very committed to making sure that every teacher in the state has access to high-quality professional development opportunities every year.”