Learning and doing together

High-quality professional development is the springboard to excellence

In Short

Unlike standalone workshops, the most effective professional development experiences are ongoing, job-embedded and content-rich. They focus on student outcomes and promote collaborative learning.

Mention the term “professional development” to most Jewish educators and the image that likely pops into their minds is a large room of teachers sitting together at round tables or in neat rows listening to an expert expound on a topic of some relevance to their daily instructional work. In light of recent research from CASJE [Collaborative for Applied Studies in Jewish Education], this perception among teachers within Jewish schools and settings of what professional development looks like should hardly be surprising. As the report states, “Despite decades of critique of the one-shot workshop, the format still reigns supreme as the most common type of professional development in all sectors of Jewish education… “And, surely, this problem of too few opportunities for Jewish educators to participate in meaningful professional development is one of many that concerns the funders of that research when they implore us to work together to address the profession’s dire shortcomings.

Consider why this very narrow form of professional development matters. As the CASJE report authors suggest, it is far from ideal for a simple reason: Workshops alone do not actually help teachers improve their practice. No matter how informative, or even inspirational, the effect of these one-time training sessions’ on strengthening pedagogy — teachers’ capacity to bring educational excellence to students — is minimal, at best.

So what does work? On this question, a large body of research is unambiguous. Unlike standalone workshops, the most effective professional development experiences are ongoing, job-embedded and content-rich. They focus on student outcomes and promote collaborative learning. If teachers do participate consistently in these kinds of more intensive professional development opportunities, then they are much more likely to adjust their instructional practice in ways that elevate student learning. 

Further, as CASJE points out, educators’ access to quality professional learning opportunities extends beyond just generating stronger student outcomes. “Professional development consistently contributes to positive educator outcomes, and specifically, as we have seen, to higher levels of educator self-efficacy, career commitment and job satisfaction.” Since teacher retention has reached dangerously low levels across the Jewish education sector, surely ensuring more intensive professional development — the kind that values the authentic professional growth of teachers — will help ameliorate this crisis, as well. In short, providing teachers high-quality professional development is key to our efforts to positively transform Jewish education.

One example of this type of transformative professional development stands out. Two years ago, a group of 16 independent organizations, each of which provides its own forms of high-quality professional development to Jewish day school educators, joined together to form the DEEP Consortium with a precise objective: promoting the truth that the future of Jewish education depends on expanding access to better learning opportunities for our teachers. The DEEP Consortium stands for the “Developing Embedded Expertise Program.” This program is funded by a  grant from the Mayberg Foundation. The grant’s implementation is supported by a partnership with the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge, a Mayberg Foundation educational initiative, which works to catalyze radical improvement in Jewish day schools. Over the last few months, in addition to committing to continuing to work together to improve upon our own individual intervention models, we have begun to craft robust educational and programmatic tools. These resources will be introduced to future school partners for the purpose of demonstrating in practice the research-based principles to which we all subscribe. 

For members of the DEEP Consortium, the clarion call issued by Stacie Cherner and Menachem “Manny” Menchel to collaborate on efforts to implement support systems and professional growth opportunities for Jewish educators resonates not only with what we hope for, but what we are already doing. Indeed, Cherner and Menchel conclude with a straightforward statement to guide our community: “[Jewish educators] deserve an educational system that sustains, enrichens, and empowers their professional growth. By learning and by doing together, we can help create that.” The DEEP Consortium wholeheartedly agrees.

David Farbman is the project manager of the DEEP Consortium, a program of the Mayberg Foundation in partnership with the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge.