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The Necessity of Professional Development

The American Association of School Administrators (AASA), which represents school superintendents from across the country, recently published A Cliff Hanger: How America's Public Schools Continue to Feel the Impact of the Economic Downturn (AASA, 2010). The report glumly predicted that 50 percent of the superintendents who responded to the survey that was the basis of this report will reduce or eliminate funds for professional development in 2010‐11, up from 22 percent in 2009‐10 and 9 percent in 2008‐09. Budget cuts in areas that directly impact student learning and achievement, like lack of funds for professional development for teachers, are detrimental to all students and especially for students with learning disabilities. Plans to drastically reduce professional development stand in stark contrast to the recommendations of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) that are found in the new Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading (IDA, 2010). 

The IDA report begins by stating that reading difficulties are the most common cause of academic failure and underachievement. The National Assessment of Educational Progress consistently finds that about 36% of all fourth graders read at a level described as "below basic." According to the IDA between 30 and 50% of students are at risk for inadequate reading and writing development. The report posits that most of these at-risk students are ineligible for special education services and are dependent on the instruction given in the regular classroom. 

The IDA report goes on to describe the scope of the problem and clearly states the reason why professional development is so important in supporting classroom teachers and the at-risk students they teach:

"Teaching language, reading, and writing effectively, especially to students experiencing difficulty, requires considerable knowledge and skill. Regrettably, the licensing and professional development practices currently endorsed by many states are insufficient for the preparation and support of teachers and specialists. Researchers are finding that those with reading specialist and special education licenses often know no more about research-based, effective practices than those with general education teaching licenses. The majority of practitioners at all levels have not been prepared in sufficient depth to prevent reading problems, to recognize early signs of risk, or to teach students with dyslexia and related learning disabilities successfully." (IDA, 2010)

The IDA standards identify professional competencies that are necessary for teaching students with reading disabilities and learning differences. It is important to note that these standards are applicable for all teachers of reading, general educators as well as specialists (Spear-Swerling, 2010). The IDA standards are built on the large body of research documenting that teachers must be knowledgeable of the oral and written language concepts as well as the most effective research-based instructional practices (Budin, Mather, & Cheesman, 2010). 

As stated previously, there is a significant disconnect between the preparation teachers need in order to meet these standards and what they actually get in their pre-service education courses. In one of many studies that confirm the lack of teacher knowledge of the structure of language, Cheesman et al. (2009) found that only 18% of first-year teachers could distinguish between phonemic awareness and phonics instruction. 

Deficiencies in teacher preparation can be addressed through professional development, but only if school budgets provide the funds. If schools are going to reduce academic failure and underachievement, comprehensive professional development is a necessity. 

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