If you are totally happy with the state of professional development and teacher training, then you don’t need to read this post. Otherwise, allow me to step onto my soap box for a controversial post…

Recently I was watering my plants and was thinking about how each of them needs a different amount of water. You wouldn’t expect that every plant needs exactly the same amount. Some need so little water that the extra water is essentially wasted. Conversely, some plants would flourish if given a little more water. This is probably not surprising to you.

But it reminded me about how we dole out professional development.

I’ll say it bluntly : sometimes professional development resources are spent on educators who don’t want any part of it. I’ve seen many trainings where educators actively show that they don’t want to participate. Sometimes they’re grading papers, playing games on their phones, or taking extended breaks outside. Sometimes they don’t even show up to the training at all, even when their fees have already been paid for! It makes me feel like water is being wasted on these plants. Conversely, I have seen teachers who love to learn and crave additional opportunities. If we watered them even a little more, I believe that the fruits of their labor would be fantastic.

It makes me wonder how we ended up with this model.

Consider the image below that was created by Angus Maguire:

Certainly there are many issues with this image, but I think it is still useful for our conversation. The image’s basic message is that while we often think of equal distribution (equality) as being the fairest method, sometimes allocating resources based on need (equity) may be fairer.

Generally speaking, I believe that in education we subscribe to an equality model for professional development: everyone gets the same amount regardless of what they need. So, I wonder what taking an equity approach might do.

Before I dive into that, I want to give you something else to consider. What do these three things have in common:

  • Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) brutality
  • Medical expenses for homeless people
  • Car pollution

Ready for the answer according to Malcom Gladwell? It’s that a disproportionate amount of the problem comes from a very small part of the population. Here’s more info from Gladwell’s article…

LAPD brutality

Between 1986 and 1990, allegations of excessive force or improper tactics were made against eighteen hundred of the eighty-five hundred officers in the L.A.P.D… A hundred and eighty-three officers, however, had four or more complaints against them, forty-four officers had six or more complaints, sixteen had eight or more, and one had sixteen complaints. If you were to graph the troubles of the L.A.P.D., it wouldn’t look like a bell curve. It would look more like a hockey stick. It would follow what statisticians call a “power law” distribution—where all the activity is not in the middle but at one extreme.


Medical expenses for homeless people

Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, a leading service group for the homeless in Boston, recently tracked the medical expenses of a hundred and nineteen chronically homeless people. In the course of five years, thirty-three people died and seven more were sent to nursing homes, and the group still accounted for 18,834 emergency-room visits—at a minimum cost of a thousand dollars a visit. The University of California, San Diego Medical Center followed fifteen chronically homeless inebriates and found that over eighteen months those fifteen people were treated at the hospital’s emergency room four hundred and seventeen times, and ran up bills that averaged a hundred thousand dollars each. One person—San Diego’s counterpart to Murray Barr—came to the emergency room eighty-seven times.


Car pollution

Most cars, especially new ones, are extraordinarily clean. A 2004 Subaru in good working order has an exhaust stream that’s just .06 per cent carbon monoxide, which is negligible. But on almost any highway, for whatever reason—age, ill repair, deliberate tampering by the owner—a small number of cars can have carbon-monoxide levels in excess of ten per cent, which is almost two hundred times higher. In Denver, five per cent of the vehicles on the road produce fifty-five per cent of the automobile pollution.

The takeaway here is that these issues are not equally distributed. A small amount of police officers, homeless people, and cars produce a huge and disproportionate amount of the problem. The conclusion then is that rather than giving the same equal remedy to all police officers, homeless people, and cars, we would be much better off with an equitable solution that dealt with the most violent police officers, chronically homeless individuals, and most polluting cars. If we focused the resources we give to all (because it is equal) on the ones that really need it (because it was equitable), then we would be much more likely to get the results we really want.

Implications for Education
All of this to come back to education. I believe we train all educators because it feels like the right thing to do, because we hope educators will grow, and because it seems outlandish for students to have teachers who have not received training in years.

I wonder though what the results of a more equitable (not equal) solution could be. How amazing might teachers be if they got all the training they wanted by taking it from the teachers who want none? Certainly this isn’t without its problems… but it makes me wonder…

What do you think? What do you agree or disagree with? What am I not considering? Please let me know in the comments.


  1. One factor not considered is the math phobia of some teachers. As a math coach, I was told a story by one of my teachers. It seems that all of the math teachers were enrolled in a master’s program given by a reputable college. One teacher bullied another for answers on the final. The teacher passed, received a master’s degree and a sizable salary increase. A few years later, the same teacher did everything possible to avoid credible coaching. She did not consider her students, only dollars and cents. We have a long way to go before the issues swirling around effective pd are resolved.

    • Yikes. That’s far from ideal. I think the path that leads from where we are now as a professional to the destination of educators having a healthy relationship with professional development will be long and complex.

      • I am frustrated when PD’s teach conflicting strategies. My district received a grant to improve math instruction. I’m one of few from my school site who chose to participate in this PD, which was a three-year program. The CGI and Math Talk strategies I learned have been valuable. Across my district, this was a successsful PD. My school site chose a PD stressing common strategies in math instruction. Unfortunately, teachers who did not participate in the district grant, and the facilitator we brought in, chose strategies which conflicted with what I learned. Our key strategy from the conflicting PD for my grade level was to have students circle all the numbers and underline key terms in a math word problem. I protested because the strategy does not address context, but I was outnumbered. My solution has been to ignore the conflicting PD.

  2. In my 12 years of experience, PD is a check box for admins who want to say, “We are doing our job by providing teachers PD.” It’s become a joke, literally, in my school.

    • That is immensely disappointing on so many levels. I really wonder if those administrators realize that is the way it is perceived or if they’d be shocked to know that.

  3. Hey Robert,

    I just became part of the Master Teacher Program in New York State. Here is a link for more information:


    Essentially, the program, which has an extremely rigorous application process and is very competitive to get into, pays accepted teachers $15,000 per year to spend a minimum of 50 hours creating professional development for and partaking in professional development with EACH OTHER. In other words, New York State is finding the most passionate teachers and paying them to engage in more professional development than other teachers.

    • That sounds awesome Harry! I’m trying to think of a more perfect example of an equitable approach to professional development than that. To me it seems like a win/win/win. The participating teachers win. The students win. Even the non-participating teachers win from what those teachers bring back. I also wonder if the growing gap between their skill sets turns out to be a good thing? For example, rather than it being a “Why are they making me apply for this?” situation, it could potentially become a “Why do they get to do this PD? Why can’t I do it too?” situation.

      P.S. Does this PD include making music videos? Just sayin’.

      • When I offer PD on a new topic or idea, I typically go after the “lunatic fringe” who are eager and will implement. Their excitement creates interest for others not in attendance.
        I also think there is room to make accessing it a little invitational to make the more hesitant folks ask just what you said “why don’t I get to to do this?” Being included instead of expected makes more folks want to join.

    • I LOVE this idea!!! I wish my state/district would do it. I could use the money and I sure would rather earn it spending my time learning how to be a better teacher, trahter than putting in hours at some part time job unrelated to teaching and depleting my energy for my teaching job…..

  4. That sounds great for the teachers who want pd. The problem is I think the teachers who aren’t interested probably need it the most.

    • Lots of thoughts…
      – I used to think that the more I received professional development, the closer I would get towards “knowing it all.” The reality is far from that. While I do know more, I am also vastly more aware of the many, many things I didn’t even know I didn’t know. So, the “it all” has grown enormously.
      – To that end, I think that in a way, all teachers “need it the most”. For example, I can make a long list of things I need major help with. For example, I need major training on conceptual understanding of high school statistics, logarithms, and most of 11th and 12th grade math. I am still learning how students learn about fractions as every time I think I’ve seen it all, I develop deeper understandings.
      – The teachers who aren’t interested, probably have complex reasons why. For example, some may be scared to be vulnerable. After all, “I’ve been teaching ______ for ___ years. I should know this by now and don’t.” Or, maybe they don’t believe that there is a problem with the way they are teaching. (a la: https://robertkaplinsky.com/febreze-can-teach-us-observeme/)

  5. Robert,

    Big fan. We quote your febreeze post daily and our math teachers love all your resources.

    In this case I think you missed the mark.

    I’ve been putting together PD for years and have found that those that reject the notion of PD are the ones that need it the most. With that said most PD opportunities are meaningless. PD should be built in-house by teacher leaders that pour over student and teacher data to deter needs. Teachers should have a voice in the direction of PD and be given ample support after PD sessions.

    If you walked into a classroom and saw students on their phones who would you blame? Would you let those students out because the lesson was meaningless to them? Or would you work with the teacher to identify how to improve their instruction?

    Teacher PD should be a model of best practices in which all teachers have an opportunity to grow. Equity in PD should mirror equity in the classroom by differentiating learning outcomes for teachers based on need and ability of both the teacher and their students.

    When this is done well it helps to break down the walls between classrooms and give common purpose across the building.

    One of Hattie’s top are of student success is the overall competencies of teachers in a building. Second only to self-reported grades. We need to create PD that inspires, motivates and supports teachers of all levels.

    I will now climb down off of my soapbox.

    • Thanks for the push back Ryan. I genuinely appreciate it. We’re actually more in agreement than disagreement. To be clear, I am NOT saying that teachers who don’t want PD also don’t need it. What I am saying is that we need to take a tough look at the way PD takes place, because just equally doling out resources is not working.

      We need to have honest and vulnerable conversations about where the breakdowns are happening? Is it that teachers don’t want to be out of their classrooms? Is it that they don’t feel that the PD is valuable? Is it that they don’t think that there is anything that needs improving with the way they are currently teaching (a la Febreze)?

      I just can’t stand watching us squander resources without looking more deeply at the complexities of professional learning. The differences between how we approach student learning and how we approach professional learning are often staggering.

  6. So many thoughts on this. I’m glad you brought it up.

    I’m one of those teachers who gets off-task during district PD sessions, but not because I don’t want to learn. Quite the contrary, actually. I’m the teacher who follows teacher leaders on Twitter, engages in Twitter chats, reads blogs, attends conferences like CMC-South at my own expense, participates in Global Math Department as often as I can…you get the picture. I really WANT to learn and grow, but my district is behind my pace. Significantly behind my pace. It’s not the district’s fault that I “went ahead,” but they’re not doing anything to meet my needs as a learner.

    A few years ago, while I was in a TOSA role, we went to a teacher-led conference model of PD. We had teachers present to their peers on PD days, and everyone got to choose the sessions they attended. It was assumed I would present sessions as a TOSA. It was a breath of fresh air and offered us all a chance to share with each other. But after I transitioned back to the classroom, I was still presenting all day for PD. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I wasn’t /getting/ any PD myself except for what I sought for myself in my free time. I considered declining the invitation to present, but wondered what sessions I would attend if I didn’t. So I kept presenting and seeking my own PD. This year we’re back to a traditional one-size-fits-all model of PD. My engagement depends primarily on two factors, the content and the delivery. Even if the content is familiar, I happily engage when the delivery allows me to engage at my level and learn not only from the instructor but also from other learners.

    The needs of teachers parallel the needs of students when it comes to PD. Well, duh…we are the students when we engage in PD. There are going to be the students who are perfectly engaged and for whom the lessons are just-right. There are also going to be the students who are off-task, but all for different reasons. There are the students who are ahead but have to take that class because it’s the only one offered (my problem). But the students I think you’re referring to in your post are the ones who are off-task and give off the “don’t care” vibe because they aren’t ready for what’s being taught. Maybe they need more time with the content (especially tech-related lessons). Maybe they have a gap in their learning. Maybe the lessons aren’t being presented in a way that connects them to the students’ real lives outside of class. And maybe the student is afraid of failing at something new, so they put on the mask of not caring. These are the students we encounter in class and adjust instruction for every day, but PD doesn’t seem to take these issues into account. It’s typically an assembly line model that is employed with teachers.

    No matter the model, there has to be careful consideration to meet the needs of all learners. We can’t just “teach to the middle” if we expect to engage all teachers in meaningful learning. We either have to find ways to customize the content to meet the needs of all learners or we need to make sure that the delivery allows learners to engage at their own “Goldilocks” level…not too low, not too high, but juuuuust right.

    • Yes x 100000 to everything you said, Kate. You described my concern exactly. While I am more speaking towards the intentional non-learners in professional development, I do mean it more as people who don’t have the skills yet as compared to people who already have them.

      Like you said, “The needs of teachers parallel the needs of students when it comes to PD. Well, duh…we are the students when we engage in PD.” In some ways, this is simultaneously a completely foreign way of thinking and completely obvious.

      While I don’t claim to have the solution to this problem (and I don’t think anyone does), we need to have these conversations with our colleagues to figure out what we can do about it.

    • Kate, you had me at “hello”. I feel like you are inside my head. Completely agree. There is no differentiation at the PD sessions I attend. This is not how we are expected to plan our lessons. It should not be how we are taught PD.

  7. As an instructional coach who presents PD, I do find merit in your remarks. When I deliver PD, I often observe some teachers who are apathetic toward learning something new. And it does make me feel like focusing on those who really want the PD and ignoring the rest. On the other hand, perhaps it is the model of PD that is the problem. Perhaps the problem is one size fits all PD that can’t possibly fit the needs of teachers ranging from TK-6th as well as teachers with emergency credentials to those with over 20 years of experience. No matter what we do, I’m sure there will always be teachers who choose to disengage from PD. However, maybe we could increase teacher engagement by finding a better PD model that was differentiated to address the needs of all teachers. I just wish I knew what that model was.

    • Thanks Ramona. I believe that you are asking the right questions. I wonder if having a conversation about this with your colleagues would take you steps closer towards figuring out what that model could be for your district.

  8. I find this interesting… not a full proof argument though in my opinion but just to counter complaints of one size fits all… we have a teacher created PD day in our county. It just happened last week. Our instructional leaders and teachers all submitted proposals and then a schedule was created. Teachers had to register for three options. I love this day b/c it’s teachers telling teachers what’s working and what’s not. Also, at my school, we off trainings before school for whoever wants to come. Today, I did an introduction to DreamBox Webinar and only three teachers showed. We had a great conversation about their data and now I can help them even more… no one was ‘forced’ to come to meet a quota of some sorts. This PD wasn’t for all teachers, just new teachers. I would have liked at least 10 to show, but I’ll take the three that were ready, willing and excited to learn with me! So it’s not all doom and gloom PD.

    • I totally realize that my argument is not foolproof. Mainly I’m just trying to rattle the cage a bit and get us as educators to be more reflective on the side effects of a one-size-fits-all approach to professional development.