The U.S. Department of Education (ED) on Oct. 5 unveiled a new professional development web site for teachers and administrators. Its architects hope the free resource–built by teachers for teachers– will encourage the use of proven classroom strategies and provide more effective ways of using data to improve instruction in the nation’s schools.

An extension of ED’s $3 million Teacher-to-Teacher (T2T) initiative, the new site is the culmination of more than 12 workshops and hours of educator-led discussions and roundtable sessions about how best to improve teacher training in accordance with the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Carloyn Snowbarger, director of ED’s T2T initiative, said the goal is to give all schools, especially those without money for expensive in-service training courses, an opportunity to raise the bar for teacher performance.

“Many of the online professional development services that are out there are fairly costly,” Snowbarger said. “This is a free service.” Teachers can log on from any school anywhere in the country and participate, she explained, regardless of how much money their district has set aside for professional development.

Snowbarger, who spent 28 years as a classroom teacher before joining the department, said the need for free online professional development is especially acute in the nation’s most remote and rural schools, where many teachers don’t have experts they can turn to for additional training and guidance.

At the crux of the program is a selection of pre-recorded video sessions proctored by experienced classroom educators. The sessions, taped and converted to video-streaming format as part of ED’s summer and fall workshop program, feature training in reading and language-arts instruction, science and math instruction, data-driven decision making, and NCLB compliance.

Teachers who sign up for the free service will have access to lessons on topics ranging from building students’ vocabulary to using technology to enhance algebra instruction and turning data into improved test scores.

Each T2T course includes a brief overview; a list of course components; a video note-taking guide; the video itself; a course assessment to be filled out by the educator; a list of suggested follow-up activities; course handouts for classroom use; a principal’s implementation checklist; a feedback form for school professional development coordinators; and additional resources, including links to related web sites, as well as a listing of journal articles and books intended to help teachers and students delve even deeper into the topics covered by the video courses.

To ensure that educators can complete each course at their own pace, the video segments are split into 30-minute chunks. Snowbarger said she wanted educators to be able to choose when and where they participate in the program–whether it’s after school with their peers or from home on their own time.

In developing the site, department officials sought to provide a set of skills that educators could use in the classroom without questioning the source. By recruiting only practicing educators, the site ensures that teachers will learn from their peers, not from an “expert” who might not have any real classroom experience, Snowbarger said.

To enroll, educators must fill out a brief online form identifying their title and the state where they teach, among other personal details.

Once enrolled, they get automatic access to a password-protected database that enables participating educators to keep track of the courses they have completed on the site, so they can return to it and take future courses at a later date.

Teachers who want to receive in-service or continuing education credits toward recertification through the courses provided on the site should check with their state and local professional development offices to make sure the courses they’ve selected meet local requirements, the site suggests.

As part of its initial rollout, ED officials fanned out across the country to introduce the resource to educators and administrators in schools from Maine to Ohio to California.

At Payne Elementary School in Ohio, principal Brian Gerber said the training videos should help administrators better align existing curricula to students’ needs.

“By using best teaching practices across the country, this program will provide teachers [with] the strategies they need to improve teaching skills and help raise student achievement,” Gerber said. After viewing the videos and completing the requisite activities and assessments, teachers will be expected to put what they’ve learned to use in their classrooms, he added.

To make sure teachers and administrators participate in the program, Gerber said, staff will be expected to discuss the videos at weekly meetings. Outside of school, teachers will form peer study groups to analyze the tapes and find ways to integrate new ideas into their lesson plans.

Gerber said his teachers will receive credit toward recertification for their participation in the program.

Though ED officially unveiled the initiative Oct. 5, Snowbarger said the site–which has been live for several days–already has received close to 4,000 hits “just on word of mouth alone.”

Daniel Kaufman, a spokesman for the National Education Association (NEA), said the web site–though promising–will not be a panacea for the nation’s schools.

While the program stands to benefit teachers, especially in rural areas, “it’s only a drop in the bucket” in terms of what the federal government should be doing to help schools live up to the promise of NCLB, Kaufman said. Teachers still face problems that are beyond their control–from ballooning class sizes to out-of-date facilities and a lack of teaching materials.

“We’ll have to apply a wait-and-see attitude to the web site,” he said.

To view the videos and the related materials, educators will need access to a high-speed internet connection, the latest version of Windows Media Player, and Adobe Reader software. Educators who don’t have the required software or plug-ins can download them for free online.

See these related links:

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

Teacher-to-Teacher Workshops
http://www.paec.org/teacher2teacher

National Education Association
http://www.nea.org