Professional Development: A New Chapter?

Professional Development Committee
Professional Development Committee

Those of us who have been in the California Community College system for several years are familiar with the fluctuations that happen in our budgets.  While the great recession of the past five years has been unusually difficult, faculty are well aware that one of the first things to be cut from college budgets is almost always professional development.  Recent events, however, seem to indicate an increasing recognition that professional development for faculty, as well as the rest of the college community, is an essential element of ensuring that students receive the best educational opportunities possible. 

As a starting point, the 2011 Student Success Task Force recommendations included specific language to provide professional development opportunities to faculty, prompting the Chancellor’s Office for California Community Colleges (CCCCO) to create an ad hoc committee charged with making recommendations for professional development at all levels of the colleges.  This committee’s report, released in 2013, included very clear language regarding the creation and expansion of professional development on the campuses and throughout the system.  In response to the report, a series of Professional Development Clearinghouse meetings were held around the state in November 2014 to gather information about what college faculty, staff, and administrators wanted in terms of professional development at their colleges and what types of professional development they were doing that would be replicable or scalable statewide.  The Professional Development Clearinghouse, when created, will be available to all employees of California community colleges. 

In addition, the passage of AB 2558 (Williams, 2014) establishes guidelines for professional development for all members of the college community and spells out specific requirements that colleges need to follow in order to receive monies from the state.  While no funding source was indicated in AB 2558 and no source of dedicated monies has yet been established, the system continues to hope that such resources will be designated and that professional development may eventually be funded at a higher level than it has been in the previous decade. In Spring 2014 Academic Senate Resolution 12.01 resolved in part that “the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges work with the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office and other constituent groups to establish through statute ongoing consistent and sustainable funding for the Professional Development Program.”  The ASCCC will continue to advocate for such dedicated professional development funding until it becomes a reality.

Finally, a new Success Center for California Community Colleges, another outcome of the ad hoc Professional Development Committee’s report, has been created by the CCCCO and the Foundation for California Community Colleges. The Success Center will be led by Executive Director Paul Steenhausen, and when fully developed the Center will provide resources for faculty and staff professional development as well.  David Morse, the ASCCC president, and former ASCCC Executive Committee Member Stephanie Dumont are serving on the advisory committee that is tasked with fully articulating and overseeing the vision of the Center.

Given this background information, at its Fall 2014 plenary session the Academic Senate held a breakout session on professional development and student success.  This breakout, created and moderated by the ASCCC Professional Development Committee, sought to discover what colleges are doing now that can be replicated, what areas are lacking, and what college faculty leaders want in terms of professional development.  The breakout was well attended, with more than 35 people in the audience, and a wide range of issues and topics were discussed.

An especially positive aspect of the breakout discussion was that, even with reduced funding, many colleges have been conducting innovative and interesting professional development programs. At Citrus College, for example, professional development has been guided by the concept of student engagement.  Their professional development committee created focus groups, with the results of the groups discussed by their local academic senate. From this grass-roots effort they were able to design meaningful flex workshops.  Other colleges, including Mt. San Jacinto and West Los Angeles, have created specific trainings for faculty which engage them in pedagogical discussions, and many other impressive examples of innovative professional development exist throughout the system. 

These programs have been conducted in a time of limited financial and personnel resources, a situation which may change if the dedicated funding promised in AB 2558 is realized.  As might be expected, this potential new funding has led to questions and concerns.  One concern raised has been how colleges and their professional development committees define professional development; as faculty pointed out both at the clearinghouse summits and the breakout session, many colleges have begun including activities such as compliance requirements—sexual harassment training, for example—and calling them professional development activities.  As we learn more about how colleges will incorporate more staff development as part of their professional development programs, local senates may face the challenge of defining professional development with an academic and professional focus rather than as a “catch-all” as has become increasingly common. The guidelines created in AB 2558 require that in order to receive state funding the college professional development committee must be integrated with all groups on campus, including staff and administrators.  However, according to Title 5 §53200 (c), professional development for faculty is an academic and professional matter and therefore continues to be an area that falls under the academic senate’s purview.  Determining how local senates will retain this purview while supporting the newest legislation is one of the issues that colleges will need to address.

Separate from the issue of redefining professional development, faculty at the breakout raised the continuing concern regarding who participates in faculty-focused professional development activities.  In many cases, for example, these activities are not available to part-time faculty, who are unable to attend events or trainings at times or locations that do not fit their schedules.  Participants at the breakout also indicated that some faculty have become comfortable and even complaisant with their current teaching practices are therefore are not likely to be interested in professional development that focuses on pedagogical or other kinds of trainings.

The brainstorming approach at the breakout revealed even more important questions: If the overall goal is to improve student success through improved instruction, how do we first define student success?  This question becomes even more important given the shifting definition of student success that now focuses on identifying degrees and certificate completions and not life-long learning.  Compounding this problem is the issue of adequate opportunities for professional development.  Some colleges do not even have flex days, or only have one or two of them, so faculty focus on their own areas of study but are not provided the kinds of professional development activities that may, for example, help them improve their instruction.  As monies become more available, discussions of flex activities and flex days will become more important, and faculty must be involved in those discussions.

This is an exciting time for faculty in the area of professional development. Colleges must engage in discussions about potential increases in professional development funding but also about how to make better use of currently available resources and how to design effective professional development activities and events.   With the recent focus on professional development from the legislature and the Chancellor’s Office, the faculty voice in these discussions will be critical in ensuring the quality and value of local professional development programs.