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Photo Credit: iStock

August 4, 2015

Talking Points

A new report argues that everything we think we know about professional development is a ‘mirage’

Teacher training is not good; a new report makes recommendations for how to improve it.

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Teacher professional development and the policies behind it are not much more than a costly mirage, says a provocative new report from the education nonprofit TNTP.
The report, appropriately entitled “The Mirage”, comes from the nonprofit well-known in education spheres for its influential research, most prominently “The Widget Effect,” which concluded that many districts were not differentiating between good and bad teaching.
The latest examines three public school districts and one network of charter schools, all unnamed. The TNTP researchers estimate that the traditional districts spend on average $18,000 per year per teacher on development, which includes paying teachers more for getting  their master’s degree and time spent providing school-based trainings. The charter network spent significantly more — approximately $33,000 per teacher.
The return on this hefty investment, according to the paper, is feeble: In the studied districts, a minority of teachers made substantial improvement each year as measured by their districts’ evaluation systems. TNTP couldn’t find any pattern of what forms of professional development were successful. The study, which looked at the 2010-11 to 2013-14 school years, was released this morning.
Most of what we're doing is not actually that helpful in producing improvement in teacher practice and, ultimately, student outcomes,” Dan Weisberg, CEO of TNTP,  told The Seventy Four.
But TNTP doesn’t throw up its hands and declare that all is lost. Instead, the paper concludes with a series of recommendations. Some are more symbolic, like having districts more clearly define what “development” means for their teachers. Others are more specific, such as tying pay and dismissal to teacher improvement.
But there are problems with the report’s approach. Some of them are boringly wonky or even predictable — TNTP only looks at three districts and the teacher surveys are voluntary, which means they are likely biased to some degree.
There are also more fundamental issues.
The biggest problem is judging the success of professional development based on how well  teachers improve on their district’s evaluation system. Most districts’ evaluations are new and there’s little evidence regarding how good they are. One part of a teacher’s rating is based on how much the teacher impacts students’ test scores. Those scores are done on a bell curve in a way that could hide whether there are across-the-board improvements.
Concerns about these specific methods aside, outside research confirms that TNTP is broadly right — there’s limited knowledge about what consistently works for teacher development.
Matthew Kraft, an assistant professor of education at Brown University who hasn’t reviewed TNTP’s paper, agreed with one of its central findings. “The research to date on professional development has largely been unable to find that programs, when taken to scale, substantially improve teacher effectiveness," he said in an interview.
Similarly, Tom Loveless, of Brookings Institution reviewed the literature on professional development and concluded, “Teachers who seek to improve their own practice are primarily guided by common sense, intuition, word of mouth, personal experience, ideologically laden ideas about progressive or traditional instruction, the guidance of mentors, and folk wisdom — not a body of knowledge and practice that has been rigorously tested for its efficacy.”
Perhaps even more shocking is the consistent research finding that attaining a master’s degree does not, in most cases, help teachers improve. There’s also a large body of evidence that teachers who go through alternative certification programs, such as the Teaching Fellows program (which is run by TNTP), involving  just several weeks’ training, perform about as well or better than those who come from traditional multi-year-long trainings.
So where does that leave us?
A couple of TNTP’s recommendations are particularly good.
  • The report suggests ensuring that there are meaningful incentives — such as performance pay and dismissal for ineffective teachers — baked into the system. There is rigorous research showing that such policies can drive teacher improvement.
  • TNTP argues that districts need to consider an apprenticeship-style training model where teachers do more learning on the job while taking on fewer responsibilities at the start of their career. The current system relies on unproven pre-service and in-service trainings, while expecting first-year teachers to do virtually the same job as their veteran colleagues. This makes no sense. There is admittedly little evidence on how effective such an approach would be — mostly because it hasn’t been tried much — but it’s well worth attempting.
Here are some other recommendations that could be added to the mix.
  • Avoid moving teachers around much between grades and subjects. Teachers often jump between grade levels and subjects year after year; one year a teacher will lead a first-grade classroom, the next she’ll be in front of fifth-graders. But there’s a consistent (rarely discussed) body of research suggesting that this reduces teacher effectiveness and even their ability to improve.  Obviously some movement between years is inevitable, even desirable, but schools should emphasize letting teachers master their crafts in specific grades and/or subjects.
  • Focus on strengthening professional cultures in schools. Kraft, the Brown professor, has done research showing that teachers improve more over their careers when they’re at schools with strong professional environments. Creating those environments isn’t easy, but Kraft emphasizes leveraging individualized coaching, strong principals, and quality evaluations — as well as experimenting and measuring the success of new approaches, which TNTP also recommends.
  • Consider re-allocating money from teacher development to reforms that have a more proven record such as higher teacher salaries — preferably tied to performance to some extent — or class-size reductions (particularly in early grades). The lack of evidence in favor of teacher development points to an obvious solution: Put more money in policies with a greater evidence they work.  TNTP discusses this and suggests districts consider strategically repurposing funds if development strategies aren’t getting the bang for their buck. That doesn’t mean all professional development should be cut tomorrow, but it is appropriate to experiment with and study spending the money elsewhere.
TNTP’s report makes a useful contribution that should spur policymakers to re-examine how districts across the country handle professional development. Teachers deserve training that helps them get better, rather than wastes their time and the public’s money.