Report: Professional development is ineffective and wastes money

District PD spending does not equate to teacher improvement, study finds

professional-developmentResults from a study of more than 10,000 teachers across four districts reveals that professional development — of any type — did little for the teachers or districts studied, and found that less than a third of teachers improved performance year-over-year as a result.

The study, conducted by nonprofit TNTP, found that the participating districts (there were three large ones and one charter network) spent an average of $18,000 per teacher, per year on PD, but only three in 10 teachers saw “substantial” improvement over a two- to three-year period. Two in 10 teachers at surveyed districts saw declines in practice. No particular approach or quantity of PD was found to help improve teacher performance, although there were modest gains for teachers in districts that focused on two related practices.

“The hard truth is that the help most schools give their teachers isn’t helping all that much,” said TNTP CEO Dan Weisberg. “There’s enormous untapped potential within our nation’s teachers, but our findings suggest that we’re nowhere close to unleashing it. That’s not what we’d hoped to find.”

Next page: 6 major findings

The report, The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development, is based on teacher and administrator surveys as well as two to four years of performance data. Interviews with district office staff were also conducted.

According to information released by TNTP and the report itself, there were several major conclusions:

1. School systems spent lots of time and money on PD. Districts in the study spent an average of $18,000 per teacher, per year on development efforts (from staff time to vendor contracts). Surveyed teachers reported spending an average of 19 full school days a year on development activities—nearly 10 percent of a typical school year.

2. Teachers are effective, but not improving. The conclusion that PD wastes money and is ineffective is accurate per the results but slightly cherry-picked. According to TNTP, the “vast majority of teachers in the study … were rated at least ‘effective’ overall on their performance evaluations.” Less than half of surveyed teachers agreed that they have weaknesses in their instruction; more than 60 percent of teachers who earned low ratings still gave their own teaching high marks. TNTP chalks their findings up to the fact that districts are poorly communicating the importance of improvement to teachers.

3. Teacher improvement is akin to a “coin flip.” Many teachers in the survey did not improve year-over-year. As many as half of teachers in their tenth year or beyond who participated in the survey were still rated below “effective” by their districts in core instructional practices, such as developing students’ critical thinking skills. Other teachers will improve regardless. In practice, “this means that districts don’t have clear direction for how to help any given teacher improve.”

4. Attempts to find a good PD approach were inconclusive. Despite an exhaustive search, the study found little separating teachers who improved their performance from those who didn’t. “For example, in one district, new teachers spend considerably more time on one-to-one mentoring than do teachers in the other two, but their growth is similar to new teachers’ growth elsewhere,” the report said. “Newer teachers who did break the typical growth trajectory for their experience level tended to participate in the same kind and amount of activities as those who did not, just like their more experienced peers.”

5. Except when they weren’t. There were modest, but statistically significant, improvements for teachers that were more open to feedback and those that reported receiving frequent observations while teaching. Realism among teachers was also found to help: those teachers that were able to accurately self-assess their performance in manner consistent with their actual performance review were more likely than not to have seen improvements. Likewise, “non-improvers are almost twice as likely to self-assess their own performance as stronger than their formal ratings.”

6. Don’t read the report expecting suggestions. The report is unequivocal: funding for PD is highly necessary, although it appears uncertain as to what exactly should be done with it, other than something different. The report suggests radically changing the culture of PD and quitting ineffective programs, although it is rather uncertain on what districts should do instead, since nothing was really found to be effective. At one point, the report seems to suggest spending more money and effort on those teachers who seem likely to improve than those who are struggling. In another section, it aimlessly wonders what would happen if districts reinvented the role of the teacher or the way they transition into the profession. “Maybe,” it posits, “it’s simply unrealistic to expect millions of people to be great at everything that goes into such a complex job.”

The report concludes with the hope that “these ideas will spark a candid new dialogue about teacher improvement and inspire school districts and training providers to try new approaches, measure their impact, find out what really works and share what they learn.”

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