Cost. That would seem to be the most fundamental aspect of crafting a professional-development program. But as a number of researchers have discovered, school districts rarely have a good fix on how much they actually spend on such training—or on what that spending buys in the way of teacher or student learning.
Because districts tend to characterize professional development as programming, they typically underestimate other investments in teachers’ knowledge and skills—such as how much they spend on salaries during hours teachers attend in-service workshops, according to experts who study district budgeting on professional development.
What’s more, few professional-development activities are linked to outcome measures of whether a teacher has increased his or her capacity to instruct students, they say.
“There’s a sense that teacher effectiveness matters, and we’ve got to help teachers improve in effectiveness, but we don’t necessarily know how,” said Marguerite Roza, a scholar at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, in Bothell. “But districts are operating as though they do know how.”
Sorting Through the Jumble to Achieve Success
Finer-grained analyses of the costs of training and what it leverages are critical for districts to use such funding productively, she and other scholars assert.
“What we can safely say is that most urban districts are spending a lot more than they realize, between $6,000 to $8,000 a year per teacher, on the in-service days and on training,” said Allan R. Odden, a professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied the issue of professional-development spending. “But it’s a mile wide and an inch thick. And until recently, districts were spending it on anything rather than on how to teach reading and how to teach math.”
No national data exist on how much districts spend to support teacher training, partly because there is no national definition of the term “professional development.” Analyses of specific urban districts’ budgeting practices, in the meantime, show that activities financed as part of professional development tended to be fragmented rather than supportive of learning goals, according to Karen Hawley Miles of Education Resource Strategies, which contracts with districts to analyze their expenses.
“Districts spend a lot more than they actively manage or that they think strategically about organizing,” said Ms. Miles, the president of the Newton, Mass.-based nonprofit organization. “You get lots of departments trying to do little pieces of professional development, but most of them are too shallow and spread apart to make a big difference.”
As just one example, her group documented that the Philadelphia district, in the 2007-08 school year, spent nearly $58 million on professional-development initiatives, primarily for teacher coaches and release time for lead teachers to work with peers in schools.
But those investments were being overseen by as many as nine separate offices or entities. And the analysis revealed a number of weaknesses in how that time was spent. For instance, activities that coaches and lead teachers were permitted to engage in were broadly defined and not audited for quality, the ERS report found.
Since the report was issued, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has made changes to the district’s training system. But district officials did not respond to several requests seeking comment.
In addition, Ms. Miles’ group found that Philadelphia spent an additional $41 million when counting the time set aside in the district calendar for mandated professional learning. As the ERS analyses show, in-service days are a significant professional-development cost, equal to the proportion of salary paid to teachers on those days.
Those costs can vary widely by district: Of the 100 largest school districts’ most recent calendars, the number of days teachers were expected to be at school for reasons other than instructing students ranged from no days in Albuquerque, N.M., to 17 in Little Rock, Ark., according to a database maintained by the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality.
The issue of teacher time and its cost is only now starting to attract attention from districts, researchers, and practitioners.
These mini-profiles—including video interviews—are meant to provide insight, but not to serve as representative examples of the districts in which they teach or programs in question. Their diverse experiences highlight the challenges districts face in providing high-quality training matched to each teacher’s needs.
“We just don’t recognize time as a resource, just as we didn’t use to recognize teachers as a resource,” said Jennifer King Rice, a professor of education policy at the University of Maryland College Park who has studied professional-development spending. “We are locked into traditions of how we use time, and we allocate it across districts in ways that may be unproductive.”
For instance, the traditional mode of scheduling scatters teachers’ daily preparation at different times from colleagues’ in the same subject or grade level, making it much harder for them to work together to improve practice.
Timothy Knowles, a former deputy superintendent of teaching and learning for the Boston school district, recalled a visit to the district by a British school-inspectorate team in 2002.
“It came home to me when Her Majesty’s Inspectorate said to us, ‘You have more time [for teacher learning] built into the fabric of the day than any schools we’ve ever seen anywhere, and you’re not using it,’” he said.
The situation, Mr. Knowles surmised, reflects the cultural norms of teaching in the United States. American education continues to prize teacher autonomy above the notion of teaching as a collaborative enterprise, in contrast to practices in higher-performing countries.
In fact, according to a study commissioned in 2009 by Learning Forward, a Dallas-based membership organization formerly known as the National Staff Development Council, teachers in Asian and European countries generally spent fewer minutes instructing students and more time working on their lessons with other teachers, compared with teachers in the United States.
Lesson planning in the United States averages between three and five hours a week, but in most European and Asian countries, teachers spend 15 to 20 hours a week on those activities and generally perform them in collaboration with their peers, the study found.
And such work is considered part and parcel of a teacher’s professional expectations, noted Thomas R. Guskey, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington.
“There is this perception [in the United States] that if a teacher isn’t in front of kids teaching, then it’s a waste of their time,” Mr. Guskey said. “In China, teachers are basically in school from 8 to 5 every day, they have a significantly longer day than our teachers do, but ... a portion of the day is spent lesson-planning with other teachers, writing extensive comments on student work, and those things are built into their schedule.”
In 2007-08, Philadelphia spent a total of $162 million on all professional development.
Note: Figures predate change in leadership.
Source: Education Resource Strategies
Have case studies been able to determine whether districts invest enough in their current teacher corps when all the costs of professional development are accurately accounted for? Some scholars say yes.
“For most big districts, it’s not that they need more money for professional development. It’s capturing what they spend and refocusing the whole professional-development system,” Mr. Odden of the University of Wisconsin contended. But similar analyses of rural and suburban districts’ spending are sparse, making it more difficult to talk about their investments, he acknowledged.
Ms. Miles of Education Resource Strategies isn’t convinced districts now spend enough on professional development. She points out that, among districts studied by the ERS, money spent on initiatives and programming amounted to only 2 percent of Philadelphia’s total operating budget in the year studied, compared with a high of about 5.5 percent in another district, Rochester, N.Y. (Those figures don’t take into account salary costs for district-mandated in-service days.)
“We felt they plain weren’t spending enough,” Ms. Miles said about Philadelphia.
The bottom line, experts say, is that truly focusing professional development requires administrators to figure out where their dollars are spent, whether those patterns align to strategic goals for teacher improvement, and if not, institute changes to the spending.
The Union Factor
Such changes generally require delicate union-management partnerships. Collective bargaining contracts, for instance, specify whether some of the daily preparation hours teachers are entitled to could be appropriated by building administrators for collaborative teacher learning.
Breaking those logjams can be tricky, but the number of districts that have done it shows it is not impossible. Beginning in 2004, administrators and union officials in Flint, Mich., for instance, used the collective bargaining process to institute a different school calendar, resulting in more than 20 late-start Wednesdays freeing up 75 minutes for teacher collaboration. The trade-off: slightly longer school days and a reduction of several half-days formerly spent on district-directed professional development.
Mr. Odden favors a more radical restructuring of school schedules that gives teachers time for collaboration in the regular school day and doesn’t detract from other in-service opportunities.
The 38,000-student Beaverton, Ore., district is now using such a model in several of its eight middle schools.
Cedar Park Middle School, for instance, uses a schedule that adds collaboration time for teachers in the same grade without lengthening the school day or taking away from instructional minutes.
Eighth grade-level content teachers have a period that’s used on alternate days for small-group student interventions or for collaborative teacher learning. Their students take electives, like physical education or foreign language, during that time. Then, in the afternoons, the core-content teachers instruct in double-length classes.
The schedule comes with its own trade-off: somewhat larger class sizes.
The final task for school districts is to better tie their professional-development spending to student outcomes and other measures of teacher improvement, something that has been lacking in nearly all the extant literature on the topic.
That isn’t an easy task, especially because the culture of professional-development funding hasn’t emphasized accountability—a problem that starts at the top. The U.S. Department of Education continues to give out nearly $3 billion a year in federal aid for professional development under Title II-A, its largest teacher-quality program by far, even though it has never fully studied the effects of that spending.
Even as new forms of teacher training, such as collaborative teacher teams, have grown popular, districts have done little to prove their efficacy.
“Educators have yet to demonstrate that, across many different contexts, they are using [professional learning communities] to improve their performance or that of their students,” said M. Hayes Mizell, a distinguished senior fellow at Learning Forward. “School systems have yet to demonstrate that they can or will collect data necessary to demonstrate that PLCs are achieving such results.”
The group supports proposed new language in federal law that would require recipients of federal professional-development funding to evaluate the effectiveness of school-based teacher-learning activities.
Ms. Rice of the University of Maryland cautions that it will entail painstaking work to make sure such measures are accurate.
“I worry a lot about ‘gaming,’ that there are ways to overgeneralize the effects of a particular initiative, or that we’ll demonstrate impact on outcomes that are too narrowly defined,” she said.
“From an ideal perspective, I think that’s the right direction,” she said of greater accountability for professional development’s effectiveness. “From a realistic perspective, I worry that districts just don’t have the capacity.”
Coverage of leadership, human-capital development, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Cost of Teacher Training Lost in District Budgets