School & District Management

Study Casts Doubt on Impact of Teacher Professional Development

By Stephen Sawchuk — August 18, 2015 3 min read
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Professional development has long been a source of both teacher and administrator frustration for being costly and unfocused. Now, a study from TNTP, a teacher-training and advocacy group, adds yet another troubling finding: PD doesn’t seem to factor into why some teachers get better at their jobs while others don’t.

In case studies of three districts, TNTP could not find a link between teachers who improved their performance and the specific professional development they reported receiving. The districts spent an average of $18,000 annually per teacher on classroom coaching, workshops, and other forms of support.

The report also underscores what other scholars have already lamented: Without better information about what teacher-development activities work under what conditions, it will be hard to force improvements in a U.S. PD marketplace estimated to be worth some $18 billion.

“We’ve known for a long time that a lot of PD is not actually effective at helping teachers improve their craft, but there have not been changes in this sector of the marketplace,” said Heather C. Hill, a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Part of it is that we don’t have good ways of tracking what works and doesn’t work, so we don’t point to things that work or don’t work, and teachers keep signing up for the same things.”

Questionable Efficacy

For the report, TNTP—formerly the New Teacher Project—looked at three large school districts and one charter-network organization that serve in total some 20,000 teachers and 400,000 students, mostly low-income. The organization would not release the names of the districts.

To find teachers who had improved their skills, TNTP researchers analyzed teacher growth in multiple ways: changes in principal ratings, improvements in “value added” estimates based on student test scores, and scores on particular teaching skills. The group controlled for teacher experience, since research shows teachers generally get better over time.

Then, TNTP connected the results to surveys of the teachers on the types of professional development they engaged in, its frequency, and their feelings as to its efficacy. The surveys had response rates ranging from 26 percent to 53 percent across the districts and the charter-management organization. They were not scientific samples, though, and could contain selection bias.

The group calculated PD spending three different ways: a conservative one that took into account just time, money, supplies, and programming; a second that also included evaluation support and the cost of pay for graduate degrees; and a third, generous estimate. Using those methods, TNTP estimates that the districts’ spending on PD ranged from 5 to 11 percent of their fiscal 2014 budgets.

Overall, the data showed few differences in self-reported PD experiences between the teachers who improved and those who didn’t in each of the three districts.

The charter-management organization that TNTP studied generally had teachers making stronger growth than did the three districts and spent far more on professional development—on the order of $33,000 a teacher and 15 percent of its budget. But even in the charter network’s schools, the teachers who improved reported no common PD activities.

“The takeaway for us is not, ‘Bad PD doesn’t work.’ It’s that we have to start taking a much more critical look at teacher support more generally,” said Daniel Weisberg, the president of TNTP. “We don’t know if improving the current system is really feasible. We’re further away from getting to consistent evidence than we thought we were.”

Hopes for Better Research

Karen Hawley Miles, the president of Education Resource Strategies, a group that consults on school spending with districts, said her organization has found similar levels of spending on PD—between 5 and 15 percent of district budgets.

“I hope [TNTP’s report] is another opportunity to bring attention to the very huge importance of really looking at what we’re putting our dollars into,” she said. “I don’t want it to be read as we should stop doing these things. It means, spend smartly.”

Hill recommended that larger districts start investing in better research methods. For instance, they could try to connect teachers’ PD activities, such as time spent in mentoring or grade-level teams, to value-added results and look for patterns that seem promising. And all districts should start trying to vary their PD approaches among schools, scaling up ones with initial results and shuttering programs that don’t seem to be helping much.

Still, she said, that’s a heavy lift.

“I’m pretty despondent about the whole sector,” she said. “Regardless of the type of study, it just doesn’t look like we have any purchase on what works.”

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