Teaching Profession Opinion

Professional Development Is Useless! Or Not.

By Nancy Flanagan — August 09, 2015 5 min read
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There’s a great Facebook meme making the rounds, one of those “Said no teacher, ever” cartoon drawings: “Mrs. Jones was so engaged in the team-building exercise that she totally forgot her classroom was a hot mess and school was starting on Monday.”

Exactly. The fact that the sketch has been widely shared, liked and chortled over lends authenticity to the common back-to-school frustration, familiar to teachers everywhere: Why is my district / building principal forcing me to engage in pointless hours of professional development, chosen by someone else, right now, just when I need the time for tasks that are far more urgent? Work that I know, without a doubt, will make the start of the school year smoother and, you know, improve student learning right off the bat?

This week, there were a number of articles about TNTP (the organization formerly known as The New Teacher Project, presumably renamed to remove the taint of its origins) and the shocking conclusions of its new data-driven report on professional development for teachers: Professional development doesn’t work! Districts spend billions and teachers don’t get better!

As my 8th graders used to say: as if.

My first question, diving into the breathless reporting: Just which measures of “teacher improvement” did researchers use to determine the impact of various forms of professional development? Well, student test data, of course. Plus “observations” and “evaluations.”

So—to clarify—the identification of improved teacher practice hinged on raising test scores and being rated higher on (unnamed) externally appraised protocols. About one-third of the teachers (who were teaching in three large public districts, and one charter network) “got better” (with no common foolproof intervention), but another 20 percent “got worse.”

It’s not hard to see how a significant percentage of teachers, after being bombarded by prescriptive workshops, targeted goal-setting and earbud coaching, would perform differently in the classroom, with increased ratcheting up of focus on tested content and skills. Their classroom interactions would more closely resemble those described as desirable by professional developers. They would be The Improved, using TNTP’s metrics.

What’s more interesting is the 20% whose performance grew worse. The reporters seem mystified. How can teachers become even more defective, after districts spent an average of $18,000/year per teacher, in well-intended training? Did those teachers just not pay attention? Are they dumb? (Believe me, that question hangs, throbbing, in the air over the whole discussion—who are these weak sisters, apparently unable to quickly master the desired, repetitively explicated pedagogical skills?)

Or—did this subset of teachers come to realize that the mandated training was not going to help them reach students? Did they inherit (or volunteer for) groups of students with more pervasive learning difficulties? Did they decide the evaluation/observation model du jour was meaningless, and strike out on their own, trying to build a functional, durable teaching practice, gathering their own evidence of success? Were their district leaders so jazzed about fun data icebreakers--two days before school starts—that the concept of “professional development” permanently became anathema to beleaguered practitioners with lesson plans to write and papers to grade?

The study also found that school districts are not helping teachers understand their weaknesses. Fewer than half of the teachers surveyed agreed that they had weaknesses in the classroom while more than 60 percent of teachers who earned low performance ratings gave themselves high grades.

I have to say that I’m grateful that I taught for 30 years in a district that did not try to help me “understand my weaknesses"—a process that all teachers go through, with varying degrees of introspective pain and effort, even those (perhaps especially those) who have long-term careers in the classroom. The implication here is that teachers’ own assessment of their effectiveness is worthless—they’re oblivious to or ignorant of their shortcomings. This is patently absurd.

Also weird: the surveyed districts were spending $18K per teacher, annually, on professional development. That’s a bizarre statistic, amounting to spending half a first year teacher’s annual salary on training programs. Either there was such a tsunami of purchased advice and glut of canned guidance that teachers were thoroughly overwhelmed—or those districts were trying to buy evidence of their teachers’ quickly developed efficacy, and didn’t care what they had to spend. The title of one piece says it all: Is Professional Development for Teachers One Big Boondoggle?

Yup, pretty much. Especially lately, with the advent of test-based accountability, enormous teacher turnover and the Era of the Common Core. There’s money to be made, and the organization that can demonstrate a surefire way to get teachers up and running, cranking out the numbers swiftly, will win that race to the top. That goal has to be behind TNTP’s “massive” research and report. Once you’ve got the training formula, it’s merely a matter of (here it comes) scaling up.

What was most interesting was the lack of feedback from teachers whose practice was studied—what forms of professional learning have been useful to them, changed their practice, or made them more confident about their work. My friend Claudia Swisher posted a link to one of the “PD is worthless” articles on her Facebook page, kicking off a great discussion among her colleagues, mostly Oklahoma teachers.

Not one of them thought professional development was useless, and all of them could articulate, clearly, what experiences had made them more effective in the classroom. A sampling:

  • I am who I am as a teacher and educator because of good professional development.
  • I’ve had more success with the new ed-camps that have been popping up.
  • We have gone to a pick your own PD and professionals from our district volunteer to host the classes. It has worked really well. No more “experts” from across two state lines.
  • Teacher-chosen professional development is always the most meaningful.
  • National Board Certification, National Writing Project, NCTE—all have shaped me.
  • I spent the first few years of my career thinking that I was “slow” for feeling overwhelmed with all the different PD.
  • Evidence suggests that professional development and training do work IF and WHEN teachers have time to collaborate, plan and implement the changes into their practice—and there’s the rub.
  • Nobody understands how complex and demanding the work is. An excellent practice is built slowly, by experience, collegiality and paying attention to student responses.

Peter Greene, in his excellent analysis of the report, responds to this statement—"We bombard teachers with help, but most of it is not helpful"—by asking “Who are ‘we,’ exactly?”

And that’s the key, really. Who is judging the impact of teachers’ professional learning, and what are their goals?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.