Special Report
Teacher Preparation

Teacher Professional Development: Many Choices, Few Quality Checks

By Stephen Sawchuk — December 06, 2017 8 min read
Teacher Chris Woods, right, helps 9th grade student Dylan Jenich with a math problem while Anton Kristapovich, left, looks on during the math class that Woods teaches at Calumet High.

Ask teachers what they actually do to renew their licenses every five years, and you are likely to get an elaborate description of their decision process, not a simple answer.

“For me, and this is being bluntly honest, I try to pick something that’s going to work easiest with the time constraints that I have,” said Chris Woods, a math teacher in Calumet, Mich., who, among his other commitments, sits on a state panel looking at teacher recruitment and retention.

“I enjoy going to conferences, but you’re out of class, you’re making substitute plans, and coming back to who knows what happened while you were gone,” he said. “And it’s tough for a school district to always come up with great PD opportunities, so sometimes it feels more like you’re just filling out paperwork just to be legal.”

There are, in other words, considerations of location and convenience. There’s the variability of what each school district offers—or can afford to offer—in the way of professional development. There are the costs, not just money but time as well, of attending conferences and courses. Beyond that, there’s the desire to learn something relevant to the job.

All of which has given way to a bewildering array of providers offering education credits and PD, and led to this conundrum: Given these nearly limitless choices, who is in charge of ensuring quality?

A Diffuse Landscape

Some data suggest that many kinds of activities count toward license renewals: The U.S. Department of Education found that nearly half of teachers reported receiving credits for their participation in PD in 2011-12, the most recent year for which data was available.

In the early days of relicensing in the 1960s and 70s, colleges of education held a virtual monopoly on renewal routes. At least one state, North Dakota, still requires all teachers to take their credits from universities.

But as teachers in far-flung locales clamored for more convenient options, states allowed them to count in-house PD offered by districts, using nondegree measures such as clock hours or continuing education units—measures that can be counted and systematized but are not tracked nationally.

The changes also helped transform the PD marketplace into today’s hyperlocal one. A 2014 report financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that more than 80 percent of the estimated $18 billion spent annually on professional development is locally provided.

And in nearly all the states, school districts and regional offices of education are approved providers of continuing education. Teachers’ unions are major players, too, generally offering classes at little to no cost for their members.

Virtually no data exist on how much teachers spend out of pocket to complete the requirements. Sometimes, the PD offered by districts is discounted for their teachers or charged at a nominal fee to cover administrative costs; sometimes it isn’t.

Before Wisconsin did away with license renewal, teachers mostly paid out of pocket, said Amy Traynor, a national-board-certified teacher and coach in the Eau Claire district.

“Most of the time, teachers looked for cheap credits. Sometimes you get good PD that way and sometimes you don’t,” she said.

Tuition credits, of course, are charged by universities at a standard rate. But credits provided through other providers can vary widely in cost.

Take TeachMe Professional Development, which opened shop in 2011. The for-profit organization, located in San Luis Obispo, Calif., offers what are essentially modern-day correspondence courses. Teachers download a packet of readings and then take an online exam. If they get 70 percent of the answers correct, they are awarded continuing education credits.

Teachers can pay by the credit hour, at $4 a pop, or pay $95 for unlimited course access. The training is approved in five states and in many individual districts, and more than 20,000 teachers have used the courses, according to Amanda Arce, a site manager for the group.

Contrast that to CE Credits Online, a for-profit that offers self-paced online courses. It typically charges $349 for 45 clock hours—and more if the hours are converted into university credit through one of its higher education partners. (The Woodinville, Wash., company did not return an email seeking comment.)

Quality Control

Naturally, in such a decentralized marketplace, quality control poses a challenge.

Washington state lists more than 250 approved providers of clock hours. In Texas, it’s close to 900. Less than a decade ago, Illinois had more than 8,000.

“Oh for God’s sake, I was an approved provider at one point,” said Patricia Marshall, a veteran English teacher in the school district serving Petersburg, Ill. “It wasn’t difficult. You filled in the form, you sent in some money, and bam, you were an approved provider.” (Illinois has since drastically reduced the number of providers.)

Most states audit a random sample of providers each year, usually by reviewing documents. Washington state officials said they also take a closer look if they receive a complaint about a provider but did not receive any in 2016 and could not recall the last time that the state dropped a provider from the list. (In Washington, the state’s teacher-standards board sets the policy for licensing, but the state education department reviews providers.)

Similarly, Texas officials said they audit providers on the advice of teachers, but more providers are dropped simply for failing to turn in annual paperwork. Thus far in 2017, the state had dropped 16 providers.

In both states, teacher-satisfaction surveys administered by providers aren’t collected and analyzed by the state. They’re used only by the providers.

Coupled with the huge number of providers is the challenge of focus: Most state standards spell out some parameters for the training—requiring some portion of it to be based on the teacher’s field, for example. But far fewer require specific topics.

Some teachers, like Massachusetts middle school math teacher Kevin Cormier, suggest that states might improve focus via specificity. Surely all teachers could benefit from ongoing training on how to teach students with disabilities and English-language learners, given evolving research in those fields, he said.

“Maybe it’s just saying something like, ‘Make sure within the next five years you have two classes that the state will provide continuously,’ ” said Cormier, who works in the North Middlesex district, “‘two that help with special ed., two for ELLs, two for your content area, and we’re good.’ ”

It’s a common-sense idea. But states have found that trying to slim down options means bumping up the tight-loose paradox of professional development: Teachers almost uniformly say in interviews that they want more control, rather than less, over their training.

Illinois Takes a Stand

Recent changes to Illinois’ certification renewal help to illuminate the tight-loose paradox—and the challenge of trying to improve quality control.

The state only formally introduced recertification rules around 2000, and pressure from teachers’ unions kept those requirements fairly lax. But by the early 2010s, quality concerns were rampant.

Almost anything could count toward relicensure under its rules, from reading a book to traveling, as long as a teacher could make the case that it boosted his or her knowledge and skills. (Famously, one professional-development class on probability and statistics visited the racetrack.)

Lawmakers passed a series of reforms beginning in 2013. Now, aside from districts, universities, and regional education agencies, there are fewer than 100 approved providers. In essence, the state’s new structure puts much more of the responsibility on districts to arrange meaningful PD experiences for teachers.

That has worked out well for Shannon Levitt, a high school teacher in Illinois’ District 155, in Crystal Lake. Although she’s only two years into her latest license-renewal cycle, she has already earned enough credits. Many were granted for her weekly participation, each Monday, in problem-solving meetings with her peers.

On a recent Monday, the teachers collaborated on a new method for teaching “close” reading—getting students to probe beyond the surface of both fiction and nonfiction writing. Three hours later, Levitt walked out of the meeting with a framework for using the strategy, Powerpoints for her students, and sample lesson plans.

When she needs outside support, her district lets her attend summer training through the Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID program, which helps low-income students learn study habits. (Illinois allows approved providers to subcontract training to other groups like AVID.)

But she’s aware that the district’s generous approach isn’t shared by all.

“I will say it is because of the opportunities I’m being afforded in the district,” Levitt said. “The resources are there. Our PD is teacher-led. For me, it’s very relevant and applicable to what I’m doing day in and day out in the classroom.”

On the other hand, Marshall, the Petersburg, Ill., teacher, has sometimes found the new rules frustrating.

She can no longer directly enroll in her favorite training: webinars run by the National Humanities Center, a nonprofit supporting advanced training and scholarship in the humanities, that delve deeply into the teaching of specific novels. And she hears stories about principals in nearby districts who have refused to allow teachers access to any opportunities not on the current provider list.

But Marshall said she feels lucky in one respect, and that is that her district has started being more systematic in asking teachers what they need and how they can design experiences that are going to matter for teachers.

“Typically, it’s not a case of teachers saying what they want; it’s people saying this is what we have to offer you,” she said. “So, for me, this is a huge sea change, and a very welcome one.”

Assistant Editor Liana Loewus contributed to this article.

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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