Is Effective Teacher Professional Development Just a “Mirage?"

Blog Post
Aug. 4, 2015

Today, the teacher policy organization TNTP released a provocative report on the current state of teacher professional development (PD). Entitled The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About the Quest for Teacher Development, the report seeks to upend the notion that we know what makes for quality professional development that enhances teacher practice at scale—a necessary effort to ensure that every student in every classroom has access to great teaching. In the small sample of districts they examined, TNTP found that, despite substantive investments, no particular teacher development strategy studied was tied to improvement. So what do TNTP’s findings mean for the future of teacher professional development?

TNTP’s research examined three large districts and found that they invested heavily in teacher development with a “mid-range” cost estimate of $18,000 per teacher, on average. The vast majority of this spending is on personnel: in addition to the nearly 20 days of teacher time annually spent on PD activities, TNTP estimated that teachers could have as many as 10 individuals or departments working to support his or her development.

All of the districts studied had established multiple-measure teacher evaluation systems, and TNTP used evaluation ratings, classroom observation scores, and value-added scores to identify teachers who improved significantly over a two-year time period and those who hadn’t. TNTP then looked to see if there were any common professional development experiences, teacher mindsets, school environments, or early career supports that set improvers apart.

But what TNTP found was that few teachers improved substantially during the timeframe they studied, and some even declined. And when teachers did improve, TNTP found “no type, amount or combination of development activities” that was clearly responsible for the improvement.

Given the massive investments districts make in PD, this finding is alarming. However, before too much hand-wringing occurs, the report provides some reason for optimism. TNTP highlights a mid-size charter management organization (CMO) that was much more successful in helping teachers improve than the other districts they studied: 70 percent of the CMO’s teachers showed substantial growth in their practice compared to 30 percent in the districts, and they grew more at all experience levels. While TNTP was also unable to identify major differences between improvers and non-improvers in the CMO, it did identify a few structural aspects of the CMO that could be contributing to its greater overall teacher improvement than the districts. For instance, the CMO fostered a culture of high expectations and continuous learning, prioritized regular feedback and opportunities for teachers to practice outside of the classroom, and analyzed the effectiveness of their development offerings.

 Our approach to professional learning must truly be redesigned.

Based on its findings, TNTP offers several smart possible paths forward for districts. First, districts and schools must clarify the goal of professional development as well as its urgency and ensure that they are instilled in their cultures both formally (e.g., through evaluation systems) as well as informally (e.g., through teacher promotion decisions). Second, districts can contribute to our collective understanding of “what works” through better data collection, evaluation, and reallocation of PD efforts. Sadly, districts often do not know how much and on what they’re spending to support educators’ development—let alone the quality and impact of each. If districts find their current approaches aren’t working, TNTP encourages them to innovate and experiment with new strategies. Third, TNTP recommends that districts broaden their thinking about how to improve instructional quality, by doubling down on recruitment and retention strategies for highly effective teachers, rethinking pathways into the classroom, and exploring new teaching roles where every teacher is not expected to be an expert on every aspect of teaching from day one.

To be clear, taking action in these areas will not be easy. There are substantial—although not insurmountable hurdles—that must be addressed, including:

1. Figuring out how to evaluate the quality of professional learning opportunities. When examining PD experiences, TNTP’s study tended to focus on quantity (e.g., number of hours, frequency of observations) rather than on aspects of the quality or usefulness of those experiences—and most other PD research has done the same. This is not surprising, given that it’s significantly harder to measure quality than quantity, particularly in a rigorous research study. But, at a minimum, districts can start tracking areas likely to impact PD quality, such as how coaches and other providers of PD are selected and what qualities, knowledge, and/or qualifications they must possess. For example, are these individuals highly effective teachers themselves?

It should also be unsurprising that TNTP found no specific PD experience(s) made the difference for improvers relative to non-improvers when aggregated across schools, given that their quality likely varied widely. So it will be important for districts to assess individual professional learning opportunities as well, as they happen. When evaluating quality of individual PD experiences, districts should go beyond teacher satisfaction surveys to look at more verifiable self-report data. For instance, districts could ask teachers about a PD opportunity’s alignment with identified areas of need in their most recent evaluation or whether they were provided ample opportunities to practice the skill during the opportunity. This is particularly salient given TNTP’s finding that, compared to improvers, non-improvers were twice as likely to rate their performance more highly than their evaluator did.

2. Reducing redundancy and generating a comprehensive approach to professional development at the district/CMO level that helps realize teacher development goals. In many districts, various offices provide teachers with professional development, from the curriculum team to specialized student services. But each office has specific—and sometimes competing—PD priorities, and coordination among offices tends to be minimal. As a result, districts’ PD efforts are often redundant or disjointed at best, and conflicting or unhelpful at worst. Districts should revisit their organizational structures to ensure that teacher improvement is a cohesive effort by all staff in charge of overseeing it, and states and the federal government should evaluate whether policies they set can incentivize districts to do this.

3. Deciding who chooses teachers’ professional learning opportunities. PD targeted to teachers’ personal and school needs is key for teachers’ growth, as evidenced by the ongoing feedback cycle and improvement seen in the CMO TNTP studied. But who is best suited to determine which opportunities a teacher is provided or directed to? Putting the decision in teachers’ hands may be more motivating to some educators. But if struggling teachers are unable to accurately self-assess (as TNTP found), or appropriately vet opportunity quality and alignment to their areas of need, then we will only set them up to fail. Instead of putting one more thing on teachers’ list of responsibilities, states and districts should develop systems for school leaders and teachers that provide a curated list of vetted learning opportunities aligned to individual evaluation feedback. States or districts could empower high-performing teachers with more choice, while requiring struggling teachers to engage in activities identified by evaluators as targeting areas for improvement, as North Carolina has done.

4. Ensuring school leadership is able to support teachers on their path to improvement. TNTP found that teachers who improved were more likely to highly rate their schools’ support structures and evaluators’ quality. Districts should invest heavily in improving policies around the recruitment, selection, and training of school leaders who are responsible for creating a supportive school structure, conducting accurate and frequent observations, and providing feedback teachers trust and can use. In particular, districts should ensure evaluators are trained in how to provide teachers with meaningful feedback and have ample time to do so by taking operational duties off of their plates.

5. Learning from promising innovations to professional development. Not all districts have the capacity to develop innovative PD from scratch, and there’s no reason they should have to—we can find, assess, and replicate successful efforts in the places that are already doing so. Tennessee, for instance, is currently helping its districts rethink their teacher development efforts by leveraging observation feedback under the state evaluation system to pair teachers who are weaker in certain areas with those who are stronger. Teachers then work together to set goals and deepen their practice around particular skills. The state is working with academic researchers to evaluate the impact of the strategy and plans to disseminate its findings later this year.

In its report, TNTP cleverly compares efforts to develop teachers’ practice to efforts to get in better shape—there won’t be a one-size-fits-all strategy for everyone, and any shortcut is likely to fail. But, in both situations, there are structures and conditions that make success more likely. For example, having intermediate and final goals, a plan for meeting those goals, and feeling a sense of urgency and motivation to advance toward them are critical. So is having accurate information about one’s starting point, as well as one’s progress. Finally, having external support and monitoring to stay on track is key. It won’t be easy to get these pieces in place—our approach to professional learning must truly be redesigned. But once it is, we will be able to more easily identify “what works” when it comes to helping teachers improve.