Teaching Teachers: Big Costs, Little Payoff

We're wasting billions on professional development, as a new study documents. What can be done about a culture of low expectations?
August 13, 2015 AT 9:00 AM
By Charles Chieppo  |  Contributor
Principal of Chieppo Strategies and former policy director for Massachusetts’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance

Given that it's become a truism that teacher quality impacts student learning more than any other variable within the four walls of a school, the results of a new study of teachers' professional development programs are particularly troubling. There are two main takeaways from the report by TNTP, a nonprofit formerly known as The New Teacher Project: Taxpayers invest a lot more resources in teacher development programs than previously thought, and there is no link between these programs and improved classroom performance.

That second finding, in particular, will have a positive impact if it prompts school districts to clearly define what teacher effectiveness looks like and to measure professional development programs in terms of how they help teachers get closer to that goal.

The study, entitled "The Mirage," was based on surveys of 10,000 teachers and 500 school leaders, along with interviews with more than 100 staff involved in teacher development. The surveys and interviews were conducted in three large school districts and a mid-sized charter school network.

Improvements in performance that were found seemed to stem more from learning the job, almost invariably coming in the first few years of a teacher's career. The difference in effectiveness between the average fifth-year teacher compared to a rookie was more than nine times greater than the difference between the average fifth year teacher and those in their 20th year.

There is plenty of room to improve. Using multiple measures such as teacher evaluations, classroom observation and student test scores, TNTP rated about half the teachers in their 10th year or beyond as below "effective" in core instructional practices such as developing students' critical thinking.

For this to change, districts need to begin by improving communication with teachers about their performance and areas where improvement is needed. The vast majority of teachers studied received ratings from their districts or charter operator of "meeting expectations" or better. Amazingly, fewer than half the teachers surveyed agreed that they had any weaknesses in their performance. Even among the few teachers who earned low ratings from their own school districts, 60 percent gave themselves high performance ratings.

The line from the study that jumps off the page is that the findings suggest "a pervasive culture of low expectations for teacher development and performance."

The problems are certainly not due to a lack of resources. The districts and charter school network that were the focus of the study spent nearly $18,000 per teacher per year on professional development. They also dedicated 19 full school days, about 10 percent of a typical school year, to the programs. Based on these findings, TNTP estimates that the 50 largest U.S. school districts alone spend about $8 billion annually on teacher development, far more than was previously thought.

TNTP makes several common sense recommendations for fixing the problem. In addition to giving teachers a much better picture of their own performance and progress, districts must explore alternative approaches to professional development. They should evaluate the effectiveness of all teacher development programs based on the programs' ability to yield measurable progress toward a clearly defined standard for teaching and student learning. Resources should be reallocated to the programs that yield the greatest improvement.

"The Mirage" is no outlier. Over the last decade, two federally funded studies of teacher-development programs reached similar conclusions. School leaders should heed TNTP's recommendations, which would make for a good start toward changing that "pervasive culture of low expectations."