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Sure, Teacher Professional Development is Broken—But It Can Be Fixed

Today TNTP released “The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth about Our Quest for Teacher Development,” a new study documenting the high cost and minimal effectiveness of teacher development. Like TNTP, we have found similar results throughout our work with school districts. Districts often spend much more than they report—or even realize—on teacher development, which we call Professional Growth, or PG. We also find that this investment doesn’t consistently pay off for student and teacher improvement. But our experience shows what underlies these results and points toward some clear strategies for improvement.

Why aren’t the Professional Growth investments paying off?

When we talk about Professional Growth, we take into account many different types of resources, including teacher time, coursework, and salary put toward collaborative planning time. Across the districts we have studied, the cost of Professional Growth is high but not alarming. We should expect it to cost money to support a high-quality teaching force, but the problem comes when this investment does not yield teacher growth. And growth rarely happens when districts spread their resources across shallow, fragmented efforts like one-off workshops, coaches who are spread too thinly across schools, and teacher coursework that isn’t always connected to the everyday learning needs of students.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Instead, those dollars could be targeted to job-embedded Professional Growth strategies where teaching teams have time and expert support to work together to implement new curriculum and instructional practices and adjust their practice in response to student learning. Dollars could be used for individual, on-the-job support for career growth too. For example, novice teachers teach fewer students or team with a master teacher. Teachers could receive Professional Growth support and more pay or lower loads to take on new roles that expand their reach past their own classrooms.

How do we know Professional Growth strategies can work?

We know that well-organized investments in teacher learning can make a big impact because we see notable differences among schools in their average teacher growth. To understand what can work, we can’t just look across all efforts and average the results. We need to look at the specifics of the Professional Growth strategy, understand the goals, the structure and whether it was implemented well. For example, Teach Plus, a non-profit organization which support schools in doing this, has achieved dramatic results through its program that recruits, trains, and pays highly effective teachers to lead teaching teams in reviewing student data and learning new practices—this program is called the T3 Initiative. In 2014-15, 20 T3 Teacher Leaders in three cities worked with 72 additional teachers to improve outcomes for almost 2,000 students. Overall, students’ scores rose an average of 20.3 points on one test and 15.3 points on another—roughly doubling average district growth over the previous school year.

What can districts do?

It isn’t easy for districts to immediately free current Professional Growth spending for better return because most of the dollars are tied up either in district or school staff, or in long-standing structures that are not easily changed. However, there are three things districts can do right now:

  • Look at your district’s current coaching and other staff who play professional development roles and evaluate if they meet your teacher growth priorities. Our Professional Growth and Support Spending Calculator and Self-Assessment can help you get started.
  • Review your career pathways and compensation structure: Where possible, work to shift spending on things like extra masters degrees toward things like expert teacher leader roles with accountability for improving team performance. Our “First Steps” paper provides guidance on what to do right now to improve teachers’ compensation and career path. Also see our recent paper on lessons from leading districts transforming teacher compensation, “Do More, Add More, Earn More.”
  • Secure adequate time in schools (daily and over the year) to structure continuous collaborative learning for teacher teams. Our School Scheduling Tools will help you get started.
Sure, Teacher Professional Development is Broken—But It Can Be Fixed
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