Does Teacher Professional Development Really Have to Be So Bad?

For children, the beginning of the school year typically means new teachers, new classmates and new lessons. For teachers, a new school year brings curriculum planning and a stretch of new professional development—training that costs the nation’s largest 50 school systems at least $8 billion a year. Whether this investment in training will pay off—or even prove valuable to teachers—is very much in doubt. This summer TNTP released a report about teacher professional development. In a nutshell, the main finding from the report could be boiled down to this: Districts are spending a lot on teacher improvement (more than most people realize); the help schools are giving their teachers isn’t leading to huge improvements year-to-year; and the growth teachers do make isn’t necessarily linked to a specific development strategy. These findings are disheartening, to say the least. As a former teacher, I’ve participated in effective, high-quality professional development and I’ve also been in some pretty ineffective professional development. Recently, I’ve had the chance to hear from teachers and leaders at several schools and see what’s happening behind closed doors. When I first began teaching, my school year started with a few short days of professional development—most of which was spent taking cursory glances at new policies and procedures or being trained on new systems. The development certainly never made me a better teacher (although it may have made me more proficient with certain systems). The best development I had during my first two years was through an outside consultant who came to work with us on a very specific instructional strategy. We worked on how to better implement academic vocabulary into lessons, were given sample vocabulary assessments and worked to make our own vocabulary quizzes and tests significantly more rigorous. It was so applicable and easy to implement, and it genuinely improved my practice and my students’ academic growth. The only problem with this development is that it represented a small sliver of the time I spent “professionally developing” and training to become a better instructor. So many other days ended up being bogged down with planning, grading and learning new district mandates—systems, paperwork processes, etc. I recently observed an elementary charter school in Nashville several times throughout their teacher professional development, which was three weeks before the school year began (that’s nearly 120 hours of learning for teachers!). I saw teachers watching dozens of classroom videos, working through eight-page documents on how to “positively frame” corrections for students and rehearsing lesson strategies with other teachers. It was incredible. Teachers were giving each other feedback, the principal was rotating throughout groups to observe and teachers were practicing very specific skills that they would use in the classroom to engage students and push their learning forward. As a former teacher, I knew the targeted practice they were getting would be useful when they stepped in front of students. In another school visit, I saw an entire room in the building devoted to teacher rehearsals. Essentially, teachers can spend their planning practicing techniques, rehearsing lessons and trying out new strategies with other teachers. To me, this seems like a highly effective use of space and time for teachers. Even though it felt to me like high-quality development, we’re still lacking the data to prove this. In thinking specifically about schools that are not seeing results and whose students continue to fall behind, it’s clear that too much development time is wasted, and we’re pouring billions of dollars into it without results—schools don’t seem to know which teachers are improving, and sometimes teachers don’t even know that they need to improve. In fact, the districts TNTP studied are spending nearly $18,000 per teacher per year on development efforts. For our kids and our teachers, this is completely unacceptable. We have to find out what works and then do it.
Liz Riggs is a writer and educational equity advocate who lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
Liz is a writer and educational equity advocate who lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

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