Teacher professional development is an enormous sinkhole, sucking billions of dollars every year and producing no measurable results, says a new study by TNTP, a New York-based nonprofit education reform group formerly known as The New Teacher Project. TNTP's 370 staff members work on the ground in schools around the country helping schools sharpen curriculum, improve hiring practices and retain top teachers.
The two-year study looked at three large urban districts and one charter network that collectively employ more than 20,000 teachers. They tested professional development methods against student-test performance and teacher-classroom performance.
And they found ... nothing.
The 50 largest districts in the U.S. devote at least $8 billion to teacher development annually, they write, a figure that includes time lost to teaching or lesson preparation. Teachers surveyed by TNTP report that they spend 19 full school days a year in development activities. If a $18,000 figure per teacher amount is accurate, the total cost for 3.5 million K-12 teachers would exceed $60 billion a year.
The financial implications of this are enormous, said Dan Weisberg, TNTP's CEO. TNTP estimates that the average school district spends $18,000 per teacher each year on professional development.
"If the $8 billion were working and kids were getting better and better," Weisberg said, "then let's spend more. But we are getting nothing for our investment.”
Not everyone takes this critique at face value. The study is important and deserves close attention, said Ed Ackerman, president of Solutions Tree, a major teacher professional development company, but he questions whether its sweeping conclusions are warranted.
“This study looked at three districts and one charter school network,” Ackerman said. “We work with hundreds of districts. We've built a very large data set, with much of it online, that shows the role of professional development on creating better outcomes.”
But the TNTP critique has found a number of allies, however, including, Mike Garet, the researcher whose framework for effective teacher development is still widely cited, long after he concluded he could not find evidence to back it up.
"We have poured a ton of resources into professional development,” said Garet, a fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based American Institutes of Research, one of the most prominent sources of nonpartisan social science data, “but we've done no continuous improvement and testing to see if the money is well spent."
Back in 1997, Garet and his colleagues came up with five features they thought characterized effective professional development for teachers. These included features like integration with classroom curriculum and team members from the same school or department taking the same training.
Over the next few years, AIR then set out to test the theory, first looking at 2nd grade reading classrooms and then 7th grade math classes. Both studies used rigorous random assignment methods, Garet said.
The researchers were surprised to find no impact on either student test scores or on classroom performance evaluations, both of which closely tracked each other.
"The professional development was delivered by very experienced instructors," Garet said. "The quality was very high, the feedback strong, the curriculum consistent, but didn't boost teacher achievement at all."
Subsequent studies have shown a curious stall that occurs after the fifth year of teaching, Garet said. For the first five years, teaching quality does improve, but after that it tends to level off. "If professional development were effective, since all teachers were participating in it throughout their careers, you would think they would be get more effective with years of experience," he said.
The TNTP results are consistent with the AIR randomized study. "We concluded that it didn't matter whether teachers had more or less professional development or what kind they had," Garet said.
Ackerman responds to the TNTP data with a simple, logical colloquy. All evidence now shows that the single greatest factor in educational outcomes is the quality of the teaching, he notes.
“Are there schools and districts that are improving?” Ackerman asked. “Can we find the best practices employed by these stellar organizations? The answer is yes. And we find that part of what they do to improve the expertise of the people who work there. Then you ask how they do that.”
He said one of the ways outstanding schools improve is by making teacher effectiveness a “laser focus” of their efforts.
Ackerman does agree with TNTP, however, that short-term teacher development over a weekend, or having them read a book, is no substitute for sustained commitment. He says his company tries to ensure that the school or district is owning and internalizing the training.
No silver bullets
TNTP did offer a number of recommendations for schools. These include doing more to precisely define what professional growth is and doing a better job of inventorying current programs and expenses to evaluate them. The final set of recommendations, however, call for a step back from teacher development, putting it in the context of other investments, such as recruitment, compensation and retention policies.
They call for reconstructing the teacher’s job, possibly in radical ways, and redesigning schools to extend the reach of great teachers to both students and colleagues. They also note that we need to rethink how we train and certify teachers, not just how we develop them on the job.
"It's a terrific contribution," said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, of the TNTP study, "but it should surprise anyone who has been spending time with this field."
“I would hesitate to look at the TNTP recommendations as a recipe, and I think it would be a mistake if states or school districts read them that way,” Hess said. “After all, we just don't know what works. But I do think the recommendations are generally sensible and point in a useful direction.”
Hess said he hopes the study helps generate dramatic breaks with the status quo, which, he hopes, should involve looking outside of education to how other professions train their people. And he looks to organizations, such as the U.S. military, that can "take people and in a matter of months teach them to be quite competent at their work, and then invest in growing their skills over time."
However, Hess does fear a repeat of what happened in the 1990s, when Mike Garet’s provisional framework for what makes a strong teacher development program became iconic in the industry, before it had really been proven. That framework, Garet notes, continues to live on long after the evidence led him to question it.
Among Garet’s principles was that effective teacher development focuses on content knowledge, includes active learning, occurs in collaboration with other teachers in the school and is sustained over time, not over a weekend.
Garet notes that his markers of good professional development have permeated the literature and are now accepted uncritically. He still thinks the factors they isolated matter, but he now knows something much more radical is needed.
Any real improvement in teaching and learning outcomes will require some radical thinking, Weisberg agrees, which is how he sees the import of the study. It won't do to just try harder at what we are already doing, or even trying to winnow the best results from the existing practices.
One example of such radical rethinking, Weisberg notes, is a North Carolina program called "Opportunity Culture," that takes high-performing teachers who might otherwise have been promoted to administration and employs them as multi-classroom teachers who monitor multiple classrooms, work with students in small groups and helps maintain teaching excellence in their unit.
Garet points to another promising program at the University of Virginia that in a randomized study got strong teacher classroom performance boosts after one year and strong student achievement boosts in the second year.
The UVA program involves intensive distance mentoring, with teachers filming themselves once every two weeks and sending the video to the mentor, who codes it and talks on the phone with the teacher to give detailed feedback. The in-context and continuous coaching seems to have a real impact, Garet said.