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TNTP Re-imagine Teaching

Extra Teacher Training Gets a Failing Grade in Study

August 19, 2015 | Nan Austin, The Modesto Bee

A discouraging new study of teacher training efforts says millions of dollars being spent by districts on professional development are having little impact, and no strategies stand out as effective. But between the lines can be read a different conclusion, that teachers are not getting much out of the extra training because they have no idea where they need to improve.

It suggests teacher evaluations, a battleground topic in recent years, should be viewed less for their “gotcha” potential and more as essential to professional growth.

The study, released Aug. 4, is “The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development.” It was done by The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit group that focuses on raising teacher quality in high-poverty schools.

A two-year project that looked for which strategies and programs worked best to raise teacher quality instead returned data that said nothing was working well, and the 6 percent to 9 percent of school budgets going to extra training is not helping, according to study estimates and a companion blog by Dan Weisberg, the organization’s CEO.

“Conventional wisdom on teacher development tells us that we already know what works when it comes to professional development for teachers,” Weisberg writes.

“We have long believed that if we could just apply those kinds of opportunities more widely, we could improve the quality of classroom teaching in short order. But our findings have convinced us that this conviction is a mirage,” he says, adding, “Great teaching is real, but we are much further from achieving it at scale through professional learning than we once believed.”

The study’s results mirrored the findings of two statistically rigorous studies by the National Center for Education Evaluation in second grade reading and middle school math released in 2007, evaluating teacher training as No Child Left Behind changed teaching expectations in 2002-03. Both of those studies found teacher training did not raise student achievement and in math showed little rise in teacher knowledge.

The recent research covered three large public school districts and one midsize charter school network, surveys of more than 10,000 teachers and 500 school leaders, and 100-plus interviews of staff members involved in teacher development.

“We looked at dozens of variables spanning the development activities teachers experienced, how much time they spent on them, what mindsets they brought to them and even where they worked. Yet we found no common threads that distinguished ‘improvers’ from other teachers,” the study states.

To be clear, researchers’ conclusion was not that teacher training is useless, only that it is not being done in an effective way.

“First, we have to stop giving professional development a pass. For too long, we have believed that ‘high-quality’ professional development is inherently positive, and more is always better,” Weisberg writes.

Teachers agree, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in response to the report. “The study points out the challenge of fixing the many flaws in our current professional development system without throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” she wrote in a statement.

Even high-quality training has to be relevant, she said, adding, “Low-quality professional development, frankly, feels like detention.”

The study recommends a hard look at how well training is working and exploring different approaches, such as letting teachers design their own training. But it goes further, suggesting the 19th-century schoolhouse model we still follow is due for an update, and training dollars should be spent in smarter ways.

“Balance investments in development with investments in recruitment, compensation and smart retention,” and “Reconstruct the teacher’s job,” are study recommendations, as are reconsidering how teachers are trained and certified.

While concluding the billions being spent nationwide get little bang for a whole lot of bucks, the study stops short of suggesting districts spend less.

“These findings are sobering. But we want to be very clear: We do not believe the right response is to cut investments, in either time or funding, in teacher support. That would be disastrous,” Weisberg says, pointing out that the greatest improvement was at the charter school, which spent $30,000 on average per teacher and got better results.

But I would argue that part of what distinguishes teaching at a charter is a relatively young teaching staff and an emphasis on conforming to the charter’s teaching preferences. They evaluate those fresh faces continually and give lots of feedback. And at the end of the day, teachers know they must conform or be replaced.

Traditional neighborhood schools across California have a very different evaluation system. Most use a kind of clipboard checkoff based on a principal’s visit every one to three years, with all but a sliver of teachers getting a “meeting expectations” or higher. It’s basically a pass-fail system where nearly everyone passes.

Far from assuring teacher excellence, it appears this system shortchanges hardworking professionals by giving them no accurate information.

“The vast majority of teachers in the districts we studied are rated Effective or Meeting Expectations or higher, even as student outcomes in these districts fall far short of where they need to be,” notes the study, adding that less than half of teachers surveyed felt they had any instructional weaknesses.

“Even the few teachers who did earn low ratings seemed to reject them; more than 60 percent of low-rated teachers still gave themselves high performance ratings. Together, this suggests a pervasive culture of low expectations for teacher development and performance,” it concludes.

Compare that to private-sector performance reviews. Yearly evaluations are the norm, with employee input on performance criteria and improvements from last year. The write-up would not be considered complete without the boss taking time to list what each employee does best and examples of good work, as well as areas that need attention and goals to be met in the following year.

We all like to consider ourselves invaluable and outstanding, but I’ve learned a lot from seeing my work through other eyes and challenging myself to get better. It also helps to glimpse that companywide perspective. We’re all about excellent journalism, but a reminder that daily deadlines count, too, helps keep us all rowing in the same direction.

In school districts, a program called Instructional Rounds, practiced in the Keyes Union and Livingston Elementary school districts, offers a promising way to give meaningful evaluations of teachers by teachers.

Essentially, teachers and administrators visit rooms looking for students’ reaction to teacher lessons. Rather than saying a lesson was good or bad, they note things such as six students were staring out the window, or 15 hands were raised immediately when the teacher asked for an answer.

That shifts the focus from good teacher or bad teacher, to this worked and that did not.

As now-retired Keyes Superintendent Karen Poppen put it, explaining the process in 2012, “We want to be an effective school. Effective schools ask themselves questions.”

[The Mirage] suggests teacher evaluations, a battleground topic in recent years, should be viewed less for their 'gotcha' potential and more as essential to professional growth.