Look Past the Mirage

| U.S. News | Catherine E. Brown

What works to support great teaching? That’s the question TNTP’s latest blockbuster report, released yesterday, addresses.

‎Now that we have clear evidence that we haven't found the special sauce for high-quality professional development at scale, school system leaders should be inspired to think way out of the box on this front.

Like “The Widget Effect,” “The Irreplacables” and others before it, “The Mirage” report is thorough, thought-provoking and beautifully designed. And, like the major reports that preceded it, “The Mirage” crystallizes a point that seems almost smack-your-forehead obvious once you've read it: We spend a lot to help teachers and almost none of it is helpful.

I'm not exaggerating. TNTP found that our nation invests $18,000 per teacher on professional development – more than in finance, health care, manufacturing or almost any other industry. Yet out of an exhaustive list of professional development strategies that were tested, almost nothing led to student gains. Perhaps the most interesting finding was that 30 percent of the 10,000 teachers examined managed to improve their practice in spite of school districts' disjointed efforts to help them.

‎So where do we go from here? The report offered some glimmers of hope.

First, ‎out of the long list of factors that TNTP examined, two actually did “pop.” “Openness to feedback” and “ratings alignment” were correlated with improved practice, a statistically significant finding. In other words, teachers who were open to hearing ways to get better got better. “Ratings alignment,” which means teachers rated themselves the same as their evaluators, embodies a similar concept: These teachers were clear-eyed about the deficiencies and bright spots in their own practice.

So how can policymakers help cultivate teachers who are more open to feedback? Perhaps teacher selection processes offer one way. My colleagues and I met with representatives from Success Academy, which, with a diverse and largely disadvantaged population, outperformed peer schools throughout New York City and those from the suburbs of Scarsdale in 2014. They told us they screen for openness to feedback during their interview process for new teachers by asking them to teach a lesson, giving them feedback, and then allowing them to redo the lesson to see whether they were able to integrate the feedback into their practice.

It isn't only charter schools who have recognized the importance of openness to feedback. The Madison Metropolitan School District also screens and selects candidates based on their ability to “reflect on strengths and growth areas regularly, and seek support, feedback, and mentors to improve,” among other key competencies. Given TNTP's finding, perhaps this practice of screening for the ability to seek and receive feedback is one that school districts, schools and teacher preparation programs everywhere should consider adopting when selecting new teachers.

Openness to feedback can also be baked into school cultures and schedules. By establishing early on that teachers are going to get a lot of feedback and having master teachers with dedicated time in their schedules to helping other teachers improve, the high-performing charter network in “The Mirage” was able to create a culture where it's OK to say you have room for improvement. A full 81 percent of teachers in this Charter Management Organization reported having room to grow, while only 47 percent of teachers in the traditional districts that were part of the study reported the same.

‎Third, perhaps it's time to shift some of that $18 billion we spend on professional development into developing more aggressive recruitment and selection processes for teachers. While there are many exceptions, most school districts and teacher preparation programs are passive consumers of prospective teachers, looking only at the credentials among applicants who happen to apply. They may use ads or participate in career fairs, but few districts have “boots on the ground” professionals dedicated to going to college campuses to find and recruit the next generation of teachers. Teach For America, as a counter example, recruits heavily among high-achievers from all walks of life and feeds all the information back into a feedback loop that allows it to refine its recruitment and selection process the next year. It is looking for patterns that can help predict who is likely to be great at teaching and then using that information to try to find more of those people.

Most states and districts, as a result of Department of Education waivers and Race to the Top grants, now have the data infrastructures to identify similar patterns in their teacher workforce. With a more aggressive and intentional approach, they might be able to find more prospective teachers who are likely to excel in their context.

It is worth noting that the Charter Management Organization studied in “The Mirage” is higher performing than the traditional district, though the proportion of teachers whose students' test scores grew more than expected each year was the same: one-third. Since improving student achievement is the name of the game, it seems like a worthwhile investment for schools and districts to focus more resources on raising the bar for those who enter teaching, rather than trying to develop the teachers only once they are hired.

‎Now that we have clear evidence that we haven't found the special sauce for high-quality professional development at scale (and it's not just the TNTP report; a review of 910 math professional development studies by the Institute of Education Sciences, found only two in which interventions led to improved student proficiency in math), school system leaders should be inspired to think way out of the box on this front.

What if teachers were given cash and allowed to invest in evidence-based interventions to improve their practice? What if schools had management teams like in other high-functioning organizations, instead of one principal overseeing 60 teachers while also running a complex operation? What if teachers spent fewer hours a day teaching and the rest of the time preparing, reflecting, collaborating with their colleagues, and observing excellent teachers in action like they do in Japan?

Districts should experiment – and rigorously study – all these approaches and more and let the evidence guide us to a better path. We can't give up on teacher support. It's time to look past the mirage and figure out a better way to give teachers the support they need to do better by kids. 

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

Learn More About TNTP