Study Questions Value of Teacher Development

| The Wall Street Journal | Leslie Brody

Report from nonprofit group suggests rethinking ways to boost skills of teachers

We all have this nagging feeling in our gut that professional development money probably isn’t really well spent but it’s been awfully hard to quantify that.

Sandi Jacobs, Vice President, National Council on Teacher Quality

Investments in ongoing training for teachers usually didn’t improve their performance, and schools should rethink how they try to bolster their teachers’ skills, according to a study released Tuesday by a national nonprofit group.

TNTP, a Brooklyn-based organization that trains educators and promotes stringent evaluations, analyzed several years of data from three school districts. It found the districts spent an average of $18,000 per teacher yearly on professional development, including coaching in the classroom, formal feedback, vendor contracts for training and staff time.

Despite that investment, the report found that only three out of 10 teachers in these districts saw their practice improve substantially over two or three years, and two out of 10 teachers saw their performance decline.

The report comes as districts nationwide struggle to boost teacher quality, which many experts call the most important in-school factor affecting how much students learn. The three districts weren’t identified, but the authors of the study said they were representative of large public school systems nationwide.

The researchers surveyed more than 10,000 teachers and 500 school leaders in the three districts, analyzed teacher ratings and interviewed staff members.

TNTP chief executive Dan Weisberg, chief of labor policy for New York City schools during the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said schools nationwide should re-evaluate what helps teachers improve, innovate to match different teachers’ needs and measure what works.

“The current approach to teacher development is broken,” Mr. Weisberg said. “We are throwing a lot of things against the wall and not even looking to see what sticks.”

TNTP was launched in 1997 as The New Teacher Project and first led by Michelle Rhee, who later as Washington, D.C., schools chief drew fierce opposition from teachers unions. TNTP is funded by several philanthropies that back using achievement data to drive school policy, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

Tuesday’s report drew praise from several education groups, including the American Federation of Teachers. Union president Randi Weingarten said the AFT had criticized professional development in many districts for years, and emphasized that teachers must be involved in the process of reforming it. “Low-quality professional development, frankly, feels like detention,” she said in a news release.

“We have received very positive feedback from teachers on our professional learning opportunities,” a spokesman for the city Department of Education said. “The DOE offers high-quality, research-based professional learning that is consistent, specific to teachers’ content area and focused on topics for which schools have asked for help.”

Evan Stone, co-founder of Educators 4 Excellence, an advocacy group that seeks to elevate teachers’ voices in policy, said his New York City members reported that some schools were using that weekly period well but others weren’t.

Mr. Stone said many teachers feel isolated as they try to improve, and schools need to be more supportive of teachers who admit weaknesses. “Now teachers are afraid that admitting they’re struggling in an area could end up hurting their careers,” he said.

Sandi Jacobs, a vice president at the National Council on Teacher Quality, said the report was important in spelling out the cost and impact of poor training efforts. “We all have this nagging feeling in our gut that professional development money probably isn’t really well spent but it’s been awfully hard to quantify that,” she said. “We all want to have that culture of continuous improvement and right now our districts don’t seem to be set up to provide that.”

The report found that no particular approach to professional development consistently helped teachers get better. When individual teachers improved, their success didn’t appear to be linked to systemic efforts by the districts.

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