Study Finds Districts’ Investments Aren’t Helping Most Teachers Improve

BROOKLYN, New York—A massive investment in teacher development isn’t helping enough teachers unlock their full potential, according to a new study of more than 10,000 teachers released today by TNTP, a national nonprofit organization. School districts participating in the study invested an average of $18,000 per teacher, per year in development, but only three out of 10 teachers in those districts saw their practice improve substantially over a two- to three-year period, and two out of 10 even saw their performance decline. The study also found no evidence that any particular approach to or quantity of professional development consistently helps teachers improve their instruction. These results add to a growing body of research showing that current approaches to professional development have little to no effect on teachers’ performance.

“The hard truth is that the help most schools give their teachers isn’t helping all that much,” said TNTP CEO Dan Weisberg. “There’s enormous untapped potential within our nation’s teachers, but our findings suggest that we’re nowhere close to unleashing it. That’s not what we’d hoped to find. We would all like to believe that helping more teachers improve is just a matter of applying what works more widely. But we concluded that notion is a mirage. When it comes to teaching, real improvement is a lot harder to achieve—and we know much less about how to make it happen—than most of us would like to admit.”

The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development focuses on teacher development efforts in three large school districts and one charter school network. The study is based on an exhaustive analysis of the teacher development efforts in these sites and two to four years of teacher performance data, along with surveys of more than 10,000 teachers and more than 500 school leaders and interviews with more than 100 district office staff members. Researchers identified teachers who improved their performance substantially and tried to identify experiences distinguishing them from teachers who didn’t improve.

The report makes four major findings:

  • School systems are making a massive investment in teacher improvement. Districts in the study spent an average of $18,000 per teacher, per year on development efforts (from staff time to vendor contracts). Based on these averages, the largest 50 school districts in the nation spend an estimated $8 billion on teacher development every year. Surveyed teachers reported spending an average of 19 full school days a year on development activities—nearly 10 percent of a typical school year.
  • Despite this investment, most teachers do not appear to improve substantially from year to year. Only about three out of 10 teachers improved their performance substantially over a two- to three-year period, while two out of 10 actually saw their performance decline. Many of these teachers still have plenty of room for improvement: As many as half of teachers in their tenth year or beyond were still rated below “effective” by their districts in core instructional practices, such as developing students’ critical thinking skills.
  • No particular approach to or amount of professional development consistently helps teachers improve. Despite an exhaustive search, the study found little separating teachers who improved their performance from those who didn’t. Even when individual teachers improve substantially, their success does not appear to be linked to deliberate, systemic development efforts on the part of districts. These findings add to a growing body of research—including two federally funded, experimental studies in the last decade—showing that current approaches to professional development have little or no effect on teacher performance. 
  • School systems are failing to help teachers understand how they need to improve—or even that they need to improve at all. The vast majority of teachers in the study (between 77 and more than 95 percent of teachers in their fourth year or beyond, and 50 to 85 percent of all brand new teachers) were rated at least “effective” overall on their performance evaluations. Perhaps not surprisingly, less than half of surveyed teachers agreed that they have weaknesses in their instruction. More than 60 percent of teachers who earned low ratings still gave their own teaching high marks. 

The study recommends that school systems radically rethink their teacher development efforts, by inventorying existing initiatives; setting clear, measurable goals around improvement in teacher practice and student achievement; reevaluating existing development efforts based on achievement of those goals (and reallocating resources to those that do); reinventing the way they support great teaching at scale by combining development efforts with investments in recruitment, compensation, and smart retention; and piloting more radical innovation around teacher preparation, the structure of teacher jobs and the design of schools.

“We are grateful to the school districts that participated in our study, for having the courage to examine their teacher improvement practices and face some hard truths. We’ve had to do the same in our own teacher development work, and it isn’t easy,” said TNTP President Karolyn Belcher. “But helping more teachers improve their instruction is a crucial goal that could make a dramatic difference for students, and abandoning that effort would be a mistake. We’re not going to solve this problem unless all of us take a step back and acknowledge that the current approach to teacher development isn’t working. We owe it to teachers and students alike to try something fundamentally different.”

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