The quality of teacher professional development (PD) can be described as abysmal at worst and dubious at best. Linda Darling-Hammond remarks that “American teachers say that much of the professional development available to them is not useful.” Stephen Sawchuk of Education Week writes that “perhaps no other aspect of the teacher-quality system in the United States suffers from an identity crisis as severe as that of professional development.”

The research bears out the wary comments above. Two recent PD studies, conducted by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), found no effect in student achievement when teachers participate in PD. The first, a middle school math study, administered two years of PD to 92 teachers, and found no effect on teachers’ knowledge or student achievement. The second, an elementary reading study, administered PD to 270 teachers for one year. The study found no effect on student achievement, either at the end of the year-long PD program or the year after.

So, PD is ineffective. What, then, of the cost?

The cost of PD has ballooned in the past two decades, such that today, Ohio spends upwards of $400 million per year on PD. The chart below shows the average per-pupil PD expenditure for Ohio’s traditional public schools—the black dashed line—and the average expenditures for three groups of schools. (There’s considerable variation in districts’ PD expenditures—major urban districts spend the most; rural districts the least).[1] To get a taste of the variation, I display three groups: (1) Major Urban – the “Ohio Eight”; (2) Major Suburban – the state’s eight largest suburban districts by FY2012 enrollment; (3) Rural Farmland – Ridgemont Local (Hardin County) and its seven most similar districts.

The chart shows that from 1995 to 2012, the district average per-pupil PD expenditure has increased:

  • Statewide, from $50 to $278 (up 456 percent);
  • Urban, from $244 to $870 (up 257 percent);
  • Suburban, from $97 to $498 (up 413 percent);
  • Rural, from $36 to $178 (up 394 percent).

Thus, the average Ohio teacher, assuming a class of 20 students, receives somewhere around $5,000 a year for PD.

Chart: Average per-pupil PD expenditures, statewide and three district types, 1994-95 to 2011-12

SOURCE: Ohio Department of Education. NOTE: Expenditures adjusted for inflation by GDP deflator. Fiscal year 2012 data are preliminary.

How to stop the rising cost of teacher PD? One increasingly feasible solution is to provide PD via MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), free online courses taught by instructors at the nation’s finest universities. MOOCs have caught fire; for example, Case Western recently saw 80,000 people sign up for its MOOCs, according to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. To boost their content knowledge, teachers could take MOOCs in their area of instruction. And, Coursera—founded by Stanford University professors—recently announced a partnership with seven schools of education to provide teacher PD courses, including several that will help teachers transition to the Common Core.

True, MOOC-delivered PD may not move the needle on student achievement any better than traditionally-delivered PD (typically through workshops, webinars, week-long trainings). But, at least MOOC-delivered PD won’t break the banks of school districts. If utilized, MOOCs—again, they’re free—could stanch the rising cost of teacher PD in Ohio’s schools, freeing them to spend scarce resources on staff and programs that actually help kids achieve. And, who knows, maybe MOOCs will be effective, unlike the many forms of PD that’s out there now.

What’s your experience been with teacher PD? Is it worth the cost? Does MOOC-delivered teacher PD have potential? The comments are open, or tweet me at @a_churchill22.

[1] A note is in order here. PD expenditures, as defined here, are derived from the Ohio Department of Education’s Expenditure Flow Model, which reports “staff support” expenditures. A cross-check with the Uniform School Accounting System indicates that “staff support” are those “activities which are designed primarily for assisting instructional staff in planning, developing, and evaluating the process of providing challenging learning experiences for pupils. These activities include curriculum development, techniques of instruction, child development and understanding, staff training, and so forth.”

Aaron Churchill is the Ohio research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where he has worked since 2012. In this role, Aaron oversees a portfolio of research projects aimed at strengthening education policy in Ohio. He also writes regularly on Fordham’s blog, the Ohio Gadfly Daily, and contributes analytic support for…

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