It’s that time of year: Parents are perusing the back-to-school section with their perhaps not-so-eager-to-return-to-school children. Teachers, meanwhile, are gearing up for—or are already attending—in-service and professional development sessions that aim to prepare them for the year ahead. While studying class lists, decorating classrooms, and prepping lesson plans for a new year is exciting for teachers (trust me, walking into the teacher store before a new school year is just like coming downstairs on Christmas morning), the black cloud of professional development (PD) looms. And then it remains.
In a new report entitled The Mirage, TNTP (the nonprofit that brought us The Widget Effect) took a deep dive into teacher PD in three large traditional districts and one midsize charter network. The findings were not pleasant. In the traditional districts, an average of approximately $18,000 was spent on development per teacher, per year—totaling anywhere from 5 to 11 percent of the districts’ annual operating budgets. Overall, district teachers spent about 10 percent of their typical school year in PD. Despite all that time, however, ratings showed only three out of every ten teachers substantially improved their performance, based on the districts’ own evaluations. While beginning teachers improved the fastest—between 2.5 and 5 times faster than all other teachers—the average teacher grew less after her fifth year and practically not at all during and after her tenth (which begs the question of whether beginning teachers are growing thanks to PD or because of on-the-job experience). Furthermore, TNTP could find no type, amount, or combination of development activities that distinguished teachers who improve from those who don’t. The results out of the charter network were better (about seven out of ten teachers substantially improved), but the charter network also spent nearly twice as much as the traditional districts on PD—a whopping $33,000 per teacher.
Reaction to TNTP’s report has been swift. A headline from the Washington Post reads, “Study: Billions of dollars in annual teacher training is largely a waste.” Matt Barnum at the Seventy Four emphasized that teachers deserve training that helps them get better rather than wastes their time and the public’s money. While the study may be news, the conclusions—for those who have been paying attention—aren’t. A December 2014 study by the Boston Consulting Group examined teachers' views on professional development and found that only about 29 percent of teachers describe themselves as “highly satisfied.” The media has long lamented "useless" professional development. Reports, articles, and directories highlight the problems with PD and offer a multitude of suggestions. A March 2015 brief even called for Congress to redefine professional development and reengineer Title IIA money (approximately $2.5 billion a year that’s largely spent on PD and class size reduction) in order to focus on continuous performance improvement. According to the report’s author, teachers will perform better only when they “acquire the right knowledge and the right skills and have a chance to practice these new learnings, study the effects, and adjust accordingly.”
And there’s the rub. As a former teacher, I’m a firm believer that the lack of opportunity for teachers to practice what they’ve learned, reflect, and adjust with the help of coaches (who can be expert peers or school-designated coaches) is a significant reason why we keep failing the millions of teachers who want to get better. The Mirage recommends that teachers be given a clear, deep understanding of their own performance and progress. I agree. But that’s the purpose of evaluation, not professional development. PD should go a step farther. It’s more than teachers working with coaches to review their current performance level—its teachers and coaches identifying strategies to raise that level, and putting those strategies into practice in the classroom. Coaches should be observing classrooms regularly, reflecting with each teacher, and suggesting adjustments or new strategies that are tailored to each teacher’s needs.
This idea comes to life in The Mirage’s examination of the charter network’s PD. Not only did seven out of ten teachers show substantial growth; that growth existed at all experience levels, newbies and veterans alike. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the students at the charter network were getting better results too. Those results existed for a variety of reasons, I’m sure, but I believe a big part of it was the regular practice and feedback cycle. TNTP found that every teacher in the charter network received a weekly observation from a coach, followed by a debrief lasting from thirty to forty-five minutes. These teachers also spent between two and three hours every week with other teachers reflecting on practices and outcomes, practicing new skills, and preparing for future adjustments. Now that’s development.
In light of TNTP’s report, teacher coaching should, but likely won’t, catch fire. Yes, it is expensive (in TNTP’s report, the charter network spent almost twice as much as the districts, though most of this difference in spending is due to different allocations of time for staff and teachers rather than additional staff), but so is throwing money down a PD black hole that never shows results. And so is the price that kids pay when their teachers aren’t given the chance to get better. Anecdotally, the only PD I ever found worthwhile was that which offered me the opportunity to practice, reflect with either a coach or peer, and then adjust for the future. My days were incredibly busy, and if my coach hadn’t followed up with me on my goals and the strategies I planned to implement, I never would have implemented them—not because I didn’t want to, but because they would’ve taken a back seat to the dozens of other demands on my time. In addition, if my coach hadn’t observed my classroom regularly and pointed out habits that I didn’t realize I had, my growth would have been far slower. (After all, who among us is perfectly aware of their every strength and weakness?) This is particularly true because a coach doesn’t just point out strengths and weaknesses (which is all an evaluation does). A coach brainstorms solutions and strategies, then observes the classroom again to watch these solutions in action. If they work, move on to the next growth area. If they don’t work, try a different strategy.
There’s more than anecdotal evidence. Although TNTP found no link between certain types of development and teacher improvement, various other studies show that coaching improves student achievement in addition to improving teacher development and performance. A recent article from U.S. News & World Report explains that D.C. schools have started using teacher coaches that—surprise, surprise—aid in lesson planning, observe lessons in action, and help the teacher analyze what worked and didn’t work and how to improve. The masterminds behind the D.C. coaching program are clear about certain requirements (the coach should be an expert who provides ongoing, tailored support, for example) but other than that, the specifics can and should look different at every school.
Making PD better for teachers isn’t about giving them cutting-edge strategies or linking improvement to tangible rewards and consequences. Those are both well and good, but they miss the main point, which is that teachers learn just like their students. For PD to work, teachers must practice under the watchful eye of a coach who corrects and encourages, work with peers who point out additional strengths and weaknesses, execute what was learned, and then reflect and adjust. Professional development means developing teachers by coaching them through each step of the learning process until they’ve mastered the skill or concept. Don’t stop short, cross your fingers, and hope they figure it out on their own, which is exactly what happens when teachers are forced to “sit and get” in PD sessions and then walk away with no follow up. We wouldn’t do that to our students. We shouldn’t do it to our teachers either.
 To be fair, TNTP did ask district teachers if they felt that coaching had improved their practice. Not many agreed. But TNTP also points out that meaningful PD “depends as much on the conditions in which development takes place as on the nature of the development itself.” In other words, the practice-feedback cycle of the charter network—the formal coaching from coaches and informal coaching from peers—might not be the same kind of coaching that the districts offer. As someone who experienced coaching in a district and in a charter network, I can attest to that.