Getting Beyond the Mirage of Professional Development

TNTP’s latest troubling report on big city school districts, The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth about Our Quest for Teacher Development, ought to be closely read, carefully considered, and deftly replicated in a wider variety of schools using a wider variety of measures.

The Mirage report says that despite billions spent to improve teacher skills, “most teachers do not appear to improve substantially from year to year—even though many have not yet mastered critical skills.”

Let’s not misinterpret this.

The findings do not mean that we should throw out all teacher professional development because it’s a waste of money. Nor do they mean that most teachers can’t learn no matter what support we give them.

Instead, the report from TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) demonstrates that teaching and learning among adults is likely as complex as teaching and learning among children. It’s especially complex in a stressed system where professional development is used as a Band-Aid covering larger problems—under-preparation, burnout, lack of adequate student and curriculum supports, and layer upon layer of education reforms.

TNTP’s findings also mean that school boards, superintendents, parents, and educators should be asking hard questions about their investments in professional learning. Learning Forward’s smart “From Mirage to Reality” response, calling for additional investment in professional learning systems with better measures, should be heeded.

But let’s proceed wisely. One of the recommendations in the TNTP report and in some researchers’ response to the report is to double down on our investments in teacher evaluation and value-added measures. That way, we can better assess the impact of our professional development dollars.

Yes. But.

These tools weren’t designed just to rate professional development (PD). At their best, evaluation tools should be part of a larger system for professional learning, giving solid feedback to teachers on their performance, helping them understand and visualize excellent practice and letting them know where they stand so they can grow into excellence. The tools are also meant to help educators select the right professional development so that teachers don’t sit through PD they don’t need.

These multiple and conflated purposes make using teacher evaluation measures to confidently assess PD’s impact nearly impossible. And few teacher evaluation frameworks differentiate among content areas and grade levels, so they don’t tell administrators what works for which teachers in which subjects in which grades and why.

What’s needed is a broad set of practical measures that assess the quality and immediate impact of professional learning activities and resources on individual teachers, on teams of teachers, and on their administrators. Policymakers and administers can make wise decisions about what professional development is most cost effective if everyone gets involved:

  • District and regional administrators should observe PD courses and professional learning community meetings and discuss the information they collect.
  • District PD committees should pore over teacher survey results on conditions for professional learning and watch any changes since the last survey.
  • Central office staff should observe and evaluate what coaches and mentors are talking about with their mentees.
  • Principals and teacher leaders should examine student achievement data on each learning standard to see if their PD investments in each are paying off.
  • Local university students should help districts collect, analyze, interpret, and share data on their professional learning investments.
  • And the federal funding should underwrite better research on developing professional learning systems that work.

As I argued in a policy brief last spring, we need smarter federal investment in building local education leaders’ capacity to better manage their professional development activities and resources. The endgame should be collaborating with teachers to match the best activities with the right resources with the right teachers at the right time in the right way. 

The TNTP report was depressing, but once we accept the hard truth that there are no simple solutions for improving teaching and learning, we can invest more shrewdly in our professional learning systems and in our teachers and schools going forward. With the smart money on continuous performance improvement through consistently great professional learning (among other system improvements) the mirage of teacher development will become a reality.  

Jane Coggshall is a principal researcher specializing in the intersections among research, policy, and practice of professional learning.