Is PD a Mirage?

Billions spent and little to show for it. That’s what TNTP’s new report, The Mirage, concludes about professional development for American teachers. I wonder if any teachers will be surprised.

TNTP (originally The New Teacher Project, founded by Michelle Rhee) studied three large public school districts and one charter network for two years, looking for teachers who improved substantially and trying to identify what worked for them. They concluded that no specific strategies were effective, although teachers were “bombarded” with help.

Many types of PD were considered: one-time sessions, peer collaboration, direct coaching, university coursework, formal evaluations, and new teacher preparation and mentoring, to name a few. According to TNTP, these districts were spending as much as $18,000 per year — 19 full school days a year — on professional development for each teacher. If that’s true, it is an incredible amount of money, billions per year if it’s happening nationwide.

The report made me think about the many hours I have spent in professional development sessions in the past 20 years: Was it time well spent?

For the most part, the answer is no. In the past five years, most of my PD time has been spent doing two things: learning to use new technology or creating paperwork to explain how I do what I’m doing.

I don’t object to learning new technology, but most PD focuses on the how rather than the why. Simply transferring an assignment from paper to pixels doesn’t improve student learning. Teachers spend a tremendous amount of time learning to create web pages, only to have a new provider and a whole new learning curve a few years later. Same for iPads, quickly replaced by Chromebooks. Making the Grade, replaced by yet another grading system.

The Professional Learning Community paperwork cycle — in which we carefully record learning objectives, teaching strategies, and assessment practices, then monitor student achievement data — is well-intentioned. The amount of time spent filling out forms far exceeds the amount spent on reflection and improved practices, however. It feels like jumping through hoops more than anything else.

Only a few hours out of the hundreds I have spent in PD over the past 20 years have actually focused on effective teaching and learning practices. I’ve learned a lot about how to construct better lessons from the Council on Economic Education, but almost nothing from any other source.

Surprisingly, TNTP doesn’t conclude that professional development for teachers is a waste of money. Instead, the organization calls for more research and inquiry into what actually works – and possibly even more spending to cultivate effective teachers.

I hope TNTP throws its weight behind this effort, and I hope universities and school districts respond to this call. We can get better at what we do in the classroom, but it won’t be easy or politically expedient.

Teachers would welcome the change.