The Mirage of Teacher Development

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In a seemingly impressive study of the effectiveness of teacher development done by the TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project), it would appear that the billions of dollars used each year providing our nation’s teachers with additional training is poorly spent money.  The report, called The Mirage: “Confronting the Hard Truth about our Quest for Teacher Development,  is based on two years of data from four large school districts, encompassing over 10,000 teachers.  (For a shorter overview of this study, check out this Washington Post article.)  Although the results seem legitimate, caution should be used in accepting the conclusions of this report—especially some of the remedies offered—considering the biases and interests of TNTP.

First off, we spend much more on teacher development than most people realize.  This study estimated that these four school districts paid about $18,000 per teacher per year providing growth opportunities for their staffs.  Even assuming that estimate is high and halving it, that still comes to $90,000,000 annually in these four districts and billions across the nation.  With that kind of investment, one would hope that teaching improvement would be a given.

But that isn’t what TNTP found.  The 10,000 teachers studied for this report were ranked based on summative teacher evaluations, classroom observations, and value-added scores.  Despite the expensive development programs, many teachers did not show any growth using these metrics:  According to TNTP’s statistics, only three in ten teachers improved, half stayed the same, and two in ten actually got worse.   Any attempts to gauge something as subjective as teacher improvement is bound to produce results which can be questioned, but, even assuming that TNTP’s results were skewed negatively on showing whether or not teachers did get better at their craft, it still seems like a poor return on investment.

Regardless of whether or not a teacher had improved based on TNTP’s determination, it proved difficult to show any links between the development opportunities conducted for the teachers and better teaching.  In other words, there was no clear-cut answer as to why 30% of teachers got better while the other 70% did not.  TNTP’s results mirror those of two federally funded, long-term experiments which also found, “that these interventions [teacher development programs] did not result in long-lasting, significant changes in teacher practice or student outcomes.”  Nor did the teachers—whether they had been rated as “Improvers” or “Non-Improvers” by TNTP—feel that the development opportunities were especially useful to them.  Less than half of the 10,000 surveyed thought development programs were “a good use of my time,” and barely half found professional development “drives lasting improvements to my instructional practice.”  Whether or not you accept the way TNTP measured improvement, you can’t ignore that those who participated in the programs didn’t find them especially worthwhile.

The Non-Improvers and the Improvers were also in agreement when evaluating the degree to which different types of professional development had helped them, with no statistical difference in the percentages of each group which preferred one type over the others.  Most would hypothesize that the better teachers would find one technique or philosophy had helped them significantly which would create a gap between them and the Non-Improvers (who would have found that technique too complicated or arduous to attempt), but that was not in evidence in the data.  As the report states, “There are few notable differences between how improvers and non-improvers perceive the usefulness of professional development activities.”

All of this mirrors my personal experience of teaching English in two school districts for thirty-three years.  When it came to one-day institutes that occur about four times a year, we would be happy for a break from classroom routines and the opportunity to have a decent lunch hour (instead of our usual twenty-five minutes), but those would typically be the only positives of the days.  Often, the material would be useless or so over-hyped as amazingly classroom-altering that most of us would dismiss it without paying much attention.  Weak presentations, boring speakers, and unsubstantiated claims tended to dominate; which led teachers to approach all institutes with a negative bias that even the best presenters struggled to overcome.  It’s absolutely no surprise to me that half the teachers in TNTP’s study found development activities useless—if anything, I would have assumed that percentage would be much higher.

Longer-term programs that pulled teachers from classrooms for in-school training were also not seen as effective.  Either the creators of the programs rigidly insisted that their approach was the only way to teach—some even bullied or ridiculed teacher participants—or the training provided basic skills that every teacher with two brain cells functioning already knew; either way, most trainees found them mind-numbingly boring (one session actually spent over an hour on the concept of Venn diagrams).  To add insult to injury, these workshops were huge pains since to attend since the attendees would have to make lesson plans for subs and fall behind in their other teaching work.  Most of these workshops were either required for non-tenured teachers or pushed by administrators who had long-term relationships with the program providers.  One of the most expensive and heavily pushed programs we had at Hinsdale Township High School District 86 (where I worked for twenty-five years) had two high-level District 86 administrators on its payroll as program instructors during the summer.  But nobody seemed especially concerned about this obvious conflict of interest—supervisors pressuring their underlings to attend workshops put on by for-profit companies which had hired them for lucrative summer work.

So based on my anecdotal experience (which included talking to other DuPage county teachers on county-wide institute days), TNTP’s evaluation of the worth of professional development for educators is pretty accurate:  Much of it is not valuable to teachers, and it is way too expensive.

However, several of TNTP’s suggestions for improvement seem biased toward teacher development programs which mirror the approach of…wait for it…TNTP.  Naturally, one can assume that an organization which provides teacher training would favor the kind of teacher training it provides, but it is too convenient that its study confirms how wonderful it is.  No, it’s not as bad as tobacco companies funding studies decades ago that showed smoking wasn’t harmful to one’s health or Coke’s sponsoring nutritional advocacy groups that find exercise much more significant to weight control than diet, but there is still that taint of self-interest advancement that pollutes TNTP’s findings.

Essentially, their conclusions suggest that since we don’t really know what good teacher development looks like, we should totally rely on data-based methods when creating teacher development programs.  And that sounds good to most people:  How could anyone question the wisdom of using facts to evaluate teacher training?  Yet, if you agree with me that a key fundamental fact about teaching—that it is an art, not a science—is true, then you would be skeptical about approaches that ignore the non-data driven aspects of teaching.  Things like creativity, personal learning styles, engagement, enthusiasm, dedication, expertise, and humor are all crucial to effective classrooms, but can’t be effectively measured or condensed into spreadsheets.  That’s not to say that the scientific method and data don’t have places in teaching, but more and more groups like TNTP are trying to squeeze out anything but measurable data, and that ignores the whole right side of our brains.

TNTP is a “revenue-generating nonprofit” which trains people who want to become teachers after beginning careers in other fields.  Once accepted as TNTP fellows, candidates have five weeks of education training as well as support during their first year in classrooms.  Typically, TNTP fellows are placed in urban schools that are considered underperforming.  TNTP also lobbies on education issues as well as providing schools districts with programs and training for entire staffs with an emphasis on “educational leaders.”

TNTP was founded in 1997 by Michelle Rhee, a controversial figure in modern school reform if ever there was one.  You might recall that Rhee was hired as chancellor of schools in Washington, D.C., and worked there from 2007-2010.  She most recently founded Students First, but recently resigned from that position.  She is notorious in the teaching world for her antipathy to unions, her focus on merit pay, and her desire to eliminate tenure.  Even though she has not been a part of TNTP since her chancellor duties, her organization has maintained the same general philosophies since her departure.

None of which cancels out that teacher development programs are often expensive wastes of time, as TNTP found.  However, their conclusion—that nobody currently understands what helps teachers to improve well enough to justify specific programs—is a tad disingenuous.  If that supposition is taken at face value, then it logically follows that data-driven training (such as TNTP provides) is where school districts should be spending their money.  But, a closer look at teacher preferences on training shows a clear winner that schools might want to shift their emphasis to: collegiality.   On TNTP’s survey of which teacher development technique “has helped me to learn how to improve the most,” a quarter of all teachers selected “informal collaboration” as the best, by far the top choice among various teacher development options.  And if you add in all the other forms of teachers-working-with-teachers development, that number grows even larger.  “Formal Collaboration,” (13%–all these percentages are rough averages of the two numbers TNTP used in their report, as they broke out “Improvers” from “Non-Improvers”), “Peer Observation” (10%), and “Coaching” (5%) are all just slight variations on the concept of teachers interacting with other teachers.  Add all these up, and you have well-over half of all teachers surveyed saying that their ability to work/share with their colleagues is the best teacher development method they have experienced.

That doesn’t fit well with TNTP’s data-driven bias, but it is a clear path for schools to take in seeking out teacher development programs.  It also confirms what I found and have written about in my e-book, Snowflake Schools (you can read the entire chapter on “Teacher Institutes” in the excerpts from the book which are located here).  Few teachers want experts or outsiders coming in to tell them what they’re doing wrong or how crummy their classes are unless they adopt the latest teaching technique of the week.  Much preferable is the opportunity to interact with others who are facing the same challenges you are in order to brainstorm practical solutions to common problems.  Unfortunately, most teachers rarely get that opportunity since my learning about another English teacher’s time-saving approach to grading essays doesn’t seem exciting or cutting-edge enough to justify a non-attendance day for students or release time for the two of us.

Yet, that is the path best suited to helping teachers improve.  We learn by doing and we respect advice much more highly when it is from someone else who is doing the same kinds of things we are.  Maybe some of those idealistic gems served to me after I had been herded into the auditorium for a PowerPoint presentation and a lecture from somebody I’d never seen or heard of before might have been helpful to my improving as a teacher, but that presenter’s degrees and books didn’t offer me nearly as much as my colleagues’ insights on what had worked or (often even more valuable) hadn’t worked in their classrooms with students just as wonderful and/or obnoxious as mine.  TNTP is on to something in that they found much of what passes for teacher development is simply expensive and useless, but they missed the boat when they discounted the value of non-data-driven teacher-to-teacher dialogue.  We can help teachers get better if only we would let them interact on a regular basis with other teachers.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Those Who Teach, Can |

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