Why Spend Billions on Professional Development for Teachers?

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2017/05/21/why-spend-billions-on-professional-development-for-teachers/


Despite the billions that have been spent on professional development for K-12 teachers in the United States, we actually know extremely little about the characteristics of effective professional development programs. The major reason lies in deficiencies in the research on professional development.

A major review in 2008 of the research on professional development for teachers of mathematics and of other subjects “uncovered no studies … of sufficient quality where the designs and measures permitted them to ask and answer questions about teachers’ learning. Most studies used a simple pre- and post-test design with no comparison group or used self-report data on teachers’ learning.” Nor did studies on the topic “support any specific claims about the nature of professional development that affects teachers’ effectiveness.”

A reason for the consistency of the research evidence (the ineffectiveness of professional development, however poorly designed most of the studies may be) is the quality of our teaching force itself.  As reported by Jonathan Wai, education majors consistently have the lowest academic aptitude on five independent tests from 1946 to 2014.  As Wai concludes: “These data show that US students who choose to major in education, essentially the bulk of people who become teachers, have for at least the last seven decades been selected from students at the lower end of the academic aptitude pool.”

It is understandable why federal, state, and local education policy makers may have concluded that academically weak teachers need to know more about the subject they teach and/or the way to teach those subjects and therefore have voted to spend a fortune on professional development. Unfortunately, they have not concluded that academically weak high school or college students should not be admitted to teacher preparation programs, to begin with.  Then we might not need to spend a fortune on professional development for them.

The first breakthrough in this self-deceptive fog may be the possible elimination, in the federal budget proposed in 2017 by a new presidential administration, of the Title II funds that are part of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the 2015 re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Title II provides school districts with funds for professional development and improvement of teacher preparation programs. Unfortunately, the media in the U.S.A. have not discussed with much insight the administration’s own rationale for proposing the elimination of Title II funds and the abundance of research evidence on the ineffectiveness of professional development.

For example, an April 2017 article in a widely read national periodical (U.S. News & World Report), commenting on this proposed cut, correctly notes that the current administration sees professional development “…spread thinly across thousands of districts with scant evidence of impact.” Nevertheless, the article also notes that “Many education policy experts agree that eliminating the funding wholesale is not the answer” and goes on to quote an “expert” who “argues the administration should be looking at ways to re-envision professional development,” although the expert does not tell us how it could be re-envisioned.  She does suggest such details as getting the federal government to require school districts to indicate the number of hours of coaching teachers receive, the qualification of the coaches, whether the coaches are providing training relevant to teachers’ subjects, and other valuable information.”

Although the reporter herself does not ask and quote a range of teachers about what they might prefer as professional development (a surprising omission), she does point to and quote from the most recent review of studies on the topic since the National Mathematics Advisory Panel’s Final Report in 2008.: Dated 2014, the short report by the Instructional Research Group at the REL Southeast Regional Educational Laboratory (the senior author of which had been a member of the Panel) had the following to say about the few studies that could be examined, of all those identified in the search:

Of the 910 studies identified in the search for “effectiveness studies” of math professional development approaches, 643 examined interventions related to math in grades K–12 and were conducted in the United States. Of the 643 studies, the 32 studies listed in this appendix focused primarily on math professional development provided to teachers and used a research design for examining effectiveness. Five of those were determined to have met What Works Clearinghouse evidence standards (version 2.1) … And of those five, only two found positive effects on students’ math proficiency.

Thus, there is very limited causal evidence to guide districts and schools in selecting a math professional development approach or to support developers’ claims about their approaches. The limited research on effectiveness means that schools and districts cannot use evidence of effectiveness alone to narrow their choice. Instead, they must use their best judgment until more causal evidence becomes available.

Given the almost total absence of research evidence supporting the effectiveness of professional development for teachers as it has been conceptualized in the U.S.A. (in effect, supporting the proposed cut in the proposed federal budget), one is left wondering if the major purpose of the US News article was to criticize the current presidential administration for proposing to eliminate it, as suggested by the sub-title.

The reporter never raised such basic questions as:  Why is so much of the research on teacher professional development so poorly designed? What do teachers themselves want as professional development? And, why do American teachers seem to need so much of it? Those are the questions that need to be answered.

If Congress does not eliminate Title II funds from the proposed federal budget, then what could Massachusetts do with the money instead of throwing it out of a window?  The point here is that Governor Charlie Baker could require the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (whose members he appoints) to do something useful with the money.

1.  Governor Baker could ask his state board to vote for a state department of education survey of all the state’s K-12 teachers, organized by subject and grade level, on what they want for professional development.

2.  Governor Baker could ask his state board to award a portion of the Title II funds to a group linked to the MIT Open CourseWare project  for the explicit purpose of creating math and science lessons for grades 11 and 12 (unlinked to any set of standards) for Massachusetts high school math and science teachers to use to improve their students’ chances of getting into and succeeding at good engineering schools.

3.  Governor Baker could ask his state board to award a portion of the Title II funds to the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW) to find out and evaluate the major literary and non-literary texts being taught in each of grades 9, 10, and 11 in Massachusetts public high schools today.


Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas.  Read her past columns here.