Teachers across Virginia are preparing for the start of the new school year, and for most, that means obligatory “professional development” sessions and workshops, convened for the ultimate goal of promoting their classroom success.
But new reports raise questions about how states and school districts are working to help teachers prepare and improve, presenting a challenge for school leaders and everyone wishing to boost the performance in our classrooms.
Earlier this month, national nonprofit The New Teacher Project (TNTP) released a report that examined teacher professional development programs in three large school districts across the country. The researchers estimate that these districts spend roughly $18,000 annually for the typical teacher’s professional development, and that teachers spend about 19 days — or 10 percent of their work time — engaged in training activities.
But the TNTP researchers found that most teachers do not improve their performance in the classroom each year. Evaluation rankings stay flat year after year for the majority of teachers. These findings suggest that public school spending on teacher development is doing little to improve education. That’s a big problem considering that the nation’s 50 largest school districts spend an estimated $8 billion on professional development.
Federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan has estimated that the nation’s schools spend $2.5 billion each year on professional development for teachers and administrators — and that is just spending at the federal level.
School districts can frequently spend thousands of dollars per student on these activities; some but not all of what is spent comes from federal dollars. In fact, because districts and states define professional development differently, definitive data does not exist on how much is spent in total.
This report follows last month’s release of a U.S. Government Accountability Office report on teacher-preparation programs. The auditors examined whether states were complying with federal law that requires state agencies to monitor colleges’ teacher-preparation programs.
GAO found that some states were failing to assess which programs were low-performing. Since many states require that teachers earn certification through these types of programs, the auditors’ findings raise questions about whether certifications are an effective way to judge whether a teacher is ready to succeed in the classroom.
Both reports raise questions about the traditional approach to preparing teachers for the classroom and improving their performance after they are hired. This suggests that school districts and principals would be wise to reconsider current strategies for helping teachers succeed.
The TNTP report offers some insights about strategies school leaders could employ to improve teacher development. For example, the TNTP researchers studied a large charter school management organization’s approach to professional development. They found that this organization had better success enhancing teacher quality. One key factor, the researchers reported, was the school’s culture, as the charter schools provided regular direct feedback about teachers’ classroom performance, and teachers felt a stronger pressure to improve to keep up with their peers.
The TNTP researchers also offered other suggestions for how schools could improve their approach to helping teachers. One recommendation was to expand the reach of the most effective teachers. This can be done by increasing their class sizes and having other staff work to support the master teacher by serving as coaches or graders.
Another valuable tool to support teachers is to use blended learning models where student work on interactive computer programs provides teachers with actionable, timely information on where students are in their work — allowing teachers to provide interventions in a more personalized manner.
While Virginia’s fourth-grade students demonstrated improvement in reading scores for the first time in years as measured by the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, the test known as the Nation’s Report Card, 63 percent of eighth-grade students scored below proficient — a rate which has remained flat for the past 10 years. White students and those from wealthier homes were nearly three times more likely to score proficient as their black and lower-income classmates.
For Virginia to improve these stagnant achievement gaps and raise student outcomes, nothing could be more important than the effectiveness of our teachers. To make a difference, finding ways to improve teacher preparation and support programs will be vital.
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