School districts are pouring millions into efforts aimed at improving the quality of their teaching staff without first pausing to review if the measures they are funding are actually working. More states are now introducing new and more rigorous teacher evaluation systems, where the punishment for scoring below average can not only crater the instructor’s career, but can also introduce unwelcome chaos into the schools. So, it’s understandable that helping teachers do their job well is one of the highest priorities for education officials. Still, with the federal funding for teacher training now passing $1 billion, and with states like New York spending more than $100 million a year for private training consultants, the price of failure is getting to be pretty high.
Typically, teacher development involves all-day workshops, on-site coaching and refresher courses in the subject they teach, to keep their skills up to day. However, there’s little reliable evidence that proves that such approaches work in improving the quality of instruction.
“We know less than we should about professional development, particularly given the money that is invested in it,” said Pamela Grossman, an education researcher at Stanford University who specializes in teacher training.
It’s the schools’ principals who are usually in the front lines when it comes to choosing training opportunities for their staff. While such arrangement could provide a useful amount of flexibility to choose staff development programs best suited to the school’s needs, without data that aids in selecting what works and what doesn’t, at best, the administrators are just making educated guesses. New York has a list of 900 approved staff development vendors, and the state board of education claims it doesn’t have the resources to assess each of them for usefulness and effectiveness.
While there have been some attempts to study the impact of various teacher development programs, when the U.S. Department of Education reviewed 1,300 of such studies, it determined that only 9 of them could actually be considered rigorous. But even the the results of those 9 weren’t definitive, finding an increase in test scores that correlated with teachers spending 2 days or more a year training. Another study, this one sponsored by the federal government, looked at the effectiveness of multi-day training seminars that are getting increasingly popular, but found that they didn’t lead to improved test scores at all.
“We have some hunches,” said Michael Garet, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research and lead author of the coaching studies. Some research shows that it’s more effective to train teachers in content knowledge, such as math or science, and to make sure the training is frequent and ongoing. “But we don’t yet know how to provide professional development reliably at large scale,” he said.