How Useful is Teacher Professional Development?

School districts invest heavily in many kinds of training for teachers, but are they getting their money’s worth? Author and education policy scholar Frederick Hess looks at evidence and concludes that “professional development” only makes a difference in the rare times that it’s carefully targeted.

Especially when teachers have tenure, it is very difficult to replace or discipline them, but it is fairly easy to provide more training to help with problems. Hess reports that professional development is a strategy favored by 85% of school board members nationwide, and school boards are generous with development budgets.

Education Resource Strategies president Karen Hawley Miles studied five districts and found that, on average, they spent 3.6 percent of their budget, or $19 million a piece on PD. Knowledge Delivery Systems (KDS) reports, “The real cost of professional development at the district and state level is seldom known. While line items specifically listing staff development total $3,000-$5,000 annually per teacher . . . real costs consider items such as salaries, facilities, fees, substitutes, stipends, materials, travel, and equipment.” KDS notes that, taking all this into account, staff development studies estimate costs of $8,000-$12,000 per year per teacher.

There are studies of whether professional development works, but the studies themselves are questionable. The US Department of Education set up an institute to research evidence for trends in education; since 2002, methods can be looked up on the What Works Clearinghouse. In 2007, they looked at more than 100 studies of professional development and found that few studies met acceptable standards:

A 2007 review of the research by the Institute of Education Sciences, the most authoritative analysis to date, found that only nine of 132 studies on PD met the evidentiary standards established by the Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse. When it comes to school-based PD, the most common approach, researchers found no “valid” or “scientifically defensible evidence” of effectiveness. Indeed, they found that only the tiny sliver of PD involving thirty to one hundred hours of teacher time showed any evidence of correlating with student achievement gains.

Most teacher training programs fall far short of 30 hours, being restricted to what can be done in one school day or one weekend. Hess says that most teachers consider these programs wasted time, although schools give career incentives for choosing to attend them. There isn’t any attention paid to distinguishing one program from another, in terms of effectiveness. Some researchers speak harshly of the typical program, which is well-meaning but ineffective.

Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond, writing with several colleagues, terms professional development “poorly conceived and deeply flawed” and observes, “states and districts are spending millions of dollars on academic courses disconnected from the realities of classrooms. Darling-Hammond et al. further note the “support and training [educators] receive is episodic, myopic, and often meaningless.”

Hess calls for schools to make use of professional development only when they can be sure that the programs will truly benefit the students. Instead of using it as a quick panacea, they should target problems and solutions, and only then spend the money.