Parents across the nation are sending their kids to back to school with big hopes for what students will learn this school year, and similarly, school and district leaders are planning ways to help teachers reach their potential. For teachers, “back to school” usually means “back to workshops.”
Yet professional development investments show no solid link to growth in teacher performance, according to a new, wave-making study by TNTP. The study surveyed teachers from three large districts and one charter network and found that, despite a yearly investment that averages $18,000 per teacher, seven out of 10 teachers showed no improvement on their evaluation ratings, and some even declined. TNTP found that only three out of 10 teachers improved their evaluation ratings — and even then, there was no direct tie to a specific training or professional development to account for the growth.
No one wants to bombard teachers with “help” that is actually not all that helpful. Yet making meaningful changes to teacher practices is actually proving to be quite challenging. And when 2 percent of a district’s basic revenue in Minnesota must be reserved for staff development activities [PDF], this is a problem worth exploring.
The tough questions
With the launch of a new school year, this is an urgent call to action for school districts across our nation. I don’t think I could find anyone who disagrees that it makes sense to have a system in place for good teachers to become great and for great teachers to get even better. Districts should not give up on current efforts for what excellent teaching looks like and how it can be achieved. Rather, it is time for district and school leaders to ask some tough questions as schools and districts reevaluate their current professional development programs: Does our professional development set a high bar for quality, relevancy and impact on student achievement? Does it tie directly to teacher evaluation measures so teachers can measurably improve instruction practices? And, are we creating school cultures that value continuous improvement?
To do this, districts must first take stock of their current efforts and be willing to try some fresh approaches. We know that teacher quality is the biggest in-school factor to student success, yet nationwide, districts are struggling to find high quality teachers to enter into and remain in the profession.
As a teacher of seven years, I agree with AFT President Randi Weingarten, who told the Wall Street Journal that a part of the solution is giving teachers a role in reforming professional development. Districts should give teachers like me the resources we need and the right conditions to improve, and then they should check to find out whether improvement is actually happening.
In order to implement this kind of organic teacher development model, we teachers need to be able to identify our own growth areas. But according to the TNTP study, less than half of teachers agree that they have “some weaknesses in their instruction.” This strikes me as puzzling because most teachers I know are very reflective practitioners. Yet in order to improve we teachers need crucial information in two important areas: having an understanding of our progress against a clear standard and then a clear plan for how to improve.
Q Comp model offers a platform
Fortunately, Minnesota’s Quality Compensation (Q Comp) model offers a platform to address some these issues, and during last session the Minnesota Legislature increased funding and access to this program that has proven to increase student achievement. In 2014, I was part of a team of teachers who submitted their ideas for improving Q Comp, and among our recommendations were that professional development needs to be tied to teacher evaluation data and that districts need to strategically leverage the skills of highly effective teachers and continue to develop their leadership skills through hybrid and site-determined roles. In Q Comp districts like mine, a strong teacher evaluation system should be the driver of growth, professional development, alternative salary schedules, and career ladders for effective teachers.
A new sense of hope sets in this time of August as we get ready for the start of a new school year. I am optimistic about the work that needs to be done, and now more than ever, the need for teacher voice is essential. I extend the invitation to all teachers and district leaders to shift the conversation from what was to what teacher development could be. Let us move this conversation forward to strengthen the outcomes for all our students.
Kristina Sexe teaches first- and second-grade students at Armatage Montessori School in the Minneapolis Public Schools and is a teacher leader for Educators 4 Excellence.
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