Professional development doesn’t pay off

Most professional development is a waste of time and money, writes Rick Hess. “Teachers are routinely subjected to fly-by consulting or enthusiastic workshops, without any sustained focus on particular problems or figuring how to use time, talent, and tools to solve them.”

The total cost — including salaries, substitutes, travel, etc. — could reach $8,000 to $12,000 annually per teacher, reports Knowledge Delivery Systems (KDS).

“Yet hardly any of this actually appears to make teachers better,” writes Hess, citing a 2007 review of the research by the Institute of Education Sciences.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of PD is the fact that even teachers themselves regard it with contempt. Eric Hirsch, director of special projects with The New Teacher Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz, observes, “When you ask teachers what conditions matter most in terms of their future career plans and student learning, professional development has come in last on every survey we’ve done.”

Roxanna Elden, author of See Me After Class, wryly grouses that professional development is provided in sessions with names like, “Unlock the Sunshine! Shedding Light on the Opportunities Created by State Assessment 2.0.” She explains, “Usually, these sessions use PowerPoint presentations to [tell] teachers that rigor is important, suggest[ing] we’ve spent most of the year training our students to make different colored Play-Doh balls.”

Training programs for administrators “emphasize culture, coaching, and consensus above all else,” writes Hess in his new book, Cage-Busting Leadership. “After all, if one is disinclined to rethink staffing or spending, replace employees, reward excellence, or root out mediocrity, hoping you can train staff to be better at their jobs is really all you’ve got left.”

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  1. lightly seasoned says:

    Training staff to be better at their jobs would be a radical development.

  2. D's Squirrel Food says:

    Our district does lesson study for secondary science, and it results in improved lessons and assessments for a lot of teachers in the district. This takes up six days per year, so it’s a significant time and financial commitment, with learning lost due to the substitutes that need to fill the classrooms. I’m not sure it’s really worth it.

  3. Miller Smith says:

    Leave professional development to the professional and judge that professional the way other professionals are judged. No longer spend the time or a dime of tax money on teacher development. Hired only developed teachers.

    Now the certification tests in all states have a very low passIng bar and many prospective teachers can’t pass them. Teachers also tend to be low scoring sat takers as well. Just don’t hire any teacher below the top quartile on the sat and set the certification exams to a similar level.

    SettIng such a low bar requires taxpayers to spend money on teachers to develop them to a level the teacher should have already been. By setting a proper bar level the taxpayer will be able to set salary at the level that gets a qualified applicant for each available positon.

    • D's Squirrel Food says:

      “Now the certification tests in all states have a very low passIng bar and many prospective teachers can’t pass them.”

      The second clause contradicts the first.

      • “Now the certification tests in all states have a very low passIng bar and many prospective teachers can’t pass them.”

        The second clause contradicts the first.

        No, it doesn’t. The passing bar can be very low and yet still many prospective teachers might be so inferior that they can’t pass the tests.

  4. As teachers we’re expected to be differentiating our instruction, but the same isn’t done for our professional development. A new teacher needs much different PD than an experienced teacher does unless there’s a school-wide culture shift that’s expected from the PD.

    I have sat through countless technology PDs even though my original degree is in Computer Information Systems and I’m generally ahead of the presenters on the technology in question. The school is spending how much on that? Maybe there’s some element of my development that it might make more sense to focus on, just like I focus on areas for growth with my students.

    And Miller Smith…be careful with your generalizations. Elementary teachers do tend to be lower achievers on both the SAT and in grades, but secondary teachers tend to be above average in both metrics, depending on the state. There are plenty of smart elementary teachers who are also above average, so be nice to them. And why wouldn’t we spend money on PD? When I was a consultant, loads of money got spent on keeping me up to speed on the latest business practices and technology. I didn’t even have to pay for my own fees, hotel, meals, or use a personal day to get that training, like I do now as a teacher. Good businesses invest in their employees, they just do it in a more targeted fashion that education tends to do.

    • J.D. Salinger says:

      Agree with PW. And yet, when it comes to people like Dan Meyer (see ), it seems everyone seems to embrace his ideas. Has he come up with the universal PD, or are there actually teachers who disagree with his view of the world?

    • Most of the PD that I ever experienced seemed to be written by English teachers and art teachers no matter who the target audience was.

      We had a PD for science teachers on Bloom’s taxonomy that consisted of little more than word-lists for the various levels (with considerable overlap). We were told that a student, who, say, is applying Newton’s 2nd law of motion would be using words like “apply”, and conversely, if we could get them to use words like “apply” they’d be thinking at that level of Bloom’s.

      I plan on winning a gold in the 100m dash at the next olympics. I will demonstrate my ability to do so by writing about it and using words like “win”, “fast”, and “dash”.

  5. Miller Smith says:

    We have many prospectIve teachers-those who expect to become a teacher-who do not pass the praxis so that they can become a teacher. The praxis is so simple that anyone who graduated high school should be able to pass it.

    If the sentence i wrote before was bad at conveying my intent, would you be so kind as to proffer an edit?

  6. Miller Smith says:

    Public schools are not a business. There is a sufficent number of college educated people who can do the relatively easy job of teaching childen. Teaching is not rocket science by a long shot.

    Many of the teachers i know have no business treating the pblic schools like an emPloyer of last resort. When confronted with the sample questions from the upcoming parcc tests a majority of our teachers not failed to answer the items correctly, but most…and i’m not kidding when i say most…experessed confusion as to what the questions were asking of them.

    These are teachers who Passes the present certification standards. They have no business teaching children to prepare them for a test and careers in which they are unable to demonstrate a minimum cognitave ability.

    No more education grads. Close the ed schools. Have only a small core of professionals as permanent school employees. Hire People succesful at careers and gaining a degree teach in that degree field.

  7. Miller Smith says:

    Just watched the TED video. This is the method I use to teach chemistry. But there is a downside-the teacher aka facilitator- must be highly competent in the content they teach in order for such a powerful method to work. Sadly, i have teachers who can’t do the very things they teach.

    We should only hire people who can do to teach the children. The TED presenter is a can do type. Our problem in education today is that the schools are filled with those that never could. That has to stop.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    One reason professional athletes–the stars–don’t do much coaching is that they don’t need to. If they’ve had an honest agent, they’re richer than a three-armed King Midas. The other reason is being able to do that stuff is only vaguely related to the ability to teach it.
    Some have said that inferior athletes make better coaches since they’ve had to think about what they did rather than expect it to come naturally without thought.
    Point is, that’s two separate skills.
    Better than forty years ago, I was pretty good in our college judo club. Gave the instructors a hard time, even. But the rookies wanted me to teach them the basic moves because–it didn’t occur to me then–I knew how to teach them. Other guys, some as good as me, were not asked.
    So, content, sure. Then what?

    • And yet plenty of those star, professional athletes are willing to trade on their fame to run coaching camps. So superior skills do have a value if only as a marketing tool.

      Similarly, professional development has a value but not to teachers as evidenced by the piece by Mr. Hess. After all, why would a teacher take time and spend money to attend a professional development seminar if there weren’t some obvious value to them? So from Mr. Hess’ it’s clear that someone finds value in professional development but it isn’t teachers.

      As usual, if you follow the money the secret’s revealed in who it is who signs off on professional development.

      That would be superintendents and/or school boards who, as I’ve previously pointed out, have little incentive to increase the educational efficacy of the organizations they run/oversee. But there are incentives to demonstrate, if insincerely, that educational efficacy is important and spending on professional development does that.

      Spending money on professional development also helps deal with the not inconsiderable problem of excessive funding. It would be pretty embarrassing to end up with a budget surplus after carrying on endlessly about insufficient funding and professional development is a handy place to dump excess operational funds.

  9. “Has he come up with the universal PD, or are there actually teachers who disagree with his view of the world?”

    [Raises hand.]

    Dan Meyer is the kind of math teacher that non-math teachers get all gooey about, but only a fraction of real math teachers think is anything other than a pleasant fantasy that has nothing to do with teaching math.

    • Very, VERY few people out there can effectively teach Math or Science. Which is why there will be a permanant shortage of such teachers. And on the rare occasions when a K-12 school or college finds one, they feel like they found a diamond in a mine!