It’s an important part of pedagogy, and the funding streams for many of America’s colleges of education, that teachers can get better through professional development, which often comes in the form of classes and seminars provided to teachers as they progress through their careers.

But it doesn’t really work. The Mirage, a publication of The New Teacher Project, looks into professional development in America’s public schools and concludes: “most teachers do not… improve substantially from year to year—even
though many have not yet mastered critical skills.” Among other things, the report finds that districts spend an average of nearly $18,000 per teacher and yet, across the district they studied, nearly 70 percent of them either remained about the same in terms of effectiveness or actually got worse. When teachers did get better, researchers couldn’t connect that to any particular professional development strategy. Nothing seemed to matter.

And they’re not the first to say this. Indeed, no large scale study ever undertaken by researchers or the federal government has ever found any professional development strategy to have any real impact.

While the authors are quick to acknowledge that good teaching, very good teaching, certainly exists, it’s not really clear what observers are supposed to do with this information.

This could potentially be a serious program for America’s colleges of education, not to mention the teaching profession itself. But not to worry! The authors write that,

We believe districts should take a radical step toward upending their approach to helping teachers improve—from redefining what “helping teachers” really means to taking stock of current development efforts to rethinking broader systems for ensuring great teaching for all students. While we found no set of specific development strategies that would result in widespread teacher improvement on its own, there are still clear next steps school systems can take to more effectively help their teachers. Much of this work involves creating the conditions that foster growth, not finding quick-fix professional development solutions.

And they apparently have “steps” to get this done, too. They include changing schools so that we

  • Define “development” clearly, as observable, measurable progress toward an ambitious standard for teaching and student learning.
  • Give teachers a clear, deep understanding of their
    own performance and progress.
  • Encourage improvement with meaningful rewards and consequences.

Furthermore, we should apparently,

  • Balance investments in development with investments in recruitment, compensation and smart retention.
  • Reconstruct the teacher’s job.
  • Redesign schools to extend the reach of great teachers.
  • Reimagine how we train and certify teachers for the job.

That is, I suppose, a reasonably pleasant summary, but it doesn’t leave us which much to work with. These things are, in fact, so ambiguous as to be both unachievable and a continual “process.” That might be realistic , but it’s effectively a recipe for no change at all. In fact, the proposed ideas for improvement look a lot like existing professional development programs.

Sure good teaching exists and that’s important to acknowledge, but the major question here, when we’re talking about $18,000 a teacher every year, is can we teach people how to be better teachers? The evidence now looks pretty weak.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer