How Much Pandemic Relief Money Will Be Wasted on Professional Development?

A push to go beyond “sit and get”
Report cover from the U.S. Department of Education
An August 2022 report from the U.S. Department of Education found that “professional development was the most popular use” of federal funds that could also be spent in other ways to improve educational quality.

Time is a terrible thing to waste. So is money. Teacher professional development manages to burn through vast quantities of both.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, advocacy groups were warning that the billions of taxpayer dollars spent annually on “professional development” for teachers was largely wasted. A 2015 study by TNTP found the 50 largest school districts in the U.S. were spending a total of $8 billion a year on teacher development, taking 19 full school days a year of the average teacher’s time, with no clear effect on teacher performance. In 2012, the federal education secretary Arne Duncan, mentioned $2.5 billion a year in federal spending on teacher professional development. He said that when he talked to teachers and asked them “how much is that money improving their job or development, they either laugh or they cry. They are not feeling it.”

The pandemic added more federal relief money to the sum available for spending, and it also, at least while travel restrictions were in place, made districts more likely to use the money for online events such as Zoom meetings rather than in-person conferences. An August 2022 report from the U.S. Department of Education found that “professional development was the most popular use” of federal funds that could also be spent in other ways to improve educational quality. Eighty percent of districts used that money for professional development, while only 19 percent used it for class-size reduction. The report found that in 2020-2021, school districts spent $1 billion in federal money from this pot on professional development. By far the most common use of the funds was “short term” professional development, even though some research indicates that “collaborative or job-embedded” professional learning is more effective.

Interviews with several teachers at University Academy in Kansas City shed light on why teachers often find professional development so frustrating. I interviewed voiced frustration at professional development. Keisha Ricketts, a middle school science teacher at University Academy in Kansas City, Missouri, said it can feel like a boring waste of time. Technology has advanced to the point where hybrid or completely virtual professional development programs are a possibility, but just because something can be done does not mean it should be. Technology can worsen program effectiveness, leaving a group of teachers who could think of better ways to spend their time than tinkering with a computer.

Darrenn White, a middle school health and physical education teacher from the same school as Ricketts, said the professional development he received during the pandemic over Zoom was mainly focused on racial inequalities that happened within school buildings. White also said that there were teachers from three or four different schools combined on one Zoom call to talk about racial injustices, which he said put a damper on everything and ultimately left him feeling as if his district participated as a way to check off a box.

Dustin Havens, an upper school history teacher at the same school, echoed White in many respects and said the 167-person Zoom call invited chaos, between people dropping bombs in the chat without hesitation and seeming to have really “enjoyed the hell out of it,” and other participants purposefully keeping their cameras off and microphones muted. Havens was personally called out by someone offended by his silence in a Zoom breakout room. He conceded that his reluctant participation was rude but said that he would have been a lot less likely to sit in silence and less likely to be called out for his lack of participation had the meeting been in-person rather than online. Havens also had a keen understanding that his district paid a lot of money for professional development in general, so his mentality when attending any required session is that it had better be good.

Ricketts conjectured that, like herself, many teachers would want to learn something in a professional development session that they can use right away in their classrooms. That was not something that seemed to have happened during the pandemic in the school, which received more than $4 million in relief funds through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund. White said the professional development programming takes him out of his teaching groove and makes him feel less of a veteran teacher than he had felt before, that it is not money well spent, and that many a professional development program can have all of the people involved working hard while simultaneously be hardly working towards the goals that they set out to achieve.

At least one professional development provider, Jen Holland-Marks, said she got into the field after seeing as a teacher that “sit and get” styles of professional development were not working. Holland-Marks said she has changed her approach over time, to emphasize ongoing engagement with schools and repeat visits rather than one-shot events. She said her business had boomed during the pandemic, in part because she’d already developed some asynchronous online content, and districts had relief money to spend.

Academic research has found mixed results about the effect of teacher professional development on student learning. A 1998 paper by Joshua Angrist and Victory Lavy about the Jerusalem schools found that, at least in non-religious schools, “teacher training provided a less costly means of increasing test scores than reducing class size or adding school hours.” Closer to home, however, a 2002 paper by Brian Jacob and Lars Lefgren looked at Chicago and found “marginal increases in-service training have no statistically or academically significant effect on either reading or math achievement.” In a 2009 review article, Harvard education professor Heather C. Hill acknowledged that a few boutique programs backed by research evidence “serve a handful of fortunate teachers” but concluded that “most teachers receive uninspired and often poor-quality professional development and related learning opportunities.”

The frustrating reality that billions of dollars are being spent on teacher professional development that takes hours of effort for mediocre or nonexistent results has sparked a lot of conversation. That, in turn, often leads to more revamped professional development programs with additional murky outcomes.

Eventually, the federal, state and local lawmakers authorizing all the spending may take notice and decide the money and teacher time may be better directed elsewhere. If professional development providers aim to avert that, they may need to do a better job of showing concrete results for students—or at least, and perhaps relatedly, of not frustrating the teachers who are supposedly being developed.

Bernadette Looney is an undergraduate at Harvard College studying Government.

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