‘More Professional Development’: The Easy (But Ineffectual) Answer

As I argue in Cage-Busting Leadership, it is tempting for most school and system leaders to emphasize culture, coaching, and consensus above all else. It’s what they were taught in education leadership prep programs, what the ed leadership gurus advise, what most leaders know, and is generally popular. Thus, it’s no surprise that professional development (PD) is nearly everyone’s favorite go-to. 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. The problem: most PD doesn’t pay off.

Heck, educational leaders really like PD. It’s genial. It’s well received by teachers and experts and it doesn’t provoke conflict. Indeed, when asked about their feelings toward various reforms, over 85 percent of school board members cite PD as “extremely” or “very” important. It’s no wonder that 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.

One result: We spend a lot on professional development. 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.

Yet hardly any of this actually appears to make teachers better. 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. Meanwhile, more than nine out of ten US teachers have participated in PD that consists primarily of short-term conferences or workshops.

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.”

The University of Maryland’s Jennifer King Rice notes that states typically allow teachers to choose PD, and yet, “The incentive structure in most school systems does not explicitly reward teachers for making choices that promote effectiveness.” 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.”

It’s not either-or: you’re not a “cage-buster” or a believer in PD. Rather, PD can be an exercise with very little reward until you’re using it as a problem-solving tool.

-Rick Hess

This blog entry first appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428
Email Education_Next@hks.harvard.edu

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488
Email subscriptions@educationnext.org

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College