Improving Teachers: Millions Spent, But Little Done To Make Sure It's Working

This piece comes to us courtesy of The Hechinger Report.

Helping struggling teachers improve has become a big concern–and a big business–across the country, especially as more states, including New York, introduce more rigorous teacher evaluations. The federal government gives local districts more than $1 billion annually for training programs. New York City schools spent close to $100 million last year just on private consultants.

Yet even as districts increase accountability for teachers, few are checking on the companies, universities and in-school programs that are supposed to help them get better.

On-the-job training for teachers, known as professional development, encompasses everything from day-long seminars, coaching provided by in-school specialists, courses in subjects like math and reading, and teachers working with one another to improve their skills. New York City even offers Yoga and dance classes to its teachers.

Yet little reliable, independent research exists on what kind of training for teachers actually works. "We know less than we should about professional development, particularly given the money that is invested in it," said Pamela Grossman, an education researcher at Stanford University who specializes in teacher training.

Instead, in New York, much of the onus of figuring out which kinds of training make a difference falls on the shoulders of principals. Officials from the city education department say the sheer number of vendors—about 900—makes it difficult for the central office to vet them all.

"We've said we're endorsing none of them," said Josh Thomases, deputy chief academic officer for the department. "I've gone into these rooms, and sometimes, particularly the for-profits, pay for lunch, and so they're sitting in the room with me, and people are watching me while I'm saying, ‘We're telling you to be very cautious with your dollars,' in front of the vendors."

In addition to the $1 billion the federal government sends annually to local districts, according to a national survey by the U.S. Department of Education, more federal money for on-the-job teacher training has poured into states and districts through the Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant programs.

Educators, pointing to high-performing education systems in some European and Asian countries, have pushed for teachers to spend more time at work learning, not just teaching, so starting back in 2004, New York State began requiring teachers to complete 175 hours of professional development every five years.

In New York City, schools spent about $97 million between May 2011 and April 2012 on outside consultants that provide professional development, according to an analysis of Department of Education data reported to the city comptroller's office. The year before, they spent $90 million. District officials say the amount spent on consultants doesn't include training run internally—such as coaching and workshops—that is extensive but difficult to quantify, or put a price tag on.

On a recent afternoon at P.S. 176 in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, about 15 teachers gathered in the library to take a class on how to use interactive smart boards. Matthew Thaxter, from the Long Island-based company TEQ, showed the teachers how to make words appear on blank screens, something he said would excite and engage their young students. The teachers have had smart boards for years, but taking the class made them "certified" in the technology.

He says there's a growing demand for this training now that classrooms rely so much on technology. "We have about 30 trainers around New York State and New Jersey," he said. "We also offer our own conferences for technology; it's not just about smart boards."

P.S. 176 has spent $15,000 on Thaxter's training this year. Principal Elizabeth Culkin says that's a few hundred dollars per teacher. "Over 20 hours, that is wonderful," she said.

Culkin says she spends less on technology training now than in the past because her school has outgrown the programs she previously used. In addition to TEQ, she has brought in trainers from a variety of private groups, including the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, one of the more popular providers in the city. In total, P.S. 176 budgeted more than $100,000 last year for teacher training, more than double the average for city schools, according to an analysis of school spending data. She also credits the city for providing her teachers a lot of training.

The school's above-average spending is partly because it has a high number of students in poverty; it receives a pot of federal money every year for professional development. But Culkin also thinks the training is working for her teachers. The school has received As from the city for raising student performance.

Some city schools that have spent large amounts of money on professional development receive Ds and Fs, however. Traditionally, experts say, professional development has been rated based on whether teachers like it, not on whether it improves student performance.

In 2007, the U.S. Department of Education sponsored an examination of 1,300 studies of development programs for teachers, which found that only nine studies matched high-quality research standards. Those nine studies suggested that students could increase their achievement on tests if their teacher spent more than two days training annually. In another recent study sponsored by the federal government, researchers looked at a program that included extensive coaching—an increasingly popular method of improving teachers. Researchers found no difference in student test scores even after teachers spent as much as 60 hours in training.

"We have some hunches," said Michael Garet, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research and lead author of the coaching studies. Some research shows that it's more effective to train teachers in content knowledge, such as math or science, and to make sure the training is frequent and ongoing. "But we don't yet know how to provide professional development reliably at large scale," he said.

Culkin says it can be difficult to pick providers, and she often relies on word of mouth. "Sometimes I'll sit down and have a conversation and the sales pitch is absolutely sensational because it's too good to be true," she said. "No way they can deliver what they're promising."

New York's adoption of a new set of more intensive academic standards, known as the Common Core State Standards, has meant the number of consultants offering to train teachers in the new system is likely to multiply, further confusing the picture for principals.

"Every time there's this kind of policy push, providers come out of the woodwork," said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. "Helping people know who's offering something of real quality and real value and who isn't is really challenging."

Based on methods that seem to hold promise, Learning Forward, a national advocacy group that promotes professional development, released a list of new standards for teacher training this year that called for more collaborative, school-based efforts, along with expanded use of technology and the Internet.

Officials in the city's teacher union, the United Federation of Teachers, worry that many options available to schools don't live up to the new Learning Forward standards. "When we look at some of the vendors, some of those key components are not there," said Catalina Fortino, the UFT vice president for education. (The union also provides professional development to city teachers.)

Thomases says the school district is exploring "a process to vet the strongest of them."

Several providers said some accountability is already built into a system that lets principals choose whom to hire and fire. Lucy Calkins is the founding director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. "The fact that our institute opens and 1,800 apply shows us something is working. We're doing something right," she said. "I'm not all about proving we have it perfect, but about exploring the persistent problems and the new frontiers, and how to get better."

Providers also say it's not always fair to judge them based on the performance of schools. "If you're a professional development provider and they keep hiring you but don't do the things you're trying to help them do, then you can't really be held accountable for their failure to raise student learning," said Lauren Resnick, co-director of the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, which has provided training to New York City schools in the past.

But Resnick also thinks districts should attempt to gather evidence to help principals make the best choices. "If teachers are going to have to show results, why would it be okay for the people who teach them not to?" she said.

Beth Fertig is a senior reporter for WNYC.

This story also appeared on the SchoolBook blog on June 1, 2012.