Despite the mixed records and high costs associated with many professional development programs for teachers, some researchers are calling for evidence-based reforms and are urging policy-makers to double down on their investments in the educator supports. The debate over the cost-effectiveness of teacher professional development programs has taken on new urgency in recent months with the Trump administration’s budget proposal, which would zero-out the $2.1 billion allocated to states each year to supplement funds used to train teachers.
President Trump’s budget proposal featured prominently at a Monday event in Washington, D.C., titled “Does Investing in Teacher Professional Development Make a Difference?” that was co-hosted by the Learning Policy Institute, Learning Forward, and the Center for American Progress, a progressive think-tank. The event was also an opportunity to highlight the release of a new report out of the Learning Policy Institute on what effective educator professional development programs have in common.
Linda Darling-Hammond is the CEO of the Learning Policy Institute and one of the more influential education policy voices nationally—she was reportedly a finalist for the role of U.S. Secretary of Education under President Obama. In unveiling the report that she co-authored—a meta-analysis of studies that have shown positive impacts of some professional development programs—Darling-Hammond acknowledged that the spotty returns on investment of many teacher professional development programs and the field’s poor reputation means that “it is news that [teacher professional development] can, in fact, be effective.”
Darling-Hammond then laid out the seven ingredients for effective professional development that were identified through the Learning Policy Institute report: tailoring to teacher’s specific academic content focus, actively engaging participants, focusing on collaboration, modeling best practices, individualizing coaching, providing feedback and opportunities for reflection, and sustaining the programs over time. These recommendations were set in contrast to the traditional strategies through which professional development is delivered to teachers: off-site conferences where educators sit passively through long lectures, or what Darling-Hammond called “spray and pray.”
Darling-Hammond’s team also noted that state, district, and even school-level policies can act as headwinds to effective implementation of well-meaning programs. For example, many states have minimum seat-time requirements that teachers must complete to earn recertification. These laws arguably create incentive structures that push administrators to purchase cheap professional development options, rather than securing evidence-based solutions.
Daniel Weisberg, the CEO of TNTP, a group formerly known as The New Teacher Project, represented the most skeptical voice on the morning’s panels. Weisberg’s group was behind a highly influential 2015 study that highlighted the minimal impact billions in professional development has had in a number of districts nationally. While applauding the work done by Darling-Hammond and her team, Weisberg added the context that some professional development programs include every ingredient identified by the Learning Policy Institute, but then still fail. Though Weisberg said that the difficult reality of failed professional development investments should not be read as a call to eliminate federal support for the programs, he did say that officials should be more deliberative in deciding what practices they want to change through professional development and then measuring whether their investments have had an impact.
As the discussion shifted to the event’s final expert panel on the role of public policy in furthering professional development, the research debate over best-practices in the field was set against the context of a larger debate on the role of Washington in the nation’s thousands of localized school systems. A 2015 bipartisan compromise led to the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which kept strong federal funding for schools in place while devolving decision-making power to states and local districts. Under President Trump and the new Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, some on the left, like teachers’ union leader Randi Weingarten, believe that the right is moving past that compromise, and is now scheming to privatize the nation’s public school systems.
Weingarten did not mince words in describing the administration’s budget, which includes the proposal to eliminate federal support for teacher professional development. “I find what they are doing to be venal, callous, catastrophic and cruel,” said Weingarten.
The administration has partially justified the elimination of the teacher professional development grants on the basis that other federal funds allocated through ESSA can be used to support teacher training. Officials have also hinted at the evidence suggesting that the programs have failed to make a significant difference in student achievement. For example, in a March statement on the budget proposal, DeVos said, “Taxpayers deserve to know their dollars are being spent efficiently and effectively.”
Nevertheless, the panelists, which also included Aaliyah Samuel of the National Governors Association and Lillian Lowery of Education Trust, pointed out that the federal government’s historic role in education (since Johnson administration) has been one of attempting to even out inequities in funding. In other words, Title II funds, the program that supports teacher professional development, are targeted to schools that service low-income families and tend to have smaller budgets because of the property tax model that most school systems are still funded on. The panelists argued that any cuts to the federal education budget would therefore disproportionately impact the students that are most in need of supports.
Another key point which was brought up by the second panel’s moderator, the Center for American Progress’s Catherine Brown, is that the president’s proposed budget is simply an opening bid for negotiations that take place mostly on Capitol Hill. Some observers have suggested that when the dust settles, the federal Education Department will still likely be awarding grants to support teacher professional development. The argument is that lawmakers, concerned about blowback from constituents over the education cuts, will strike a deal to leave at least some of the funding in place.
Weingarten, however, was unconvinced by these arguments and likened them to confidence on the left through much of the 2016 campaign that Hillary Clinton would be elected president. “I think we take it for granted at our peril,” she said of the idea that the cuts to teacher professional development will be rolled back in the final budget.
“I find that this ‘dead on arrival’ talk is happy talk, and it is basically putting your head in the sand, and I’m taking [the proposed cuts] incredibly seriously,” said Weingarten.