A cost effective way to improve teaching

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Dee-FarderForty-two days ago, Chicago Public School released budgets to principals with dire conditions. Nearly two-thirds of CPS schools will experience significant cuts at a time when resources already were running short. A mere 13 days from now, students will arrive at CPS schools and begin to feel the effects of even fewer dollars to support their learning. While the state, district and school leaders look for loose change, there is one clear area ripe for reforms that can save resources: professional development (PD).

A report released earlier this month by TNTP estimates that annual spending on professional development by districts, schools and teachers themselves amounts to $18,000 per teacher, with no real benefit. The researchers found no clear pattern of PD leading to teacher growth, and in instances of success, there was no evidence that a deliberate, systemic effort was the source of improvement.

I find the report equally validating and discouraging. With a team of Chicago colleagues, I also researched this topic. We struggled to find a clear cost for local PD investments– the most recent study was from 2002 and totaled annual expenditures around $190-$200 million. But something we quickly learned was that, like us, other teachers were experiencing PD from many different directions with no clear vision or alignment to their needs or the needs of their school. As strapped for cash as our district is, there are readily available ways to improve PD and likely save resources at the same time.

CPS would be wise to take an inventory of the many forms of PD being provided. Survey principals, interview teachers, and solicit feedback on their experience with various providers and opportunities. Where programs do not serve a clear purpose, eliminate them and redirect resources. Information gathering may be time-intensive but it is not cost-intensive. Teachers are ready and eager to have a voice in the services aimed at supporting our work.

Too often, PD amounts to nothing more than a slideshow and facilitator talking at you for an hour while you follow along on a handout. The experience leaves you asking: Why did I even come when I could just read this on my own? With a blanketed, one-size-fits-all approach, it is not surprising that more than half of the teachers TNTP surveyed said they were not attaining new skills. Or that less than half agreed they had weaknesses in their instruction. Without tailored PD, teachers are walking around with blinders on.

Align PD opportunities to teachers’ growth areas in their performance evaluations, and you will improve both systems in the process. Teachers with common areas for growth, and who teach relevant subjects and grade-levels, could be clustered to attend PD together. The district can then draw on the talent and experience of high-performing educators to lead PD sessions rather than outsource them to non-practitioners. Peer support is an easy first step toward smarter PD.

Aligning PD to evaluation would also make feedback from our evaluations more meaningful. It would make no sense to give a student an F and then never allow him to revisit the material. Evaluations that tell a teacher she performs poorly in a particular area without pointing her to a concrete plan for improvement creates a culture of fear rather than support. For teachers to grow and learn, readily finding help that fits practice must be acceptable, expected and encouraged. As one of my wise principals once put it, evaluations shouldn’t feel like a “gotcha.” Teachers need to feel a culture of “I got your back.” Relevant and meaningful PD is the key.

I am fortunate to have worked with strong school leaders who have supported me in accessing high-quality PD. What I have learned from these experiences is that good PD reflects effective instruction. Lessons are aligned to the evidence-based needs of students. The best lessons result from team planning, check comprehension and incorporate questions that reflect various learning levels. Similarly, every PD opportunity should be framed around a clear purpose and intent, assess prior knowledge, and model techniques while actively exploring, discussing, and planning how to use newly acquired skills. And just like in teaching our students, there must be follow-up to check on progress and offer additional support.

Our schools have precious few resources to waste, in both dollars distributed and time spent in the classroom. Our district has a vested interest in helping teachers improve. Professional development for teachers begins with good intentions, but without smart investments, well-intended PD will result in nothing more than a random act of school improvement: A price we shouldn’t be willing to pay.

DeJernet Farder is a 1st-grade teacher with Chicago Public Schools and a member of Educators 4 Excellence-Chicago.