A study of teacher professional development (PD) was released in 2016 by The New Teacher Project. They followed three large school districts for two years by surveying more than 10,000 teachers and 500 school leaders. They learned some interesting things:
- A shocking amount is spent on PD – On average, these three districts spent $18,000 per teacher, per year. At this rate, the top 50 school districts in the US spend $8 billion on teacher PD annually!
- Despite this massive expenditure, most of the teachers in these districts don’t improve year to year - even though many of them lack fundamental skills. A few did improve, but the they couldn’t attribute improvement to any PD experiences.
- The study concluded that most of the PD that these districts provide isn’t effective because it doesn’t provide teachers with the kind of information that they need to improve their teaching.
The authors of the report make 3 recommendations:
1. We need to redefine what it means to help teachers improve. Development should be defined as observable and measurable progress towards an ambitious standard for teaching and learning.
2. We need to reevaluate existing PD using this new definition. Let’s abandon ineffective practices and explore innovative, new approaches to achieve this new definition of teacher development.
3. Finally, we need to reinvent how to support effective teaching at scale.
That’s a lot to consider, so let’s focus on the second one: evaluating PD. How can we use evaluation to help design effective PD programs and determine if they are, in fact, effective? We all know that teaching quality is the most important factor affecting student achievement that the school can influence.
What a teacher says and does in the classroom every day has a greater impact on student achievement than class size, curriculum, and even socio-economic status.
So, teacher professional development is critical. But if we can’t demonstrate that it’s working, it’s not going to get the support and funding that it so desperately needs. Ironically, without that support and funding, it’s going to be even harder to show its working. And when budget cuts need to be made, PD is on the chopping block.
So we need proof that PD works, right? Well, “proving” that PD alone leads to student learning is very difficult and requires scientific rigor that’s usually not practical. However, proof is usually not what’s needed. Instead, policy makers and administrators just need good evidence that things are improving. So, how can we collect that kind of evidence?
Guskey’s Five Levels of PD Evaluation
Thomas Guskey is a professor in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky and a thought leader in the evaluation of teacher PD. He suggests five levels of PD Evaluation:
1. Reactions: “Did they like it?”
2. Learning: “Did they learn anything”?
3. Organizational Support & Change: “Is the school going to support it?”
4. Implementation: “Did teachers actually change?”
5. Students: “What was the impact on students?”
There are three important aspects of Guskey’s model to consider:
- First, each level is critical and should be evaluated both formatively and summatively. It’s like a chef making soup. When the chef tastes the soup, that’s formative. When the guests taste the soup, that’s summative. To ensure that PD programs are well-designed and effective, it’s important to use both of these evaluation approaches.
- Secondly, each level builds on the last. Teachers can’t learn from PD if they don’t like it. And students won’t benefit unless teachers actually implement the changes they learned during the PD.
- Third, these levels should be carefully considered when designing the professional development program. Remember to “begin with the end in mind”. The first thing PD planners should do is to describe the impact they want to see on student learning. Then work backwards from there. What kind of change to we hope to see in teachers? How will we measure that change? What do we expect teachers will learn, and how will we know that they learned it? Answering these questions will help with both program design and program evaluation.
Far too often, the evaluation of PD ends at the first level: “Did you like the refreshments?” “Did you enjoy this session?”. Sometimes we evaluate at level two, but it rarely goes beyond that. Why? Because it’s easier to measure levels one and two. Information at levels three, four and five can’t be gathered until much later, after the PD experience. That requires planning. Carefully considering these intended outcomes and how they will be measured during the planning phase will make it much easier to figure out what outcomes you expect and how and when you will collect evidence that they were achieved.
Teacher professional development is (potentially) one of the most important ways we can improve student achievement. But we must carefully consider our intended outcomes and produce evidence that things are moving in the right direction if we expect PD to continue getting the resources and support it needs. The Nobel prize winning economist Milton Friedman summed it up nicely when he said:
“One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.”
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