TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

Precious little time: How to make teachers' professional learning worthwhile

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At the start of each school year, teachers enter the classroom eager to get to work with their students, full of ideas about how they could do even better than last year. Teachers shouldn't have to answer that question alone; effective professional learning can help teachers grow and improve year after year. But as every veteran teacher knows, some PD opportunities are highly useful–and some are only worth the free donut. A new analysis of survey data from George Zuo, Sy Doan, Julia H. Kaufman of RAND asks how teachers are spending that time. The implied follow-up question is, "and is that time worth it?"

Past research has found that most professional learning for teachers is quite expensive and yields little benefit to teachers or to their students. Moreover, professional learning opportunities take teachers out of the classroom or take up their precious planning time, meaning that these chances to learn come with very real opportunity costs. NCTQ's 2020 analysis of teacher absences in 30 large districts across the country found that about 18% of teacher absences were for professional development (and related professional reasons), equivalent to more than one and a half days each school year. Given the costs to teachers, students, and districts, professional learning must be well worth it.

RAND's new analysis offers some interesting insights into what happens in professional learning and what more teachers may need:

  • Teachers most commonly engage in collaborative learning (like Professional Learning Communities with other teachers), rather than in workshops, trainings, or coaching. In fact, 39% of teachers surveyed report engaging in collaborative learning on a weekly basis. Coaching is the least frequent, with more than half of teachers (52%) reporting that they never engage in coaching experiences. Fortunately, teachers also report finding collaborative learning to be the most valuable form of professional learning - and the more frequently they engage in it, the more valuable they find it.
  • Professional learning opportunities are not always focused on the topics teachers need or the students they serve. The good news is that teachers in schools with a higher share of English learners and with a higher share of students living in poverty are more likely to frequently engage in professional learning. Unfortunately, across a variety of schools, nearly four in ten teachers report having zero access to "expertise" through professional learning on supporting English learners. And a quarter of teachers say they're on their own to figure out how to support students with IEPs or 504 plans. This absence is particularly troubling given the growing population of English learners across the nation and the persistent achievement gaps for English learners and students with disabilities, suggesting that teachers could benefit from more professional learning in these areas.

    Also concerning, teachers are far less likely to have professional learning opportunities focused on science than they are focused on English language arts or mathematics (the report doesn't mention social studies).

    Further, teachers often enter the classroom without an in-depth knowledge of the subjects they'll be expected to teach (see past survey data as well as NCTQ's analysis of teacher prep program requirements)–yet teachers spend scant professional learning time focused on learning about content or pedagogy. This finding further bolsters the importance of ensuring that teachers come in already equipped with the content they will teach.
  • It's not clear how much professional learning helps teachers improve or whether it made a difference for their students. Teachers were asked to self-report whether they use a set of standards-aligned practices (detailed in the report's appendix) in their teaching. The analysis found that in mathematics, teachers who engaged in collaborative learning used more of these practices (but this analysis cannot determine whether the professional learning caused more use of these practices), but found no meaningful relationship for collaborative learning in English language arts, instead finding positive associations for teachers who frequently participated in workshops and coaching. Moreover, there was no relationship between teachers' participation in professional learning and their self-reported perceptions of their students' achievement or whether their students completed class assignments.
One of the most pressing questions school and district leaders can ask when assigning professional learning is whether the learning for teachers is worth the lost learning time for students. For now, the answer still seems to be: It's complicated.