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teacher accountability
Matthew Thaxter, of the Long Island-based company TEQ, gives a smart board lesson to teachers at P.S. 176 in Brooklyn.

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.

Professional Development

The Hechinger Report is investigating how professional-development funds are spent in the country’s largest school system—New York City—as well as in other districts around the nation to see what we can learn from schools, districts and countries that excel at ongoing teacher training. This story is part of the ongoing series.


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.

teacher accountability
Principal Elizabeth Culkin, of P.S. 176, spends about $100,000 a year on professional development for her teachers, more than twice the average of New York City schools.

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.

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Letters to the Editor

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  1. In my experience, professional development efforts have success in direct proportion to the extent that they are aligned to an overall district plan for improvement…a plan that is constant despite changing leadership.
    Opportunities for staff development are scarce in most places. It is expensive to release teachers from their responsibilities for collaborative learning activities. Also, the more that teachers are out of their classrooms, the larger the impact on student performance. That being said, it is important that learning opportunities are well planned and meaningful.
    Too often over the course of a year or several years, professional development covers many topics, none of them linked to each other or to a plan. If district leadership changes, the priorities of the previous administration are discarded and a new emphasis for professional development set.
    Districts have many ongoing needs for training as well as training for new programs and tools. A multi-year calendar of events that addresses all of these needs, corrects this problem. Judging the quality of the providers then can be directly linked to clearly articulated district goals.

  2. Do you have a link to the Comptroller’s study? I can’t find this anywhere on the Comptroller’s web site.

  3. Florida, like New York and other states nationally, has increased accountability for the millions of dollars spent annually for professional development. In response to this demand the Schultz Center has focused work on providing a model for designing high quality PD that can withstand the rigors of more technically designed evaluation to include the component of evidence of student achievement. After completing about 20 separate evaluations of PD programs and courses of study, the stumbling blocks to providing data-based evidence of effectiveness is still lacking for 2 important reasons: lack of a clear theory of action for how a program or set of teaching strategies or methods is expected to impact teaching practice and lack of resources devoted to monitoring the extent and quality of implementing the new or enhanced practices taking place in classrooms. Without these two essentials we will continue to struggle with this issue. KPD.

  4. Who is behind these businesses? I’ll bet we find fewer “educators” and true “academics” behind this stuff and more folks just looking for an easy buck at the public’s expense.

    NCLB was started as a means for Neil Bush to sell test-taking supplies and after that, programs to improve scores after taking his tests.
    link here:
    Now Jeb sees the future and it’s another way to suck public funds from our educational system without providing true educational benefit based on any proven data.
    link here:

    When schools spend so much on technology that must be constantly updated, there is less for music, art supplies, PE classes and the types of programs that really benefit children and keep them motivated in school. Technology is a funding black hole that schools get sucked into and have difficulty getting out of. Once the monetary commitment is made, it’s hard to say “I goofed” and move on.

    Why is it that schools had better programs, more learning (and less testing) in the past? Children have less exposure to meaningful educational experiences now compared to mine in the late 60s-early 70s K-12 system.

    The “reform” movement to make teachers accountable without considering socio/economic factors is misguided and wrongheaded. Will we be firing all of the special education teachers (who must complete far more educational requirements for certification to teach) because their moderate/severely disabled population doesn’t show “improvement” with a test? Business has infiltrated our education system to its detriment. The people who know about educational development are kicked to the curb while these (especially charter-friendly) business people pay lobbyists to push their agenda. Remember that a majority of these guys are developers. It’s ultimately about a public school take-over then the schools will be labeled “program improvement”, closed and reopened as charters that do not take students with moderate/severe disabilities, English Language learners and Foster Youth. Eventually the property will be their next big public steal for who has more land in big metropolitan areas than school districts?

    When business gets involved with education, it’s never about the children – it’s about profit and nothing more. If they cared – they’d convince our leadership to fully fund education, teach ALL children and invest in the teachers we have, the schools we have and support education instead of creating “grants” and “races” for only a few to benefit from. We’re starving our once great educational system at the expense of a few greedy business people and it truly stinks that the general public is so ignorant about this.

    more links to the new world order:

  5. One of the biggest challenges we see in how districts choose professional development is that professional development is seen as an add-on rather than something that is strategically selected based on school and district goals. Many districts still choose programs rather than partnering with PD providers to integrate their work into the very fabric of the district. Thus, many districts or schools hire various PD firms to meet short-term requirements, fill PD days, or as a quick fix for a long-term problem. No professional development program will work if it simply focuses on ad hoc strategies rather than on a holistic approach that significantly improves teaching and learning. Programs that focus on helping teachers improve how they think about instruction, build in ample time for rigorous teacher practice and reflection, are differentiated according to teachers varying levels of expertise, and have built-in accountability have a better chance of making a difference than one-day workshops or short-term programs that focus on a particular strategy or tool.

  6. Teaching children is a special occupation that demands special people. Not everyone is a teacher. Sure, some people can develop some teacher skills, but most *good* teachers did not need to develop them because they were born with a teacher’s skills and attitude. Teaching is simply their fulfilment in life.

    Yet not enough of such ‘born teachers’ are entering the field today. Thanks to the economic crisis, there is no real shortage of teachers, as witnessed by the fact that no classes are sent home. That’s because schools hire anyone who prefers a lousy-paid, overworked teaching job with no social status to being unemployed. Just like the well-meaning students of Teach For America teach in order to improve their c.v., and leave the teaching profession as soon as they can. (After two subsidized years, that is.)

    The teaching results of American schools are not good. Everyone knows that, and for a reason. Yet we know how to maintain a positive image: by narrowly focusing on test scores, and *impovering* the curriculum. Our PISA scores are so-so; they would be even worse if we did not force our teachers and students to spend the majority of classroom time to reading, maths, and physics – exactly the things PISA wants us to do.

    It is high time to start understanding and learning from the example that Finland sets us. Invest in teacher quality by making the teaching job so attractive, that there are too many applicants for a teaching position, and too many applicants for entering a teacher training institute. So we can select on quality, instead of having to deal with the troublesome quality of well-meaning people entering the profession today.

    In Helsinki, Finland, 2300 people applied for a place in primary school training. Only 120 were accepted. For us it is impossible how the teaching profession can be so attractive to young people. Some kids would rather die than becoming a teacher.

    It’s not that we spend not enough on education. We do. But the money is not spent on teachers, or on teaching, or on facilities in the classroom. The money is spent on salaries of those who *do not* teach, and on expensive hobbies of board members who do not teach.

    Yet teachers are paying the price of the economic crisis. And if teachers pay the price, it is the students who suffer a decrease on quality. Is that really what we want?

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