Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development

December 10, 2014

As I travel around the country, I’m constantly running into teachers eager to improve their craft and to learn from each other so that their students can succeed. Unfortunately, teachers’ desire for meaningful professional learning experiences doesn’t always match the reality.

It’s time we started listening more closely to what teachers want, and trust the teachers.

All told, $18 billion is spent annually on professional development for teachers, and a typical teacher spends 68 hours – more than a week – each year on professional learning activities typically directed by districts. When self-guided learning and courses are included, the annual total comes to 89 hours. Yet by many measures, much of this effort and investment is wasted on professional development offerings that teachers themselves say are not relevant, not effective, and not connected to their core work of helping students learn.

 It’s time we started listening more closely to what teachers want, and trust the teachers.

Understanding these gaps as areas with great potential for improvement, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation contracted with the Boston Consulting Group in 2014 to reach more than 1,300 teachers, professional development leaders in districts and state education agencies, principals, professional development providers, and thought leaders through surveys and interviews on roadblocks to implementing more effective professional development. Subsequent research included a survey of 1,600 additional teachers.

These findings, especially when combined with what we already know, provide some valuable insights and suggestions for shifting current practice to yield professional development that is more useful to teachers, more cost and time effective for administrators, and ultimately more connected to improved student outcomes.   

What Works
The most heartening finding is the extent to which teachers and administrators actually agree on what constitutes the “ideal” professional development experience; in short one that is relevant, hands-on, and sustained. This high degree of alignment suggests that improving professional development is less a matter of reconciling different notions of how to spur improvement and more a matter of designing learning experiences that reflect these common priorities.

For teachers, the ability to choose is important. Teachers who choose most or all of their own professional development opportunities are more than twice as satisfied with professional development as teachers with fewer options. 

Areas for Growth
Yet there’s a large disconnect between where district leaders think professional learning should focus and teachers’ views of how useful those experiences now are. 

For instance, district leaders identified lesson observation and coaching as the two professional development approaches where their district should spend more time. But teacher support for coaching is highly qualified. Teachers are skeptical of administrators as coaches and express a strong preference for a coach who “knows what it’s like to be in my shoes”—someone who knows their subject areas and who is well-trained at providing feedback.

Teachers want coaching from people with content expertise and by those familiar with teachers’ individual strengths and weaknesses. Yet intensive coaching for experienced teachers is relatively rare. While principals report that 60 percent of their in-school coaching time is dedicated to new and struggling teachers, about half of teachers report receiving any coaching within the last 12 months—and only one quarter receive coaching weekly or multiple times per week. 

Another example is the disparate perceptions between teachers and administrators in terms of the most-needed professional development topics. Experienced teachers cite “Common Core State Standards” and “using technology in instruction” as the most needed topics, while administrators’ top two choices are “analyzing student data” and “creating and using assessments.” 

 One area of notable agreement is that both teachers and administrators cite lack of adequate time as the primary obstacle to effective professional development.

The Way Forward
Despite the challenges noted above, there is reason for optimism. The first is that teachers aren’t just open to professional development – they crave it, particularly when they are partners in a professional development process that is structured, operates on the principle of mutual accountability, and fosters open, two-way feedback. And when it comes to professional development, relevance is king. Teachers are most satisfied when they are active and empowered collaborators in professional development whose benefits they see in their day-to-day work.

Survey results and focus groups suggest teachers want professional development that is less driven by presentations and lectures and more oriented around opportunities to apply learning through demonstrations, modeling, and practice. They value time spent planning, designing, and reflecting on instruction with other teachers.  

Second, teachers are already heavy users of online resources for planning, designing, and delivering instruction. Today, a wealth of emerging products, from content aggregation platforms to collaboration tools, offer the potential to dramatically streamline teacher workflow and free up more of teachers’ time to engage in tailored, high-value professional development.

Lastly, there is an existing—if underused—research base that identifies characteristics of professional development associated with student learning. But we need to know much more about which models work best under which conditions. For example, teachers in strong collaborative environments report significant benefits in their day-to-day work. But there is limited research on which factors are most critical for effective collaboration, such as dedicated time, grade-level teams, sharing best practices, or school leadership that communicates its commitment.

In Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development, we summarize these findings in the hope that they can help districts and school leaders work with teachers to create more powerful learning opportunities for them in order to power up learning for their students. Districts control the vast majority of spending on professional development, and reallocating that spending toward formats, topics, and providers that teachers themselves say better meet their needs should be a core priority for schools and districts alike.

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