Archived Information

CPRE Policy Brief: Helping Teachers Teach Well: Transforming Professional Development - June 1995

Professional Development Today

In most districts, professional development is thought of almost exclusively in terms of formal education activities, such as courses or workshops. Several times a year, school administrators release students for a half or full day and hold an "in-service" program that may or may not be relevant to teachers' professional development needs. These programs may feature experts who speak to all teachers on a "hot" topic or they may consist of a number of simultaneous workshops offered by "trainers" (recruited from other districts, the university, or the state education department), with teachers choosing the sessions they wish to attend. Teachers typically spend a few hours listening and, at best, leave with some practical tips or some useful materials. There is seldom any follow-up to the experience and subsequent in-services may address entirely different sets of topics.

District activities are often supplemented by the participation of limited numbers of teachers in professional conferences, workshops offered by regional service agencies or state education agencies, and summer workshops offered by a variety of sponsors. Teachers working in categorical programs receive more of these opportunities because funding is available and special programs are provided for them by state and regional agencies. The amount of this activity depends, in part, on a district's fiscal resources. Who attends depends on the initiative of individual teachers, and on their relationship with school and district administrators, or their willingness to pay their own way.

Salary scales in most districts offer increments to teachers for taking additional coursework or earning continuing education units (CEUs) by participating in various activities. Recertification policies in most states require that teachers earn so many credits or CEUs within a set time (typically five years). Some states require that a master's degree be obtained within a given period in order to obtain a permanent license or in order to reach the highest step in a career ladder. In addition, some districts pay the tuition costs for graduate courses taken by teachers. These state and local policies provide strong incentives for teachers to take graduate courses and be active consumers of workshops and conferences. However, many of these teachers may be seeking qualifications for specialties that will eventually remove them from the classroom.

There is currently no consensus in the field about best practice in professional development, and districts receive little guidance about how to manage and improve their efforts. Innovators are trying some interesting new approaches, and a few states are implementing changes for new teachers, but the vast majority of districts are doing what they have always done.

Costs of Professional Development

Most states and districts have no idea of what they are actually spending on professional development. They cannot even estimate overall expenditures because the data needed are not available. State accounting systems make it difficult to aggregate professional development expenditures and few districts attempt to track them. However, we do know that local districts bear the brunt of these costs and that much more money is spent on professional development than most policymakers realize.

A study of three urban districts found that district expenditures were up to 50 times the estimates provided by district staff.2 Total expenditures ranged from 3.3 percent of the district budget to 5.7 percent. And the cost per teacher ranged from less than $1,000 to $1,767 in 1980 dollars. In addition to the cost of teacher and administrator time, the study included the costs of workshops and substitutes, salary increases related to degrees and course credits earned, and tuition reimbursement.

A study conducted in California in 1986 found that the average direct expenditure on professional development was $1,360 per teacher.3 When investments made by individuals and the present value of future salary increments were included, the investment per teacher was over $4,000. More than 60 percent of this expenditure was the present value of salary increments earned through professional development. The researchers also found that 90 percent of the total investment was spent on district-controlled activities.

A more recent study by the Education Development Center of four large districts reported per teacher expenditures of $1,755 to $3,529 annually, representing 1.8 percent to 2.8 percent of local school budgets.4 However, the authors of this study did not include the present value of salary increments related to professional development. These fiscal commitments would significantly increase their estimates of investments in professional development.

While these studies used somewhat different definitions of professional development and varied in the expenditures included, they all found higher levels of expenditures than typically assumed by state and local policymakers.

Despite our lack of accurate data on current investment in professional development, we can identify the areas in which investments are made. In most states, local districts bear the brunt of paying for professional development, and their expenditures include: staff costs associated with planning and delivering in-service programs and opening schools for two to five extra days per year for in-service; sending staff to workshops; supervising and evaluating personnel; reimbursing tuition; and paying the salary increments teachers earn when they attain graduate degrees, college credits, or CEUs. Based on the studies cited above, these activities probably account for 3 percent to 5 percent of local operating expenses.

State investments in professional development include: costs of operating agencies such as intermediate units; state or federal categorical funds set aside for professional development; time provided by state employees for in-service programs or consulting to schools; administrative costs for teacher recertification programs; costs of state-funded conferences or workshops; state subsidies to colleges and universities for courses provided to teachers or for extension services to schools; tuition reimbursements and salary increments for credits for teachers employed directly by the state; and the additional state aid to local districts whose budgets have increased because of teachers salary increases earned as a result of college credits or degrees.

Guiding Principles5

A number of experts and organizations have suggested that the most promising professional development programs or policies are those that:

  • stimulate and support site-based initiatives. Professional development is likely to have greater impact on practice if it is closely linked to school initiatives to improve practice.

  • support teacher initiatives as well as school or district initiatives. These initiatives could promote the professionalization of teaching and may be cost-effective ways to engage more teachers in serious professional development activities.

  • are grounded in knowledge about teaching. Good professional development should encompass expectations educators hold for students, child-development theory, curriculum content and design, instructional and assessment strategies for instilling higher-order competencies, school culture and shared decision-making.

  • model constructivist teaching. Teachers need opportunities to explore, question and debate in order to integrate new ideas into their repertoires and their classroom practice.

  • offer intellectual, social and emotional engagement with ideas, materials and colleagues. If teachers are to teach for deep understanding, they must be intellectually engaged in their disciplines and work regularly with others in their field.

  • demonstrate respect for teachers as professionals and as adult learners. Professional development should draw on the expertise of teachers and take differing degrees of teacher experience into account.

  • provide for sufficient time and follow-up support for teachers to master new content and strategies and to integrate them into their practice.

  • are accessible and inclusive. Professional development should be viewed as an integral part of teachers' work rather than as a privilege granted to "favorites" by administrators.

State investments in professional development probably range from less than 1 percent to over 3 percent of total state spending on public education.

The federal government is also making a significant contribution to teacher professional development. According to one recent estimate, the federal government spent $369 million in fiscal 1993 on teacher development programs in science, mathematics, and technology. 6 In addition, Chapter Two of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), The Eisenhower State Mathematics and Science Program, allocated $246 million in the same year.

Legislation passed in 1994 increases federal support for professional development. Most of the funds provided for the states in the Goals 2000 legislation must be passed on to local districts for professional development. The new ESEA increases the funding for the Eisenhower Program (Title 2). Perhaps the biggest changes will be in Title 1 where there will no longer be ceilings on the amounts that can be expended for professional development.

Many reform advocates have called for increased investment in professional development. But, with the lack of good financial information and the absence of standards of program adequacy that could be applied to assess current opportunities for teachers, it is difficult to determine if the resources currently available are adequate or not. At least part of the increased professional development required to support school reforms might be provided by re-allocating current investments. Currently, local districts spend a great deal on professional development--and it is typically spent in ineffective ways for unclear purposes.

Impact of the Current System

There is a growing body of opinion among "experts" that the conventional forms of professional development are virtually a waste of time. In this view, lectures, workshops and other conventional forms of information delivery and training are too top-down and too isolated from classroom realities to have an impact on teachers' practice. Although much of this criticism is probably warranted, there are documented examples of changes in practice resulting from well-designed training programs. Many of these cases followed the well-known model of theory-demonstration-practice, feedback, and follow-through advocated by Joyce and Showers (1982).7 This model emphasizes the importance of coaching and technical assistance in the classroom. However, the intensive training and frequent follow-up advocated by Joyce and others are rarely used and should not be confused with the one-shot workshops that are more characteristic of staff development in local districts.

On the whole, most researchers agree that local professional development programs typically have weak effects on practice because they lack focus, intensity, follow-up, and continuity. In many cases, neither individual nor organizational activities are closely linked to district goals for student performance. Even where there is substantive linkage, inconsistency and lack of follow-up weaken potential effects on practice.

2 D. Moore and A. Hyde, Making Sense of Staff Development: An Analysis of Staff Development Programs and Their Costs in Three Urban Districts (Chicago, IL: Designs for Change, 1981).

3 J. W. Little and others, Staff Development in California: Public and Personal Investment, Program Patterns, and Policy Choices (San Francisco: Far West Laboratory for Research and Development, 1987); D. S. Stern, W. H. Gerritz, and J W. Little, "Making the Most of the Districts Two (or Five) Cents: Accounting for Investments in Teacher Professional Development," Journal of Education Finance 14: 19-26 (1989).

4 Miller, B., B. Lord, and J. Dorney. Staff Development for Teachers: A Study of Configurations and Costs in Four Districts. (Newton, MA: Education Development Center, 1994).

5 Griffin, G. 1982. "Staff Development." Paper prepared for the National Institute of Education Invitational Conference, Research on Teaching: Implications for Practice, Arlie House, VA. Washington, DC, National Institute of Education; Hodges, H. 1994. "Using Research to Inform Practice in Urban Schools: 10 Key Strategies for Success. Paper prepared for the Invitational Conference on "Improving Urban Schools: Better Strategies for Dissemination and Knowledge Utilization," sponsored by the National Center on Education for the Inner Cities, Alexandria, VA, September 8-10; Joyce, B., and B. Showers. 1982. "The Coaching of Teaching." Educational Leadership, 40(1): 4-10; Little, J.W. 1993. "Teachers' Professional Development in a Climate of Reform." Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 15(2):129-151; Loucks-Horsley, S., C.Harding, M. Arbuckle, L. Murray, C. Dubea, and M. Williams. 1987. Continuing to Learn: A Guide Book for Teacher Development. Andover, MA: Regional Laboratory for Educational Improvement of the Northeast and Islands and the National Staff Development Council; Price, H. 1993. "Teacher Professional Development: It's About Time." Education Week, 12(33), 32; National Staff Development Council. 1994. National Staff Development Council's Standards for Staff Development: Middle level Edition. Oxford, OH: author; Zimpher, N. L., and K. R. Howey. 1992. Policy and Practice Toward the Improvement of Teacher Education. Oak Brook, IL: The North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.

6 Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engineering, and Technology, The Federal Investment in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology Education: Where Now? What Next? (Washington, DC: National Science Foundation, 1993).

7 B. Joyce and B. Showers, "The Coaching of Teaching," Educational Leadership 40(1): 4-10 (1982).

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