The problem with development

A mirage is something that appears real or possible, but is in fact illusory or without substance. It’s also the title of TNTP’s report on teacher development, aptly named because of the widely held (yet mistaken) belief among education leaders that we know how to help teachers improve.

Let’s briefly summarize the report’s findings. After surveying over 10,000 teachers and more than 500 school leaders in 3 large public school districts and 1 midsize charter network, the report’s authors found:

1) Schools make an enormous investment in teacher development – an average of $18,000 per teacher per year, or the equivalent of 6-9% of their operating budgets. Furthermore, teachers devote an average of 150 hours (or 10% of a school year) to such activities.

2) Despite this investment, the majority of teachers do not get any better from one year to the next. In fact, after 5 years in the classroom the vast majority of teachers reach a career-long plateau.

3) Even when teachers do get better, it is nearly impossible to determine what strategy or investment led to the improvement.

4) Schools are ineffective at helping teachers understand how to get better. As a result, less than half of the teachers surveyed felt they had any weaknesses in their instruction.

The report concludes, “We bombard teachers with help, but most of it is not helpful.” Below, we show one of the report’s more interesting graphics. In it, one can clearly see the rapid growth a teacher makes in the first several years of their career (followed by the aforementioned plateau).

So how do schools begin to address this problem? The authors present the following 3 recommendations. However, in the interest of fleshing out the mindsets and mantras need to implement them (and having a little fun along the way), we’ve inserted a few addendums.

1) Redefine what it means to help teachers improve. This includes defining development as “measurable and observable progress” toward a high standard of teaching and student learning, giving teachers a “clear and deep understanding” of their performance, and using rewards and consequences in an intelligent manner.

These are great ideas, but an obvious question is . . . “Who?” Who’s to define instructional excellence? Who’s to evaluate teachers in an objective manner? Who’s setting the rewards and consequences? Getting each of these components right comes down to having the right people making decisions. And this is where we add in a few mindsets and ancillary goals that can help accomplish this:

A) Aim to hire people that are smarter than you. “If you always hire people who are bigger than you are, we shall become a company of giants” (David Ogilvy). This logic doesn’t just apply to companies. This also has to be the mindset when hiring for school positions. This is how you will find teachers who grow their students by leaps and bounds, academic coaches who can provide teachers with individualized support, and school leaders who know how to define instructional excellence.

B) Related to the last point, the consequences of hiring decisions are enormous. “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur” (Red Adair). Whatever you must do to attract top talent to your team, do it. Salaries, flexible work arrangements, and career pathways must all be on the table. While we haven’t found any research on the subject, we suspect there are thousands of highly-effective educators who have left the profession but would return if the conditions were right. They should also be considered free-agents.

2) Reevaluate existing professional learning programming. This includes taking stock of all various development efforts, trying to evaluate the effectiveness of each one, exploring new modes of development, and reallocating resources into programs that work.

Again, we have several questions about these suggestions. How many school leaders have ever been trained to evaluate the effectiveness or return on various programs? Where do you go to find new ideas in teacher development and how much time should you allocate to doing this? Our thoughts:

A) Put time into studying excellence. “Bad artists copy; good artists steal” (Pablo Picasso). Most teachers quickly adopt this mindset in the first year or two in the classroom. But for whatever reason, school leaders often conclude they have to reinvent the wheel when making school-level decisions. Given the difficulty of assessing the effectiveness of teacher development, an alternative approach might be to study how other schools are achieving their successes. By the way, that’s exactly what we do at Thriving Schools.

B) Sometimes you just have to start over. “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete” (Buckminster Fuller). When implementing modifications to a system, there’s usually two paths one can take – making small, incremental improvements or wiping the slate clean and starting over. The former approach works well when you’re already experiencing progress and seeing the signs of growth. But if you’re not, finding ways to fix something that’s broken is an exercise in futility. In the weeks to come, we will be sharing various programs that can help school leaders on either of these paths.

3) Reinvent how we support effective teaching at scale. This includes balancing development expenditures with investments in recruitment and retention, determining ways to reconstruct a teacher’s many roles and responsibilities, finding ways for great teachers to reach more students, and creating new ways to train and certify teachers.

This is our favorite set of recommendations because many of the folks we talk to here at Thriving Schools are doing these things. However, in order to reinvent the way things are you also need to:

A) Challenge the way things are. “If you have always done it that way, it’s probably wrong” (Charles Kettering). This is because when one takes the time to understand why programs and policies are in place, they almost always find something that needs to be changed or modified. It’s true what they say: “The times are a-changing.” Systems and policies that were created years or decades ago may no longer be relevant or useful.

B) Don’t be afraid to try something new. “Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe). Here are a few examples. An exceptional teacher wants to tear down school walls so they can seat twice as many students in their class? Try it. A veteran teacher needs to rework their schedule to coach a few rookies on classroom management? Make it happen. Your assistant principle wants to reallocate funding into the recruitment budget? Give it a whirl. Not only are you taking bold action, but you’re empowering your staff to do the same.

C) Get comfortable with mistakes. “The only sure way to avoid making mistakes is to have no new ideas” (Albert Einstein). We preach all the time to our students about having a growth mindset. But kids know better – they follow your example, not your advice. If we want our kids to get comfortable with mistakes, we need to do the same. At school, at home, and in our relationships. You will make mistakes while trying new things at your school. But you also might succeed. “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work” (Thomas Edison).

Despite its bleak findings, we’re excited by this report. While it’s easy to focus on shortcomings, we tend to do the opposite – we see all of these areas as opportunities to get better. In the weeks to come we will be sharing some new and exciting ways to develop teachers. We’re glad you’re along for the ride . . .