Professional development time for teachers can be incredibly valuable and rare. However, recent research has found that much professional development for teachers may not actually be useful in improving effectiveness in the classroom — ostensibly its primary purpose. In a large-scale longitudinal study of three districts’ investment in professional development, TNTP found that only three in 10 teachers demonstrated substantial improvement in their evaluation scores (while two in 10 actually saw their scores decline). Moreover, after five years in the classroom, teachers rarely improve at all; the average fifth-year teacher’s performance is very similar to that of teachers with fifteen years of experience.
School districts spend thousands of dollars per teacher each year on professional development, and cracking the code around how to spend that time and money most effectively is one of the highest-leverage tools administrators have in improving the performance of their schools and districts.
Purpose of Professional Development for Teachers
For professional development to be effective, it’s essential to first define a specific purpose. Administrators must first identify a gap in their teachers’ professional skill set. Professional development for teachers is not a panacea, and specific goals should be identified at the outset. Have administrators observed a particular instructional practice that is problematic? Have test scores been stagnant for a number of years? Is there a gap for a cohort of students that is concerning? Are teachers asking for help in a specific area? It’s essential to first identify the need in a school before identifying the solution. Once that need has been identified, it’s time to pursue a solution.
We’ll dig next into a gap we’ve seen in many schools that can be improved through professional development for teachers. We’ve spent many hours of working side-by-side with teachers and administrators, and we’ve heard many of them express a need for support in preparing their students for college entrance exams.
Professional Development for ACT/SAT?
At first, the idea of professional development targeting a standardized test may not seem like a particularly good use of time with so many competing priorities. But the best professional development for teachers around ACT and SAT is not just about gaming a test—it’s promoting understanding of what it means for students to be college ready while building data analysis skills for teachers, two of the most important priorities for any school.
ACT and SAT data can also provide a clear metric for teachers to identify gaps in their classrooms without the subjective challenges of observation data. TNTP’s professional development study found that 80 percent of teachers whose observation scores had declined substantially in the last several years self-evaluated their own practice had improved “some” or “tremendously” over the same time period. College readiness exam scores and clear data can provide teachers with benchmarks to measure their development and success. By measuring their students’ growth and performance on standards on an objective assessment, teachers can take emotion out of the equation and instead focus on what’s needed to drive student growth.
Increasing Rigor in Classrooms
Both the ACT and SAT have produced compelling evidence that the scores they produce are predictive of college performance. This premise tells us that these tests are not arbitrary measures of a student on a single day, but rather a snapshot into student readiness for college-level work and success. By supporting teachers in truly understanding the rigor of these skills, we’ve seen teachers shift in what they are asking of their students. When teachers understand what skills students will need to be successful in college, the rigor level in their classroom increases. The ACT and SAT are tests of critical thinking, high-level reasoning, and close reading. When teachers truly dive into the content of these assessments and endeavor to build these core college-readiness practices into their day-to-day instruction, it’s not about test prep. It’s about making students ready for college success.
Focusing on Teacher Leadership
In addition to the increase in classroom rigor, truly excellent professional development for teachers has specific goals for building teacher capacity. Preparation for the ACT and SAT is a critical moment for teachers to improve in their data analysis skills. A practice ACT and SAT can provide not only valuable experience for students in preparing for the exam, but it can provide a wealth of data for teachers to identify strengths and gaps in their students. Great professional development can help teachers learn to analyze data, identify critical levers, use item analysis to clarify student gaps, and plan for instruction to close those gaps and reassess. There’s no shortage of literature supporting the use of the data-driven instructional cycle in schools as a critical tool in driving student achievement and closing gaps. However, proper professional development is essential in ensuring the success of efficient, effective data-driven instructional cycles — rather than just adding another task to an overburdened teacher’s plate.
To that end, we’ve seen schools have great success in supporting their teachers by using professional development as a tool to create teacher leaders. Administrators identify their strongest teachers in a department or grade level to target for growth and leadership — without pulling them out of the classroom. These teachers participate in targeted professional development around the use of ACT and SAT data and developing instruction to increase rigor in the classroom, which they can then implement and support with other teachers within their school. These teacher leaders build a data culture in their school and champion the college-ready instruction. Building teacher leaders also provides a means to bring professional development for teachers to scale while building capacity within a school’s in-house talent. This strategy can also be used to avoid the plateau that teachers tend to see after five years in the classroom by providing them with new skills that will measurably improve instruction as they grow as leaders within their school.
Assessing the Impact of Professional Development
Ultimately, it is essential that a school administrator set clear metrics for success before engaging in any professional development project in their school. They know best what will be most meaningful for their students. These targets may include increased observation scores for teachers, improved teacher satisfaction, increased retention of teacher leaders, or increased score growth in the ACT and SAT. By setting clear targets prior to engaging in a professional development initiative, school administrators can ensure that they are selecting the professional development strategies most likely to meet those goals and assess afterward if those strategies were successful.