Teachers need better professional development opportunities, more support

We recently published a deep-dive into the professional development of teachers—strengths, shortcomings, places for improvement. What we found, in short, was reason for optimism on a few fronts, substantial room for improvement on a much larger number of aspects—and also room for learning more about these systems of supports.

The lastest report of our “Perfect Storm in the Teacher Labor Market” series is devoted to examining the systems of professional supports available to teachers—i.e. the early career, ongoing professional development opportunities, and the learning communities they are part of.

Though in the report we keep the main two themes of “equity” and “quality” used in the teacher shortage series, this time, unlike in previous reports, we navigate grayer areas regarding the framing of the report and the straight correlations between the supports and the shortage. For one, because there is no set of supports deemed as ideal and universally valid in the field, because there is insufficient information about for whom, for what, and why these supports matter , and also because it is unlikely that lack of any specific resource or support can be a sole cause for expelling teachers from the classrooms or not attracting new ones to them (or at least these are less clear than in prior reports).

With these caveats in mind, we anchor this report on a) common sense on why professional supports may matter for teachers; b) evidence on standards and recommendations from evaluations in the United States., comparisons of supports across countries, and in the most important education regulation in the country; and c) information available at our level of analysis—U.S. K-12 teachers in public schools surveyed in several studies by the National Center for Education Statistics (the 2015–2016 National Teacher and Principal Survey, 2011–2012 Schools and Staffing Survey, and the 2012–2013 Teacher Follow-up Survey microdata).

In terms of the systems of supports currently in place, the best news from the analyses is that large shares of teachers participate in some sort of professional development opportunity. (By the way, this is something that, according to the new OECD’s TALIS study released in June, seems to be true in most countries). For example, large shares of first-year teachers work with a mentor (79.9 percent) or participate in teacher induction programs (72.7 percent). And large shares of teachers generally are accessing certain types of professional development, including workshops or training sessions (91.9 percent), activities focused on the subjects that teachers teach (85.1 percent), and to a lesser extent, had opportunities to observe or be observed by other teachers in their classrooms (67.0 percent).

However, most indicators we describe overshadow this news, and in almost all cases, features of the systems of supports that are currently in place can be significantly strengthened. First, we find limited access to some of the types of professional development that are highly valued and more effective, such as attending university courses related to teaching, presenting at workshops, or making observational visits to other schools, are available to less than a fourth of teachers. Likely, lack of resources that would allow teachers to participate in these opportunities are an obstacle in the way of getting more and better access to the various supports—as novice and veteran teachers largely don’t get the time and assistance they need to study, reflect, and prepare their practice.

For instance, among all teachers, only half have released time from teaching to participate in professional development (50.9 percent), and less than a third are reimbursed for conferences or workshop fees (28.2 percent), and among novice teachers, only 1 in 10 get a reduced teaching schedule (10.7 percent). Very importantly, a need to review the quality and usefulness of the supports became apparent in our analyses, given the fact that most teachers are not highly satisfied with their professional development experiences: only less than a third of teachers found any of the activities they accessed “very useful,” and over a third of novice teachers thought mentors were of little help.

Another concerning aspect in the systems of supports has to do with the fact that teachers are not by and large immersed in learning communities that nurture good outcomes for teachers and students alike (which we also discussed in our previous report, in connection with the schools’ climates then). More than two-thirds of teachers report that they have less than a great deal of influence over what they teach in the classroom (71.3 percent) or what instructional materials they use (74.5 percent), and just 11.1 percent of teachers have a great deal of influence determining the content of professional development programs, leaving significant for improvement in terms of taking teachers’ knowledge and judgment into consideration.

We know that good supports matter for teachers, students, and for the quality of education children receive for a number of reasons. Among others, good supports allow teachers to acquire new skills and update their knowledge, and strengthen their practice and their effectiveness in the classroom, all critical to issues of quality. We also show in our analysis that good systems of supports are implicated in the shortage because relative to teachers who quit teaching, larger shares of staying teachers had been assigned to a mentor (77.0 percent vs. 69.2 percent), found their subject-specific professional development activities very useful (27.4 percent vs. 19.5 percent), or worked in highly cooperative environments (38.7 percent vs. 33.9 percent).

As suggested earlier, this report came with more subtle elements and more caveats than the previous reports, but hopefully, acknowledging them as explicitly as possible can turn into an opportunity for strengthening the systems of supports as we move forward.

The aspect for hope is that these caveats offer practice, research, and policy an opportunity to work more closely on creating a fully cohesive story around the systems of professional supports available to teachers that is based on increasing what we know about what constitutes optimal professional development—i.e., what the contents need to be, what the style, where it should take place, when and for how long, who how teachers are assigned to the opportunities, why teachers want these supports, and whether there is a single optimal combination valid for all teachers at all times and in all settings—and on what exact roles they play in keeping teachers in the classroom and attracting new fellows into teaching. Though this was a moving target and brought some less stable aspects to the analyses than we wished for, their proper assessment would only positively contribute to strengthening the quality of education and to weakening the teacher shortage problem as well.