The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) selected an apt title for its study of American professional development released on Tuesday: Teachers Know Best.”

BCG’s study, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, investigates the contours of our nation’s dysfunctional approach to teacher learning (and, by extension, leadership). In my last blog post, I described the woeful state of professional development in the United States. The study’s results—based on extensive educator surveys and financial analysis of expenditures—support that sordid narrative.

The surprising and not-so-surprising

I was slightly surprised to learn that, on average, American teachers engage in about 89 hours of professional development a year—more than I’d expected. About 68 of these hours involve district-directed training and another 21 take place via courses and self-guided learning.

But unfortunately, the report notes serious problems with the nature of professional development: “The way in which schools and districts deliver professional learning is highly fragmented and characterized by key disconnects between what decision-makers intend and the professional learning teachers actually experience.”

Very few teachers (29%) are highly satisfied with their PD—and only a few more (34%) say that their professional development has improved over time. Teachers report inadequate opportunities to  “prepare for the changing nature of their jobs”: maximizing use of technology and digital learning tools, analyzing student data to differentiate instruction, and implementing the Common Core.

The teacher-principal gap

According to the study, the PD formats that principals want to spend more time on—e.g., professional learning communities (PLCs)—are the same ones with which teachers are least satisfied.

It would be easy to misinterpret this data, to assume that teachers are opposed to collaborative PD formats. But BCG’s focus group work reveals what we hear from accomplished teachers in the CTQ Collaboratory all the time: Teachers embrace the concept of PLCs, but in practice, find that these collaborative opportunities are structured in misguided ways.

Focus group participants explained that collaborative professional development—in its current incarnations—often amounts to just “another meeting” or “one more thing I have to do.” Their experiences are characterized by a lack of engagement, poor use of time, and poor planning or execution. But in the ideal state, they report, collaborative professional development has the capacity to be energizing, supportive, and useful.

I’m sure that few principals would disdain what teachers care about regarding their professional development (like well-structured collaboration and clear benefits to day-to-day work with students).

But most principals just don’t know how to implement the kind of PD that matters, having had little preparation or support to do so.

In addition, as revealed in the survey, principals say they just “do not have enough time to support teacher professional development effectively.” Mirroring the results of other studies, BCG reports that the myriad administrative tasks for which principals are responsible prevent them from being instructional leaders.

What else should we be considering?

BCG’s data-rich report and thoughtful analysis concludes with several areas for additional research. I’d like to add four specific questions that deserve special emphasis:

  1. We know teachers seek more high-quality feedback, but we do not know how school systems determine which teachers are most influential with one another  and to what end. But how do innovative teachers spread their expertise to their not-so-inventive colleagues… and how can we maximize innovators’ impact to improve student learning?
  2. We know that high-quality tools are essential for teachers receiving feedback on their teaching. But how do we create the structures and time needed for teachers to act on the feedback they are given?
  3. We know teachers embrace coaching (and do not trust coaching from those who evaluate them). But how do peer coaches effectively support teachers who are at particular stages of their careers and readiness to change their instructional practices?
  4. We know what teacher-led professional development looks like. But how are schools designed for teachers to learn and lead?

Another consideration: What’s already happening in teacher-powered schools

If teachers do indeed “know best” what will help them better serve students—and I am certain that many do—then we should heed their words… and follow their actions.

Although I often point to the powerful professional learning systems found in top-performing nations, there are potent examples here in the U.S. For example, teacher-powered schools—as described here by Lori Nazareno, Kim Ferris-Berg, Carrie Bakken, and Kim Ursetta—are amping up professional learning and fueling the next-generation school reforms that students deserve. I have no doubt, as my colleagues at Education Evolving have also been advocating for years, that we know what to do next, if only we would listen and learn from teachers who are already leading.  



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