Is Professional Development for Teachers a Waste of Time (and Money)?

For the next two weeks, bloggers here in the CTQ Collaboratory will explore the theme: How Do Teachers [Really] Learn? We invite you all to join us with your thoughts and questions here on the blogs or on social media at #Love2Learn.


A recent study and several spin off articles, proclaim the quality of teaching does not improve after teachers receive professional development, particularly the kind usually mandated by their districts or schools. While there have been questions about the methods and measurements of The New Teacher Project’s study, there’s huge anecdotal support for its conclusion. Every teacher I know has at least one PD horror story. Here’s mine: One year our district required every teacher to sit through an afternoon session the day before students would arrive during which we listened to a highly paid not-so-motivational speaker tell his childhood stories; then he capped off the wasted half-a-day by making us stand and sing along to all the verses of Kenny Rogers’ “(You Picked A Fine Time to Leave Me) Lucille.”

Another report declares that offering incentive pay or bonuses based on higher student test scores did not result in increased teacher performance. Of course, teacher leaders here at CTQ some time ago, warned that many pay-for-performance plans were ill-conceived and could create more problems than they solve. Being true teacherpreneurs, we also put forward workable solutions to help those places that wanted to develop performance pay models more thoughtfully.

Some have argued, using old, questionable data that those who enter teaching are from the lower end of the academic pool to start with; then use that straw-man fallacy to make teachers responsible for poor performing students and failing schools. Others suggest that teachers experience steep professional growth during their first five years in the classroom, then settle into a plateau of complacency until they retire.

Given these questions and questionable findings, is it realistic to talk about every child in every school having high quality teachers? Is there a limited supply? Are there enough to go around? Can we move teachers who are novice or mediocre to higher levels of skill and performance after they’ve left initial teacher prep, or do we have to more rigorously front load them?

In their 1999 seminal work, The Teaching Gap, James Stigler and James Hiebert argued eloquently that we have the teachers we need, we just need to help them get better. I would add…and give them and their students the environments in which they can actually practice highly accomplished teaching.

In every true profession, we expect:  a) intensive training from the start, b) rigorous entrance requirements to be allowed to practice, c) mentorship or apprenticeship under seasoned experts, d) continued professional learning and updating of skills, e) the creation of new knowledge by practitioners and researchers in the field, and most important, f) a systematic sharing and passing on of that accumulated knowledge by the profession [Thank you, Lee Shulman]. Sadly, many outside education, and some within it, do not regard teaching as a true profession, partly because we do not consistently exhibit all of these criteria.

Into this milieu, some 25 years ago stepped the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) with the then radical notion that we could and should identify highly accomplished teaching, and that it was something every teacher should strive towards in his or her practice. To that end, NBPTS has created and published performance standards for highly accomplished teaching in almost every content area and grade level. It has also recently created the ATLAS video collection, making it available for teacher education and for professional development. The significance here is that NB standards are created by teachers, for teachers, and have a proven record of impact on student learning and student achievement. What does that do to the concept that teachers don’t want to learn and/or are incapable of improvement over the course of their careers?

Likewise, we are seeing a proliferation of teacher-generated, grassroots PD ranging in formats from virtual PLNs, educator Twitter® chat groups, international online conferences completely organized by teachers, Edcamps and other unconferences, to teacher-led or teacher-powered schools. Is there any evidence that these approaches have more impact on teachers? How does that impact show up in their classrooms?

Meanwhile, some teacher preparation programs are changing dramatically, as are some of the professional and subject area organizations in how they support professional growth. Thankfully, some schools and districts are also changing their approaches to PD, but what about those that aren’t? What are the implications of teacher learning (or the lack of it) for students?

For the next two weeks, many of the bloggers here in the CTQ Collaboratory will engage in a roundtable discussion of these and other questions as we explore the theme: How Do Teachers [Really] Learn? We invite you all to join us with your thoughts and questions here on the blogs or on social media at #Love2Learn.



  • jozettemartinez

    The idea of practice…


    Greetings Renee, and thank you For a thought provoking article.  This is a topic many of my colleagues, specifically seasoned teachers, discuss every week before and after our mandatory PD. In thinking about NBCT, I recall a teacher I used to work with, who was Nationally Board Certified. There was no arguing that she was an expert in her content, but lacked some fundamental skills when it came to engaging all learners. Kids would report a common practice in her room of “playing favorites” and she was often found coming out of the principals office in a huff followed by upset parents. In PD, she was often the one to speak up about how this technique or that idea just wouldn’t work with “these” kids. Here’s the thing- she was a “good” teacher to most. She did well in observations, but was she trainable? Did she show signs of growth after sitting through PD? No. She retired feeling as though the kids and the profession had turned on her. I wonder frequently as I sit in PD that to me, seems remedial, am I going to end up like that? The only one singing my praises? Remember, she was NBCT and never let us forget it. I’m focusing on the idea of teaching as a profession and with that, comes the idea of practice. If we liken our profession to say, a surgeon, it should go without saying that seasoned teachers hold the key to assisting the less experienced “doctors” in professional growth. One of many problems however, is that the aging teacher is not as regaled as an aging experienced surgeon. Thanks for this topic – I can’t wait to share it with my teacher friends!








  • ReneeMoore

    On Teacher Growth


    You bring up two points that are especially interesting to me.

    First, I know of and have heard of many examples of teachers who achieve National Board Certification but don’t exhibit or practice all the standards in their daily work. Some didn’t before they certified; others stop soon after. In fairness, the standards are extensive and high, so on any given day, most of us probably fall short in one area or another. But to consistently and deliberately ignore a particular area is, I think, a question of professional ethics. And as a profession, we have not done a very good job of holding each other accountable to professional ethics or standards.

    Similarly, your second point about how we esteem (or don’t) veteran teachers (like that better than aging…) because it should not just be about the passing of time, but about how we do grow in our professional practice over that time. Of all the professions, education should show that we value continuous, lifelong learning and growth. Yet we often treat our most experienced colleagues as if they have nothing to contribute, or are just in the way of progress. Some teachers have internalized the myth that once you enter the profession, you’re no longer a student of your craft, or the expressing the need or desire to learn more means you’re not  a good teacher.

  • TriciaEbner

    Never stop learning

    Perhaps it’s cliche, but the longer I teach and the more I read and study and engage in discussions with others, the more I see that I need to learn. 

    Renee, I too have my professional development horror stories. Something I’ve noticed in the past several years is that my district has moved away from the “all-hands-on-deck” professional development sessions led by a single outside expert. That has made a big difference for many of us. By way of example, last year one of our veteran teachers who was retiring mid-year signed up and participated in a book study, right up until the month she retired. She wasn’t done learning, even in the last six months of her career. Her actions weren’t lost on the rest of us; one of our entry-year teachers even commented, “Seeing her at our book discussion meetings just shows me that I’m always going to be learning in this profession.” Her actions spoke volumes about the value and importance of continued learning. 

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      I’m with you!

      Completely agree, Tricia — the more I know, the more I need to know and realize how little I know! 🙂

      What strategies have you seen be effective for developing a positive and productive culture of adult learners? I often see and hear teachers claiming they have nothing to learn which I think come more from fears around being vulnerable and candid about what they don’t know in a culture of high expectations and accountability. How do we reconcile this and help adults break down barriers to learning to be more vulnerable, open, and growth oriented?

  • benowens

    A paradigm shift is indeed needed!

    Thank you, Renee, for a great post. We need more folks in our profession to really understand the issue that “The Mirage” brings to the table: we are indeed wasting time and money on professional development that is not meeting the needs it should. The days of one-size-fits-all, sit & get PD are long over (assuming that model was ever appropriate). We live our lives in a marketplace of ideas where consumers are free to pick a product that is ideally suited for their needs. So why should I have more choice and freedom associated with the shampoo I use than I do with the in the very personal, professional growth that makes me a better teacher? The good news is that we are seeing change. The examples you cited regarding teacher-led PD, as well as EdCamps and micro-credentialing are all signs that teachers are asserting more choice & voice on this vitally important topic. I’m proud, for example, to say that I and a colleague at a local university are working with >20 teachers from 7 districts here in Western North Carolina to redefine how we do peer-to-peer, in-classroom collaboration and professional learning (modeled after the Learning Forward Standards). This cross-district PD model offers a relatively low cost but highly effective way to enhance one’s own professional growth and ideally will be something we can refine and scale to other parts of the state. Each of these new and innovative models gives me hope that teacher PD is no longer a waste of time but is more organic, just in time, and highly focused on the specific needs of the real customer, the teacher.

    • Gamal Sherif

      re: The “Mirage,” published by TNTP

      If you’re referring to “The Mirage – Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development,” published by TNTP, then I recommend that you take a closer look at the report. The report is actually cover for a neo-liberal dismantling of the profession — under the guide of “reform.”

      I think Renee points to this sneakish behavior when she writes “Others suggest that teachers experience steep professional growth during their first five years in the classroom, then settle into a plateau of complacency until they retire.” This conception of teacher growth comes directly from The Mirage report. For a more thorough critique of The Mirage, check out the web-post entitled Neoliberal Education and the Male Gaze:

  • JohnHolland

    Remedial Development

    One of the things that struck me about your post Renee, and your comment Jozette, is that what is termed PD is actually “remedial”. I think this idea of remedial professional development may be the dividing line between what administration terms PD that is actually training. Training being the same thing that folks at food restaurants get. Taught how not to mess up. When I think of PD I think of close reading of my practice not bits of information or being told what not to do.

  • ReneeMoore

    Types of Professional Development

    You raise an important point, John. I had never thought of it as “remedial” PD, but that is exactly what much of it is. One of the main arguments against one-size-fits-all approaches is that there are many different levels of professional need and growth. Some people need remediation-type training on the basics of running a classroom, particularly those who had weak, little, or no teacher preparation initially.  Others of us need more time on reflective analysis and collaboration to address newly identified student needs or gaps in our teaching practice. Still others need PD to challenge and draw us into areas we’ve not tried or considered yet.

    Of all the professions, educators should be the examples of lifelong, vital, vibrant learning. To the extent that we are not, should be a source of shame and prodding to do better.

  • JessicaCuthbertson

    Doing To Vs. With

    Thanks, Renee for giving us so much to think about in this post — from teacher preparation to ongoing professional learning to evaluation implications and what it means to be a part of the teaching profession. 

    I think at the core of all of these issues is one that seems to be a recurring theme, both in the realm of professional development and in other areas that impact teaching — are we doing PD to teachers or with teachers? Your PD horror story (while it made me chuckle with both disbelief and dismay) is similar to my own and to so many of my colleagues. They are stories of PD being done TO teachers, often with little (or no) inquiry or data mining on the front end as to what the needs of the specific teacher audience might be.

    In stories where PD is done WITH teachers — where they design, co-create, voice a need, or otherwise engage in learning (formal or informal) with their virtual or day-to-day colleagues, the tone and outcomes are generally quite different. When it comes to investing in professional development, how often are we investing in the human capital within our system to lead, design and scale such efforts vs. looking to external consultants, companies or “experts?”