Professional Development or Coaching?

This week we have a guest blogger making his first contribution to our site. Nathan Plank is a career educator who specializes in curriculum and instruction. He holds multiple certifications in English/Language Arts, Drama and German, a language he speaks fluently. As a teacher, Nathan’s great passion is finding ways to make concepts more relatable to learners. In addition to teaching, Nathan’s skills include data analysis, document editing, and photography. In his spare time, Nathan enjoys leading and playing complex tabletop roleplaying games.

In August of 2015, TNTP published a report after conducting interviews with ten thousand teachers and at least one hundred administrators. They studied schools’ practices to see if they could identify what could lead to teacher improvement. They found that the schools they studied spent an average of $18,000 per year, per teacher on professional development. In 2014, there were 3.8 million public school teachers in the United States. That’s a potential 684 billion dollars spent on professional development in the United States. Think of it, over 10 times the budget of the United States Department of Education spent on improving teachers. Time was also heavily invested in professional development, with each teacher spending an average of 19 days per year in professional development programs.

Clearly, professional development is something of a priority. Studies show that teachers are the largest single school-related factor in student achievement, which means that all this money being spent on professional development should be making an impact. Unfortunately, the TNTP report showed that only 30% of teachers who had received the training actually improved.

Imagine for a moment that this group of teachers were a school of ten thousand students. The US spends an average of just over $11,000 per student per year, so a school that spent $18,000 on each student would be expected to achieve above average results, especially given that the states spending the most on education top out at just over $21,000 per student per year. A school that received extra funding and only resulted in 30% of its students improving would receive extra scrutiny, and likely be designated as a “failing school” if the trend continued. After all, can a 30% improvement rate really be classified as “adequate yearly progress?”

Professional development is not having the impact that it needs to have. This is surprising, because one would expect that a group of people who had been trained to build improvement in others would also be able to build improvement within their own group. Unfortunately, this has not proven to be the case. It’s not difficult to see why, if we apply a few of the basic assumptions of modern educational pedagogy to our professional development strategies.

Most professional development consists of group instruction, what we might even term direct instruction. There is little to no differentiation, and almost never any kind of real assessment, formative or summative. If a teacher were to teach a class by always lecturing, with no assessment, we would rightly identify that teacher as lacking some necessary teaching skills. And yet educators are expected to improve their performance while being instructed in a way that contradicts best practices in education.

The trend in education over the past decade has been to focus on differentiated instruction, with an eye to improving each student in the areas in which they are weakest, while also allowing them to excel in their areas of strength. We decry the “one size fits all” pedagogy of the past, often ironically in these “one size fits all” professional development seminars. If we know from research that the human brain learns better when it receives instruction that is tailored to the individual, why do we insist that teachers attend cookie-cutter professional development?

Teacher improvement, from a research-based mindset, would seem to come from individually tailored (or at least grouped) instruction. This is the coaching model of teacher development. Instead of attempting to fit all our teachers into the same mold, and instructing them in a way that we now know is detrimental to learning and excludes portions of the population, why don’t we consider hiring professionals to do instructional coaching? Coaching involves differentiation, allowing each teacher to see their strengths and weaknesses. Coaching allows for the individual to be treated as an individual, which increases buy-in. Coaching allows for assessment, both summative and formative, allowing the teacher to monitor his/her own growth and receive timely feedback.

On top of the philosophical reasons, coaching is also more cost effective. The schools in the TNTP report spent $90,000 per year attempting to improve five teachers. This is higher than the average salary of an instructional coach in the United States, and an instructional coach can assist more than five teachers in a school year. With all this evidence, it seems silly to continue trying the same methods and expecting different results.

We believe and advocate that our students should receive differentiated help from highly-qualified professionals. If we want our teachers to improve their instruction, we should do the same for them. Instructional coaching can fill the improvement void left by cookie-cutter professional development.