Teacher Professional Development and Philanthropic Investment

Despite millions of dollars in efforts to reform education, the results in most public schools, especially in poorer districts remains dismal. In my many conversations with teachers and school administrators, it is becoming painfully evident that what has been lacking for many years is quality and focused professional development. Business journals abound in articles providing tips on how to improve quality, customer satisfaction and ultimately earnings by making optimal use of professional development for employees. A growing field in “gamification” in business is one we are watching as it relates to the use of games to encourage motivation and output, based on a fundamental principle of play. Even with the new emphasis on teacher evaluation, the literature is relatively mute on what is being done on either the state or federal level to improve the quality of teacher professional development.

In my opinion,  too many philanthropic foundations engage in school reform focusing too much on trying to manipulate classroom outcomes without regard for teachers and the teaching profession.   We are quick to march in lock-step with the national testing frenzy perhaps because if feeds our own need for “outcome” measurements.   Too few are concerned with the professionals in front of the classroom and the support they need to improve themselves in their own profession.  The quality of professional development for teachers and where that best takes place is an issues  every foundation that supports education should take up.  A national discussion on the topic is long overdue.

My colleague Aaron Churchill at the Fordham Foundation wrote the following after we had a conversation on the topic last month:

“The quality of teacher professional development (PD) can be described as abysmal at worst and dubious at best. Linda Darling-Hammond remarks that “American teachers say that much of the professional development available to them is not useful.” Stephen Sawchuk of Education Week writes that “perhaps no other aspect of the teacher-quality system in the United States suffers from an identity crisis as severe as that of professional development.”

The research bears out the wary comments above. Two recent PD studies, conducted by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), found no effect in student achievement when teachers participate in PD. The first, a middle school math study, administered two years of PD to 92 teachers, and found no effect on teachers’ knowledge or student achievement. The second, an elementary reading study, administered PD to 270 teachers for one year. The study found no effect on student achievement, either at the end of the year-long PD program or the year after.

So, PD is ineffective. What, then, of the cost?

The cost of PD has ballooned in the past two decades, such that today, Ohio spends upwards of $400 million per year on PD. The chart below shows the average per-pupil PD expenditure for Ohio’s traditional public schools—the black dashed line—and the average expenditures for three groups of schools. (There’s considerable variation in districts’ PD expenditures—major urban districts spend the most; rural districts the least).[1] To get a taste of the variation, I display three groups: (1) Major Urban – the “Ohio Eight”; (2) Major Suburban – the state’s eight largest suburban districts by FY2012 enrollment; (3) Rural Farmland – Ridgemont Local (Hardin County) and its seven most similar districts.


The chart shows that from 1995 to 2012, the district average per-pupil PD expenditure has increased:

  • Statewide, from $50 to $278 (up 456 percent);
  • Urban, from $244 to $870 (up 257 percent);
  • Suburban, from $97 to $498 (up 413 percent);
  • Rural, from $36 to $178 (up 394 percent).

Thus, the average Ohio teacher, assuming a class of 20 students, receives somewhere around $5,000 a year for PD.


Chart: Average per-pupil PD expenditures, statewide and three district types, 1994-95 to 2011-12


SOURCE: Ohio Department of Education. NOTE: Expenditures adjusted for inflation by GDP deflator. Fiscal year 2012 data are preliminary.”

Aaron’s solution to the problem is to make better use of MOOC’s – Massive Open Online Courses such as Coursera. We will continue to watch that interesting development. In the meantime, we continue to believe that brining teachers together in environments where they can learn with and from each other is one of the most positive means of addressing this critical issue.


Many of the grants the foundation provides in education include focused professional development. We welcome your thoughts and comments on this issue as we seek to improve the impact of our grantmaking in this area.

[1] A note is in order here. PD expenditures, as defined here, are derived from the Ohio Department of Education’s Expenditure Flow Model, which reports “staff support” expenditures. A cross-check with the Uniform School Accounting System indicates that “staff support” are those “activities which are designed primarily for assisting instructional staff in planning, developing, and evaluating the process of providing challenging learning experiences for pupils. These activities include curriculum development, techniques of instruction, child development and understanding, staff training, and so forth.”