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Lesson 3.5

Teacher Development:
How Do Teachers Improve?

Teachers need training. But does it work?

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Students learn from teachers. The most direct way to improve learning is to improve teaching.

To be effective, teachers need to have both knowledge and skills. For example, to teach math, you need to know the subject well. But you also need communication skills, organizational skills, and relationship skills.

What is professional development?

To help teachers improve, schools and districts invest in training for teachers. It's usually not called "training" — the jargon term professional development (or PD, pronounced pee-dee) is more popular, perhaps to incorporate the idea that improvement can be collaborative.

Professional development programs for teachers can be mandatory or voluntary, free or paid. Mandatory training generally falls within the scope of the teacher contract. Some teachers invest in their own professional development and career advancement by taking additional college courses. As explained in Lesson 3.8, many teacher pay systems include a financial incentive to take these courses.

At their best, professional development programs prepare teachers to address the challenges of their work. Ask any teacher. They will have a lot to say about what makes for "Good PD."

Not all training is good, of course. At worst, meaningless professional development programs distract from the real work of teaching children.

Teachers get extra pay for higher degrees

In most districts, teachers can invest in their own career advancement by earning formal credit or advanced degrees through evening or summer programs. About half of California’s teachers work to obtain a master’s degree, at least partly for economic reasons: incentives for coursework are built into the typical district’s salary schedule. By earning additional college credits, especially a master’s degree, they qualify for a higher salary.

This salary bump can be a very big deal, which is why so many teachers pursue it. A national review of teacher contracts showed that this incentive was very common: "88 percent of large districts (including the 100 largest districts in the country and the largest in each state) offer additional pay to teachers who hold master's degrees."

According to the National Center NCTQ (2019), districts vary a lot in the size of the salary bump they offer to teachers who earn an advanced degree, but it is often thousands of dollars per year — which helps explain why so many teachers pursue it, even if they have to take out a big loan to do so. If they continue to teach for their district and complete the degree program, NCTQ reports that a teacher in a typical large district who earns a master's degree early in their career will ultimately take home more than an extra $150,000 in salary alone. This significantly understates the total value to the teacher because pension payments are generally based on a teacher's final salary.

Do students benefit from additional teacher education?

The short answer is no. Unfortunately, there is scant evidence that earning postgraduate credits or a master's degree makes teachers better at their job. The National Center for Teaching Quality expressed its conclusion bluntly in a summary of research: "The evidence is conclusive that master’s degrees do not make teachers more effective. In fact, the evidence strongly suggests that rewarding teachers for these degrees is an inefficient use of limited public resources."

Understandably, institutions of higher education really, really want to show that advanced degrees make a difference, so they keep studying the question… with the same findings. If the billions spent on ongoing education for teachers make any difference at all to students, it’s not systemically obvious. (There are some studies that suggest teachers who are focused on math and science might benefit from additional education. That's about it.)

But it is very hard to roll back an incentive that already has been negotiated.

Standards for Teachers

California developed the California Standards for the Teaching Profession to provide a common definition of what quality teaching looks like. The standards cover six areas of teaching quality:

Quality Teaching

Engaging and Supporting All Students in Learning

Creating and Maintaining Effective Environments for Student Learning

Understanding and Organizing Subject Matter for Student Learning

Planning Instruction and Designing Learning Experiences for All Students

Assessing Students for Learning

Developing as a Professional Educator

Some principals and teacher leaders use these standards as guidance to help teachers improve.

Online learning is for teachers, too

Technology is changing the way that busy people learn things they are motivated to know. This includes teachers. The Pandemic forced teachers to learn new skills as online teachers.

The internet is bursting with teacher-generated lesson plans on sites like EdModo, HotChalk and TeachersPayTeachers. Much of this content is terrible, but tends to review them from time to time.

For teachers working on their in-person classroom skills, an inconspicuously-perched camera has become a major tool for self-critique and peer review. Doug Lemov, author of a series of books and videos titled Teach Like a Champion, has helped many teachers build their skills in this way. His observations of online learning in the pandemic have become critical training to help teachers keep their students' attention and motivation.

Home Visits

Parent Teacher Home Visits

Teachers aren't rich, but they generally live more comfortably than their students. Especially in high-poverty schools, it can be hard for teachers to understand the home and family conditions that kids return to when school lets out. The misunderstandings can be two-way, too: it can be hard for parents to believe that teachers understand or care about their kids' life beyond the classroom.

The pandemic temporarily and accidentally made these differences a little easier to see. In the background of video conferences with the camera on, teachers and students glimpsed one another's homes, family members, and spaces. Sometimes these glimpses became teachable moments, or the basis for conversations.

In the Ed100 blog
Parent-teacher home visits

Even before the pandemic, some school districts have invested in parent-teacher home visits, enabling teachers to visit students' homes and meet their families. The program, which has been around for decades, is well-defined, easy to try out, and rarely sparks opposition. Home visits are voluntary for both parents and teachers, and teachers are compensated for their time. The program is popular with teachers and families, and seems to produce some lasting results. It is especially potent as a way to improve attendance. (For more, see the Ed100 blog post on this topic.)

In the context of the pandemic, of course, in-person home visits were impossible. But virtual visits can work pretty well, and offers advice about how to do it. These visits can also be a time for teachers to check in with parents’ wellbeing, too. Kids do better when their parents are healthy!

This seems a reasonable moment to re-emphasize a recurring theme: there's no magic here. Public education is complicated, personal, human work, conducted at enormous scale. It is not easy to move such a system forward.

If formal training generally falls short, how do most teachers learn their craft? The next lesson examines the subject of teacher collaboration.

Updated: May 2017
>September 2018
March 2020
October 2021
September 2022


Do students tend to score better on assessments if their teacher holds a master's degree?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar August 3, 2022 at 8:38 pm
The state 2022-23 Budget includes $48.1 million for
• Teacher Examination Fees
• Integrated Teacher Preparation Programs
• Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) Support
• Career Counselors
• Substitute Teaching Assignments
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder February 1, 2022 at 8:10 pm
Yes, teachers improve with experience. That's the unsurprising-but-important finding of study by Brown University researchers Matthew A. Kraft "We find, on average, rapid
improvement in teacher performance early in the career and suggestive evidence of continued growth through at least the first ten years on the job. The magnitude of these gains is large, eight tenths of a standard deviation after ten years..."
user avatar
Sheila Melo May 29, 2020 at 10:54 am
There is a big problem with teachers who either don't care or are unqualified to be teachers. Not because there are a large number of them -- I believe most teachers are doing their best and trying really hard. The problem is that teachers themselves need to have accountability. Teachers need to have a clear and transparent evaluation process that can be reviewed by the public. Not all of this can be "private personnel matters". The bad teachers erode support and confidence in the system.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale January 14, 2019 at 11:04 am
Our daughter is a 4th grade math teacher in another state. She has commented on how only some (possibly few) of the PD she's had to participate in has actually been helpful or useful. Among other issues are instructors who are education experts who haven't been in a classroom in a long time if ever. As a parent, I have seen ed theories come and go, each touted as the best thing since sliced bread, and each eventually dropped in favor of a new loaf. I don't know if this is because districts feel they have to show they are changing (for the sake of change?) with the times or if the district is genuinely convinced of the merits of the new approach. Overall, just as they have found different ways of learning for students, so too there are different ways of teaching and possibly no one is THE answer.
user avatar
Caryn January 15, 2019 at 10:42 am
Hi Susannah, I agree that PD can be a mixed bag, especially if it's something the teachers feel like they've either already mastered or doesn't apply to their specific classroom/grade level needs. Perhaps that is feedback your daughter could provide, with suggestions of topics that her fourth grade team would like to see covered in the future. Regarding your point about ed theories, there are definitely trends. While it may seem like some districts are just throwing spaghetti at the wall, I think it's valuable to remember how challenging it is to put theory into practice on a large scale with limited resources and a possibly reluctant audience (see example of 4th grade math teacher above).
user avatar
owenbscott December 1, 2018 at 6:21 pm
The material said this: The same study indicated that National Board Certification probably does make a difference, but mostly for math and science teachers. And it's true that Arne Duncan said , "-- with the possible exception of teachers who earn masters in math and science. " But the rest of the chapter's references, and most importantly, the last word on it summarized "The evidence is conclusive that master’s degrees do not make teachers more effective". So it would seem that the "correct" answer should be changed.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder May 26, 2017 at 2:51 pm
In 2012 Gwinnett County, Georgia, working with Harvard researchers undertook a large, careful study of teacher effectiveness in an effort to determine which investments make the most difference. The short version of the conclusions: All teachers tend to be better in their second year than their first. After that, the returns of experience aren't so reliable. Teachers that are effective in one year tend to be effective in the next year... and the reverse is also true. English teachers tend to improve gradually with experience. Math and science teachers don't appear to improve reliably with experience, but they do tend to improve with additional training. National Board Certification appears to have an impact, especially for math/science teachers.
user avatar
Jeff Camp October 23, 2021 at 10:01 am
Perhaps. The bigger question is whether ANY program can produce an effectiveness advantage so great that it should be factored in as a permanent determinant of pay (and pension). These systemic determinants of pay can crowd out expenditures for collaboration time and other important investments.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 10, 2016 at 3:47 pm
Does Teaching Experience Increase Teacher Effectiveness?
A new study from the Learning Policy Institute finds that teachers improve performance with experience. The report offers program and investment strategies to attract, retain, and develop talented teachers who have opportunities to learn and grow throughout their careers.
Read the full report:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar January 29, 2016 at 3:04 pm
Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems
This report looks at how Shanghai, British Columbia, Singapore, and Hong Kong provide professional learning to their teachers.
Click the link for Key Findings:
user avatar
maritess July 13, 2015 at 4:44 pm
California just allocated half a billion dollars to teacher effectiveness:
It will be interesting to see how districts choose to spend these additional funds. I hope they don't just throw one-time training classes at teachers, but find ways to invest in systems/processes that yield longer term benefits.
user avatar
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 1:37 pm
Depending on when you first gain your teaching certification, often it is not beneficial to continue your education as the minor pay raise will not be worth the extra cost of adding more student loans to your plate. The younger you are when you start, the more you can make up the added cost. Personally for me I would never realize the benefit of the extra income.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder February 27, 2015 at 3:57 pm
More information about the long-term interaction of continuing education and teacher pay is available in Lessons 3.8 (on teacher pay) and 3.11 (on teacher pensions)
user avatar
CM January 19, 2015 at 2:53 pm
Bad students cannot become good teachers. Any teacher that decides to stop learning does not qualify to be a teacher anymore.
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