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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, so the most direct way to enhance learning is to improve teaching.

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

The education system has been built with well-intentioned incentives that are meant to help teachers improve, especially through higher education. These incentives waste enormous amounts of money and distract teachers from better uses of their time. This lesson explains how the incentives work, and suggests some approaches that might be better.

Teachers get extra pay for extra college credits

Most school districts pay teachers on the basis of a simple formula with two inputs: how many years have you worked in the district, and how many college credits have you earned beyond your undergraduate degree? Many districts offer a salary incentive for earning a masters degree without regard to the subject. (This system and alternatives to it will be explored in more depth in Ed100 Lesson 3.8, but for now this is enough.)

Teachers respond to these incentives. Most invest time and money to earn advanced degrees, often taking on additional debt to do so. In addition to increasing their pay (and ultimately their pension, which is partly based on their final salary) college courses can help teachers qualify for additional credentials that make them eligible to teach particular classes. About half of California’s teachers eventually earn a master’s degree.

This kind of incentive is very common in the US. A national review of teacher contracts showed that some version of a pay-for-degrees bump is nearly universal:

"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."

Do students benefit from additional teacher education?

In short, no. 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 summarized the research bluntly:

"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.

The exception: Educators who teach math and science probably improve with additional math and science education

There's an important exception. Several studies suggest that educators who teach math and science probably improve by taking math and science courses. That's about it.

Why does the system spend for degrees that don't benefit kids?

Responding to the evidence, some districts and charter schools have reconsidered their pay incentives for advanced degrees. Ed100 Lesson 3.8 will explore teacher pay systems and alternatives, and explain why they are very hard to change.

But let's return to the central question of this lesson: how do teachers improve? If taking more college classes isn't an effective way to help teachers improve in the classroom, what other strategies can school systems try?

Standards for Teachers

California developed the California Standards for the Teaching Profession to provide a common definition of what quality teaching looks like, in the hope of providing some guidance. 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.

What is professional development?

To help teachers improve in their work together, many school 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.

At their best, professional development programs prepare teachers to address the challenges of their work. At their worst, they distract from that work.

Occasionally, professional development programs are funded and rolled out as a way to influence or accelerate change in the classroom. For example, in 2023 many districts in California invested in professional development programs to help teachers embrace phonics to ensure that all students learn to read.

Learning to engage students

Technology has changed the way that busy people learn. This includes teachers who want to upgrade their classroom skills and engage more successfully with students. An inconspicuously-perched camera has become a major tool for self-critique and peer review. Doug Lemov, author of the book Teach Like a Champion and others, has helped many teachers build their skills. His videos of uncommonly effective teachers have become critical training for many educators.

Investing in empathy

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. Misunderstandings can go both ways: 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 and family members. 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 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 lasting results. It is especially potent as a way to improve attendance. (For more, see the Ed100 blog post on this topic.)

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.

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

Last updated October 2023


Many districts encourage teachers to pursue masters degrees. Do studies show that advanced degrees make better educators?

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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.
©2003-2024 Jeff Camp
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