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Lesson 3.5

How Do Teachers Improve?

Teachers need training. But does it work?

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Most of the learning that occurs in school happens through interaction between students and their teachers. The most direct way to improve learning is to improve teaching.

"Professional Development" (a.k.a. training)

Often, efforts to help teachers improve take the form of professional development programs, which is basically education jargon for "training," used especially when the training is mandatory or not paid for by the teacher.

At their best, professional development ("PD") 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." Or read this 90-page state-sponsored report: Greatness By Design [PDF]. Boston College professor Andy Hargreaves describes great teaching as a function of “Professional Capital,” which involves more than individual skill.

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

Investing in 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 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, teachers qualify for additional pay. In many districts, teachers with a master’s degree receive an extra annual salary bump that some estimate at about $9,000.

According to a national review of teacher contracts this salary bump is a widespread practice: "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."

Step and column
up it goes
regardless what
the research shows

Unfortunately, there is scant evidence that earning postgraduate credits or a masters degree makes teachers better at their job. According to former US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, "Districts currently pay about $8 billion each year to teachers because they have masters' degrees, even though there is little evidence teachers with masters degrees improve student achievement more than other teachers—with the possible exception of teachers who earn masters in math and science." Harvard researchers found similar results in this study, which suggests that Masters Degrees probably make no difference. The same study indicated that National Board Certification probably does make a difference, but mostly for math and science teachers. An extensive study of students in North Carolina for the National Bureau of Economic Research could not find any pattern of benefit for students in grades 3-5 when teachers have masters degrees.

The National Center for Teaching Quality expressed its conclusion memorably 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."

Standards for Teachers

California has developed the California Standards for the Teaching Profession to provide a common definition of what quality teaching looks like. They 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

These standards are intended to guide teachers in their work. Some principals and teacher leaders use these standards as guidance to help teachers improve.

Online learning is for teachers, too

Of course, technology is changing the way that busy people learn things they are motivated to know. This includes teachers. The internet is bursting with teacher-generated lesson plans on sites like EdModo, HotChalk and TeachersPayTeachers. tends to review them from time to time. For teachers working on their classroom skills, an inconspicuously perched smartphone camera is quietly proving a major tool for self-critique and peer review. Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, used inexpensive video equipment to collect useful clips of experienced teachers to help describe techniques for keeping students' attention and motivation.

Home Visits

Parent Teacher Home Visits

Teachers generally live very different lives from 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.

Some school districts address this divide head-on by investing 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.)

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. Silver bullets are shiny, but costly, and when inspected they generally show their tarnish.

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

Updated May 26, 2017 with evidence about the likely benefit of National Board Certification.
Updated Feb 2018 to include home visits.
Updated lightly September 2018


Many school districts offer pay incentives for teachers to take additional college courses or earn a master's degree. 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
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
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.
©2003-2018 Jeff Camp
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