Sarah Garland is managing editor K-12 at The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College - Columbia University.
Helping struggling teachers improve has become a big concern -- and a big business -- across the country, especially as more states, including New York, introduce more rigorous teacher evaluations. The federal government gives local districts more than $1 billion annually for training programs.
New York City schools spent close to $100 million last year just on private consultants.
Yet even as districts increase accountability for teachers, few are checking on the companies, universities and in-school programs that are supposed to help them get better.
On-the-job training for teachers, known as professional development, encompasses everything from day-long seminars, coaching provided by in-school specialists, courses in subjects like math and reading, and teachers working with one another to improve their skills. New York City even offers Yoga and dance classes to its teachers.
Little reliable, independent research exists on what kind of training for teachers actually works, however.
“We know less than we should about professional development, particularly given the money that is invested in it,” said Pamela Grossman, an education researcher at Stanford University who specializes in teacher training.
Instead, in New York, much of the onus of figuring out which kinds of training make a difference falls on the shoulders of principals. Officials from the Department of Education say the sheer number of vendors — about 900 — makes it difficult for the central office to vet them all.
“We’ve said we’re endorsing none of them,” said Josh Thomases, deputy chief academic officer. “Sometimes, particularly the for-profits pay for lunch, and so they’re sitting in the room with me, and people are watching me while I’m saying, ‘We’re telling you to be very cautious with your dollars,’ in front of the vendors.”
In New York City, schools spent about $97 million between May 2011 and April 2012 on outside consultants that provide professional development, according to an analysis of D.O.E. data collected by the city comptroller’s office. The year before, they spent $90 million.
District officials say the amount spent on consultants doesn’t include training run internally — such as coaching and workshops — that is extensive but difficult to quantify.
On a recent afternoon at P.S. 176 in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, about 15 teachers gathered in the library to take a class on how to use interactive smart boards. Matthew Thaxter, from the Long Island-based company TEQ, showed the teachers how to make words appear on blank screens, something he said would excite and engage their young students. The teachers have had smart boards for years, but taking the class made them “certified” in the technology.
Mr. Thaxter said there’s a growing demand for this training now that classrooms rely so much on technology.
“We have about 30 trainers around New York State and New Jersey,” he said. “We also offer our own conferences for technology; it’s not just about smart boards.”
P.S. 176 has spent $15,000 on Thaxter’s training this year, and budgeted more than $100,000 in total on professional development. This is more than double its district's average.
The school’s above-average spending is partly because it has a high number of students in poverty and receives a pot of federal money every year for professional development. But Principal Elizabeth Culkin also thinks the training is working for her teachers. Her proof? The school has received consistent A's on it progress reports.
But there are plenty of city schools spending large amounts of money on professional development that receive D's and F's, only underscoring the lack of a system for judging various professional development programs.
“We have some hunches,” said Michael Garet, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research and lead author of a major study on teacher training sponsored by the federal government. Some research shows that it’s more effective to train teachers in content knowledge, such as math or science, and to make sure the training is frequent and ongoing.
“But we don’t yet know how to provide professional development reliably at large scale,” he said.
Ms. Culkin conceded it can be difficult to pick providers, but she said she relies on years' of experience and word of mouth.
New York’s adoption of a new set of more intensive academic standards, known as the Common Core State Standards, has meant the number of consultants offering to train teachers in the new system is likely to multiply, further confusing the picture for principals.
“Every time there’s this kind of policy push, providers come out of the woodwork,” said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
Providers say it’s not always fair to judge them based on the performance of schools.
“If you’re a professional development provider and they keep hiring you but don’t do the things you’re trying to help them do, then you can’t really be held accountable for their failure to raise student learning,” said Lauren Resnick, co-director of the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, which has provided training to New York City schools in the past.
But Resnick also thinks districts should attempt to gather evidence to help principals make the best choices.
“If teachers are going to have to show results, why would it be okay for the people who teach them not to?” she said.
This article is one in an occasional series on teacher training programs in New York City done by WNYC in partnership with The Hechinger Report, a non-profit news organization that is focused on producing in-depth education journalism. The Hechinger Report is an independently funded unit of Teachers College, Columbia University.