Teachers working at districts with four-day school weeks are often required to use their student-free day for professional development.

What Are Our Teachers Learning?

Investing in better teacher development will help the U.S. reclaim the lead in world education.

Teachers working at districts with four-day school weeks are often required to use their student-free day for professional development.

Teachers working at districts with four-day school weeks are often required to use their student-free day for professional development.

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You don’t get a medal for 19th place. Yet when America’s 15-year-olds took an international test to discern how much they’d learned, 18 countries outranked them. American teens were even further from the medal stand in math and science, scoring well below the international average and sitting in the back row with Lithuania. This has become an old story.

So why aren’t we even in the competition for global academic gold? Maybe we should take a closer look at our teacher preparation, all the way from college training to professional development for existing teachers and principals. As students have languished further behind, we’ve done almost nothing to ensure today’s teachers will get the training they need to better reach students in the classroom.

Think about all of those professional development days that teachers take which leave kids home for the day. Are they improving teacher outcomes? As it turns out, all too often professional development for teachers is ham-handed at best, and at worst it’s a complete waste of time. Just ask those teachers in Chicago who were caught on video last month robotically repeating directions as part of their required instructional training.

All of this “professional development” is coming at a cost to the taxpayer — around $1 billion each year at the federal level.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

That’s an issue a pair of prescient members of Congress are now seeking to address. Last week, Reps. Jared Polis, D-Colo., and Donald Payne Jr., D-N.J., teamed up to introduce bipartisan legislation to ensure that professional development for teachers and principals actually leads to increased student learning. If successful, the Great Teaching and Leading for Great Schools Act would mean no more blank checks for useless workshops. Instead, they would be replaced with training for teachers that actually has research behind it to show its effectiveness.

It seems so obvious as to be unnecessary, but it would actually be a stark change from the status quo, since almost no empirical evidence currently exists to determine if any of the current professional development programs do anything other than keep kids home from school a few days each year.

Measuring whether a professional development program is working won’t be that hard, thanks to the president’s Race to the Top initiative and other education reforms that now connect teachers to their students’ achievement. With these accountability measures in place, we can see which teacher development efforts directly improve student results. And this is one of the rare happy places in the education debate that doesn’t pit reformers against unions. For the first time, the largest teachers’ union is on board for using student achievement data to measure the effectiveness of professional development programs for teachers, as the National Education Association has endorsed the Polis-Payne plan. The National Education Association knows that teachers deserve more too, including individualized development and skills-building, not the one-size-fits-all training found in most schools today.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

In order for the U.S. to once again lead the world in education, we must take the necessary steps to improve how we develop those tasked to lead our schools on a daily basis. In Shanghai, where students have dominated on international benchmark exams in recent years, they emphasize using their teacher evaluation system to provide professional development that is laser-focused on improving instruction. A similar approach in the U.S. would be a vast improvement for teachers over today’s “throw everything against the wall and hope something sticks” mentality.

Teachers in the U.S. spend significantly less time engaging in professional development than their international peers (a recent study found that teachers in the U.S. spend 80 percent of their time teaching, compared to an average of 60 percent for teachers in other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries), requiring us to make every dollar and every hour count. After all, if teachers are going to be held accountable for how well their students perform, then the programs we use to train them should be held accountable, too.