Press Releases | Education

News from EPI There’s ample room to improve professional development offered to teachers, despite a solid foundation

A new report by EPI Economist Emma García and Research Associate Elaine Weiss looks at the career supports and professional development available to teachers and discusses how they can exacerbate the teacher shortage. The authors find that, on one hand, the set of supports already broadly offered in schools represents a foundation to build upon. However, there are multiple weaknesses in the types of opportunities currently provided to teachers as well as significant room to broaden access to supports and career advancement opportunities.

The authors find that large shares of teachers generally access some types of professional development, including workshops or training sessions (91.9 percent), activities focused on the subjects that teachers teach (85.1 percent), and, even though to a lesser extent, opportunities to observe or be observed by other teachers in their classrooms (67.0 percent). Large shares of first-year teachers work with a mentor (79.9 percent) or participate in teacher induction programs (72.7 percent). However, teachers are not highly satisfied with their professional development experiences: less than a third of teachers found any of the activities they accessed “very useful,” and over a third of novice teachers thought mentors were of little help.

“The demands in teaching are constantly changing, and teachers need to adapt their knowledge and practice,” said García. “We must improve the types and usefulness of the professional supports offered to teachers, to allow them to keep up with advances in research on effective teaching and face the challenges of the job, and give teachers more of a say in the decisions affecting their jobs and careers.”

Additionally, teachers have limited access to some of the types of professional development that they value highly and that research shows are more effective: small shares of teachers attend university courses related to teaching (26.6 percent); present at workshops (23.1 percent); and make observational visits to other schools (21.6 percent). Teachers largely don’t get the time and resources they need to study, reflect, and prepare their practice. Only small shares of first-year teachers are released from classroom instruction to participate in targeted support activities (37.1 percent), receive teachers’ aides to enhance classroom management and one-on-one attention for students (26.9 percent), or get a reduced teaching schedule (10.7 percent).

García and Weiss also find that teachers are not by and large immersed in the kind of “learning community” that is conducive to more effective teaching and career advancement. Teachers who work in learning communities are more embedded in school policy and in their classrooms. The authors find, however, that more than two-thirds of today’s teachers report they have less than a great deal of influence over what they teach in the classroom or what instructional materials they use, which suggests low consideration for their knowledge and judgment, and lack of such communities.

The authors discover that larger shares of teachers who stayed in their schools (relative to those who quit teaching) had received early support in the form of an assigned mentor or induction programs, found their subject-specific professional development activities very useful, worked in highly cooperative environments, and felt they had more influence over the contents taught in their classrooms.

In high-poverty schools, compared with low-poverty schools, smaller shares of first-year teachers work with a mentor (78.3 percent vs. 83.7 percent) or say working with a mentor helps a lot (32.1 percent vs. 34.5 percent). Relative to teachers in low-poverty schools, teachers in high-poverty schools also participate more in the kinds of professional development activities that they consider less useful and less in activities that they find more useful. Not surprisingly, high-poverty schools also score lower on some indicators of a learning community.

“It is essential that we improve these supports across the board, so that teachers in high-poverty schools are not overlooked,” said Weiss. “As we discuss throughout this series, policymakers need to think holistically about how to address the teacher shortage, and strengthening professional development, career supports, and respect for teachers’ judgement and their contributions, is a crucial part of it.”

This is the fifth report in our series on the national teacher shortage. The first report established that current national estimates of the shortage likely understate the magnitude of the problem. When aspects such as teacher qualifications associated with excellence and the unequal distribution of highly credentialed teachers across high- and low-poverty schools are taken into consideration, the teacher shortages are much more severe than previously recognized. The second report found that U.S. schools struggle to staff themselves due to a combination of high rates of voluntary turnover and attrition and a decreasing interest in teaching careers. The third report found that teachers are severely underpaid across the board, with particular problems in high-poverty schools, and that a majority of teachers take on additional work to supplement their pay. The fourth report found that the working environment for teachers is particularly challenging.

See related work on Education | Teacher shortages