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4 Ways to Maximize the ROI on Professional Development Spending

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By Jason Culbertson

According to TNTP's The Mirage Report, districts can spend upwards of $18,000 annually per teacher on professional development, but what are they getting for that? Understanding how to increase the return on investment (ROI) on professional development will ensure the spend results in higher educator and student performance or inspire a data-driven change.

My argument is not about ROI in strictly financial terms, but how professional development can help districts achieve their goals for teaching and learning by continuing effective practices and reallocating precious resources of time and money. Title I and II expenditures between July and September are particularly susceptible to being "spent" rather than invested.

Here are four ways to maximize the impact of your professional development dollars.

1. Invest in your principals.

Gail Connelly from the National Association of Elementary School Principals estimates that principals spend only two percent of their time on their own professional development. And only four percent of federal funds allocated for improving educator performance are spent on principal development. Lack of time and funding are a noxious mix, systemically limiting principals' effectiveness, and the research is clear on the impact and importance of principal effectiveness on teacher retention and directly on student achievement.

Increasing funding and time is not easy for most districts. We partnered with district executives and principals in the Syracuse City School District to look at what tasks principals were performing and then grouped those tasks in order of importance. We called the most important tasks "A-Level" work (usually related to student and educator performance) and built professional development offerings around them. We used coaches to help principals do their A-level work and revamped already scheduled monthly principal meetings to focus only on A-level work and solve issues related to it. The result? Higher performance with minimal cost increases. 

2. Conduct an instructional needs analysis.

What knowledge, skills and habits are needed to carry out a district's instructional priorities? An instructional needs analysis helps determine what assets educators have and what they will need to develop to realize strong results in addressing the district's instructional priorities. This approach will help PD evolve from the usual broad set of offerings to a limited set of offerings built upon assets and targeted to closing gaps in knowledge or skills.

To conduct the analysis, appoint an owner of the process and use readily available data to determine what knowledge, skills, attitudes, and habits need to be cultivated to realize leaders' audacious goals for students. The information can come from student achievement data, educator evaluations, focus groups, and external research. The results should serve as the basis of professional development. Districts looking to increase their ROI even more should stop investing in PD offerings that don't close these gaps.  

3. Use coaches wisely.

Implementation science researchers Joyce and Bowers determined that even the best professional development results in a five percent increase in teachers using new skills in the classroom. However, when coaching was added, usage jumped to 95%. For this to happen, coaches need deep content knowledge, effective pedagogical skills and the framework to facilitate professional development and ensure the majority of a coach's work is happening in the classroom alongside teachers. To maximize their effectiveness, coaches need support, too.

My colleagues and I have been working with a large state agency, who launched a network of literacy coaches throughout the state. Our coaches support these literacy coaches to make sure they are structuring time with teachers well, giving actionable feedback, and fostering a culture of follow-through on the literacy strategies that matter most.

4. Professional development should foster the Implementer's Mindset.

Despite best efforts, the majority of initiatives in schools today fail--with some estimating a failure rate as high as 70%--never resulting in the intended outcomes. What's the main reason? Execution. Professional development should cultivate an "Implementer's Mindset," a term my colleagues and I use to describe a leader or teacher's uncanny ability to maintain discipline, focus, and accountability every day to realize outstanding student success.

In helping to turn around struggling schools, we spend a lot of time helping leaders and teachers stay the course (discipline), keep sharp alignment (focus), and invest in each other's success (accountability). In practice, this means taking stuff off the plate, not allowing anything to get put back on it, and believing success happens when your colleagues are successful also.

Jason Culbertson is president of Insight Education Group. His experiences as a former classroom teacher, leader for state and non-profit organizations, and thought partner for districts, states, and the US Department of Education provide him with unique expertise in solving the challenges of chronically underperforming schools. He tweets at @JCulberts0n

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The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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