The Chicago Public Schools spent almost $200 million on professional development last year—just under $6,500 per teacher—but the money yielded little discernable improvement in teaching, according to a first-ever, comprehensive inventory of professional development activities in the system.

The results of spending on professional development are “unclear and highly variable,” states the report, a copy of which was obtained by Catalyst.

Overall, the report suggests that despite pockets of excellence and recent efforts to improve professional development, the school district is far from providing teachers with high-quality, ongoing help that results in higher student achievement.

At $190 million to $200 million, Chicago’s professional development tab represents about 5 percent of the district’s operating budget, a relatively high percentage compared to other districts that have been studied. The total does not include contract-based salary increases that teachers earn for advanced degrees and college credits or the costs of freeing teachers for common planning time, which would have boosted the bottom line substantially. Nor does the report attempt to quantify out-of-pocket spending by teachers that is not reimbursed by the district or school.

Conducted in cooperation with CPS, the study examined the 2001-2002 CPS budget and included interviews with more than 25 central administrators and staff at a representative sample of 21 schools. It cost $250,000 and was funded by the Chicago Public Education Fund, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, The Chicago Community Trust, The Joyce Foundation and the McDougal Family Foundation.

CPS officials say that they used the findings to craft their new education plan, unveiled earlier this fall.

Program abundance

Researchers found a variety of efforts, including numerous programs run by the district, the work of external partners assigned to schools on probation, privately funded staff development programs and training that schools undertake with their discretionary dollars.

“There are tons of professional development efforts floating out there,” says University of Illinois researcher Mark Smylie, who last year published a survey of teacher participation in staff development for the Consortium on Chicago School Research. But quantity does not necessarily translate into quality. For the most part, efforts were fragmented and unconnected with either teacher or school needs for improvement.

Typically, they consisted of daylong seminars, one-time workshops, outside speakers or multi-grade, multi-subject presentations.

In contrast, effective professional development programs focus on a clear set of priorities; provide ongoing, school-based support to classroom teachers; deal with academic content as well as teaching methods; and create ample opportunities for teachers to see and attempt new teaching methods, according to many experts.

“Most schools do not have the structures in place to support high-quality professional development,” the report says.

The critical findings are not all that unusual, according to school budget expert Karen Hawley Miles, who authored the report and its model, an audit conducted for the Boston Public Schools three years ago that led to substantial changes. (See Catalyst, June 2002.)

As in other districts that Miles has studied, the central office has not developed clear standards for instructional quality and has scattered professional development programs throughout the bureaucracy without any clear lines of accountability for results. As a result, many schools receive little support or guidance in structuring effective development efforts, the report states.

School-level spending

Unlike other districts, decisions in Chicago about how to spend money allocated for professional development are shared by the central office and individual schools, a result of the move more than a decade ago to shrink the central office and give more authority and discretionary dollars to schools.

On top of district spending at their schools, the 21 schools examined in detail spent an average of 2 percent of their own budgets on professional development, or $2,500 per teacher, an amount that “generally exceeds” the average in other districts. Projected citywide, this amounts to about $71 million.

However, schools don’t always spend professional development money effectively, according to Miles.

“By and large, we thought that the professional development that was going on at the school level was very limited and not very organized,” she says.

One reason is that schools are reluctant to make the investment that quality demands. “There is a huge amount of pressure at the school level to spend dollars on teachers,” Miles says. “It’s hard to say why you held back $60,000 when you could have had another 1st-grade teacher.”

The report also suggests that problems may be a result of Chicago’s historic reliance on “homegrown” rather than nationally recognized reform models.

While the report did not calculate the cost of so-called “restructured day” schedules, it does say that they have “little or no structure or accountability.” About 400 schools employ the practice, which involves aggregating small blocks of time that teachers have without children present.

Chicago’s use of external partners also is distinctive, according to the report. Services provided by external partners to schools on probation cost more than $5 million a year, but there is “very little oversight or monitoring” of them and little coordination with other district efforts. At current funding levels, the external partner model also fails to provide ongoing, school-based support for teachers.

The report also criticizes Chicago’s new $12 million reading initiative for not being clearly linked with other district programs, such as school probation.

Most of all, the report questions the $56 million in payroll costs spent on eight annual professional development days and institutes. For the most part, schools and teachers decide how to use that time, though the board pays for the time and is technically in control of how some of it is used. The report states that these largely unmonitored days are of questionable effectiveness because neither the format nor the content is responsive to school needs.

These eight days constitute the district’s single largest professional development program, accounting for almost half of what the central office spends each year. Excluding the institute days, annual spending on professional development by the central office amounts to about $67 million, which is about 1.9 percent of the operating budget, somewhat lower than in other districts.

Although the most comprehensive study to date, the report does not address several important professional development issues. They include the cost and effectiveness of tying teacher salary increases to additional college credits, coordination of philanthropic spending on professional development, and the quality and distribution of professional development providers used in schools.


Recommendations from the report include better coordination and accountability among central office programs, closer support for schools in creating professional development programs, close examination of spending on professional development days and external partners, and adherence at both school and central office levels to “principles of effective professional development.”

According to school officials, many of these recommendations are being addressed in the district’s new education plan.

In particular, they say that by assigning reading specialists to more than 200 schools and by creating 24 area instructional officers and area reading coaches, the district will be able to better support and supervise schools. The district also has expanded training for reading specialists.

Starting this year, external partners will receive staff development from CPS to help them integrate their assistance with other district-based efforts, such as the reading specialist program. The probation process and definitions are being revamped, as well. The new standards for measuring professional development, outlined in the report and the education plan, call for professional development programs that are more ongoing, coherent, data-driven and curriculum-focused.

The district also is pursuing a restructuring of the eight institute days as part of teacher contract negotiation.

At least some observers already see a change. “Things are absolutely better,” says Vickie Chou, dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She cites last year’s hiring of Albert Bertani to oversee professional development and the strong presence of Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins, along with the additional district spending on school-level reading specialists. Chou says that earlier this year Eason-Watkins and Schools CEO Arne Duncan stepped in to protect a professional development effort involving 40 middle-achieving schools from the budget axe.

Others are skeptical

“I don’t think any big message [about professional development] has been sent out to the schools,” says Chicago Teachers Union President Deborah Lynch.

She also stresses the lack of union involvement in the design and rollout of professional development programs such as the reading initiative—an issue that became highly contentious in San Diego, Calif., which also is working to upgrade professional development.

As Catalyst goes to press, the School Board has not completed plans for making the report public and providing an official response. In 1997, the administration of former CEO Paul Vallas commissioned a study of professional development by the consulting firm of KPMG Peat Marwick, but refused to release it.

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