Perspective on “The Mirage”?

TNTP produced a sobering look at professional development in schools that should be on every administrator’s must-read list (available at While those of us who work in professional development hoped this was not the case, the TNTP researchers could find very few patterns, either in districts or individual teachers, to explain why some teachers improved over time and others did not.

What the research did not seem to look at was whether or not the teachers had actually implemented what they had been taught in professional development in their classrooms. It is unclear where the problem is. Is the problem with the content of the professional development? Are we teaching teachers to implement instruction in their classrooms that is not effective? Or is the problem transfer? Are we teaching effective instruction that teachers are not implementing at all or not implementing correctly?

I sense the problem is the latter, judging from some of the data included in the article. There are many reasons why teachers who attend professional development would return to their classrooms and do exactly what they had done before they attended the PD. As I look at this research though, I cannot help but think of whether or not incorporating a change model into all district and school professional development for teachers would make a difference. My purpose here is not to criticize this important research, or the districts included in the study, but to provide an additional layer to help us move toward a solution.

There are many change models out there, and they have been around for many years and are freely available to those who wish to use them. Looking at the information presented in the TNTP article, I am looking at the authors’ descriptions considering Kotter’s 8 Steps for Transforming Your Organization:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency—It does not seem this was done in the schools researched for the article, as teachers generally indicated that they did not believe their instruction needed improvement.
  2. Forming a powerful guiding coalition—The individual quotes in the article suggested that, while there were a substantial number of staff members dedicated to teacher improvement efforts in these districts, these people did not coordinate their efforts, suggesting the lack of a “guiding coalition.”
  3. Creating a vision—The descriptions suggest that teachers were not clear either of the purposes for the professional development or the desired outcomes. This suggests a lack of clear vision, or that educators were not aware of the vision.
  4. Communicating the vision—It is possible that a vision existed but was not clearly communicated to those who needed to carry it out. Either way, teachers did not seem to be aware of the vision for how the professional development they attended was intended to change their instruction or improve student learning.
  5. Empowering others to act on the vision—According to Kotter, this involves removing barriers to change and encouraging risk-taking. This is a little harder to assess from the study. Teachers generally have substantial control over the instruction in their own classrooms. There are some implied barriers suggested, such as teachers’ evaluation scores indicating that professional growth was not needed, and teachers mentioning that professional development was not differentiated, which suggests that teachers perceived there were barriers preventing them from implementing what they learned in PD with their students.
  6. Planning for and creating short-term wins—Teachers did not seem to agree upon how they would measure their progress, suggesting that a plan for short-term wins was absent, and that teachers would not have known if they were “winning” or not.
  7. Consolidating improvements and producing still more change—Kotter mentions change agents, which seemed to be present in the districts included in the research. According to one of them, however, “the phrase ‘random act of school improvement’ is what pops into my head” (p. 28). This step involves focusing efforts on changing components of the system that do not fit the vision, but given the lack of vision and apparent disconnectedness of PD efforts, even the enthusiastic change agents are unlikely to have lasting impacts.
  8. Institutionalizing new approaches—This step seemed particularly evident in the charter management organization in the study, shown in the clear roles and responsibilities, and evidenced by the one teacher’s comment that there was kind of a stigma to stagnating. The other districts did not seem to rally around one approach, likely leaving them with impacts as scattered as the approach itself.

As educators, we all need to use the tools at our disposal to improve education for our students. There is substantial research behind many of the available change models, Kotter’s certainly is not the only one. The change research is clear that if we do not do these things, change will not happen. We do not need more poorly implemented professional development or additional research to tell us why what we are doing is not changing instruction. We need to do a better job of using what we already have, and not be afraid to question (and reconfigure) the status quo.

Jacob, A., & McGovern, K. (2015). The mirage: Confronting the hard truth about our quest for teacher development. Brooklyn, NY: TNTP. Retrieved from

Kotter, J. P. (2007, January). Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from