PD Anywhere Professional Development Blog

Five Ways to Fix Professional Development for Teachers

May 7, 2018

Professional development is big business—big business that doesn’t get results. A 2014 article by Valerie Strauss quoted former Secretary of Education Duncan, who estimated that $2.5 billion (with a “b”) in federal money is spent annually on professional development for teachers. That investment total is even higher when state and local funds are included. This represents big spending that, unfortunately, gets little or no measurable results.

The best research we have related to the effectiveness of professional development (PD) shows that it has little or no impact on student achievement and only marginal impact on teacher performance. The Center for Public Education report, Effective Professional Development in an Era of High Stakes Accountability (2013) was unequivocally critical of traditional PD. This report, by the National School Boards Association, said:

…over 90 percent of teachers report having participated in professional development in the past year, but the majority also report that it wasn’t useful (Darling-Hammond et al., 2009). This is because most development happens in a workshop-style model which research shows has little or no impact on student learning or teacher performance (Darling-Hammond el al, 2009). (p. 9)

In addition,

Programs that were less than 14 hours (like the one-shot workshops commonly held in schools) had no effect on student achievement. Not only did these workshop programs fail to increase student learning, they didn’t even change teaching practices. (p.10)

Even worse news was reported in a July 2011 report from MDRC. This report described two of the most rigorous studies on PD ever conducted. The PD in these two studies included much more than single day, one-shot workshops. Researchers examined the effects of systematic PD programs in reading and math which used both experimental and control groups, expert PD providers, extensive time spent in PD (one year in the reading study and two years in the math study), and coaching in one of the programs. Even with these high-quality characteristics of professional development in place, results of the two studies were disappointing. There were no significant effects on student achievement and either no or very limited changes in specific areas of instructional practice and teacher knowledge. (Quint, 2011).

The time and money wasted on ineffective PD is not acceptable and the fact that PD has no significant impact on student achievement is deeply troubling. While these and other reports related to PD are disappointing, their authors and others have provided several suggestions for improving teacher professional development. These are ideas that should be investigated, tried, studied, and then replicated and studied again. PD can have several legitimate and critical goals, including increasing teachers’ content knowledge, improving teaching practices in the classroom, and, most importantly, increasing student learning.

Here are the five recommended ways to fix PD:

1. Use models of effective practice

Many teachers need a vision of how to create and provide effective instruction. Lesson plans, unit plans, observations of peers, and videos of model teaching in the classroom should not just be created, but also reviewed as part of an improvement process. Observations, feedback, and coaching are important to the process as well.

2. Support collaboration and teamwork

By working together in collaborative teams, teachers can focus on continuous improvement, support for each other, adherence to standards, data-based decision making, and ongoing progress. Professional learning teams show great promise, if sustained. Professional learning communities allow educators to focus on large group, small group, and individual student progress to see what’s working and what’s not.

3. Make sure principals are present, involved, and committed

The MDRC study pointed out a pattern that is repeated in many schools and districts: Principals either don’t attend and participate in PD or they do so sporadically. In another PD Anywhere blog post entitled, Yes, Education Leaders Really Can Improve Student Learning, we explained the important role of leadership in improving student achievement. Principals can’t lead teachers somewhere if they don’t know where they are going and what the expectations are.

4. Stick with it

One take-away from the MDRC study was that even one or two years of systematic and sustained PD for teachers may not be enough. The findings suggest that, “…very substantial changes in practice are necessary to bring about student improvement… and it… may be that more than one year of professional development is needed to produce large and lasting change (p. 25).” Mastering content knowledge, sustaining changes in practice, and sticking with the process through the implementation phase all take time.

5. Provide learning opportunities that are active, not passive

Teachers are forever promoting active engagement for their students because it allows learners to apply a concept, demonstrate what they have learned, and make changes if needed. Traditional PD models that are lecture based and have no direct connection to classroom instruction are not effective. Competency-based learning, which requires teachers to show what they have learned and do it better after feedback should be the norm not the exception.

Sources of Information for This Post:

Darling-Hammond. L., Chung Wei, R. Andree, A., & Richardson, N. (2009). Professional learning in the learning profession: A status report on teacher development in the United States and abroad. Oxford, OH: National Staff Development Council.

Gulamhussein, A. (2013). Teaching the teachers. Effective professional development in an era of high stakes accountability. National School Boards Association. The Center for Public Education. Retrieved from the Internet on May 1, 2018. http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/system/files/Professional%20Development.pdf

McConnell Fad, K. (2018). Yes, Education Leaders Really Can Improve Student Learning. PD Anywhere. https://pdanywhere.com/blog/yes-educational-leaders-really-can-improve-student-learning/

Quint, J. (2011) Professional development for teachers. What two rigorous studies tell us. MDRC. Retrieved from the Internet on May 1, 2018. https://www.mdrc.org/sites/default/files/full_478.pdf

Strauss, V. (2014). Why most professional development for teachers is useless. Washington DC: The Washington Post. Retrieved from the Internet on May 1, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/03/01/why-most-professional-development-for-teachers-is-useless/?utm_term=.97cbb86ff812