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What Makes Professional Development for Teachers Effective?

May 4, 2018

Professional development for teachers is a necessary part of the job. At its best, professional development (PD) helps teachers integrate the newest findings about what works for students, connect with and learn from their peers, and sort through challenges and boost morale. The Learning Policy Institute defines PD as “structured professional learning that results in changes in teacher practices and improvements in student learning outcomes.” But remember—that’s PD at its best. Unfortunately, research suggests that far too often, professional development for teachers isn’t achieving these standards or anything close to them.

A 2009 report from the National Staff Development Council noted that while 90 percent of teachers said they participated in professional development trainings, most of them also said that it was useless.

In recent years, something like consensus has formed around the idea that, by and large, professional development programs for teachers are falling far short and need to be reimagined. Several organizations composed of experts in education policy have jumped into the discussion to weigh in on what research suggests about the specific ways in which PD programs can—and should—be improved. Here are a few points of commonality among the recent deluge of advice for PD program organizers:

1. Professional development programs that span only one day, or merely hours, are worthless to teachers.

A report from the Center for Public Education stresses that “the duration of professional development must be significant and ongoing to allow time for teachers to learn a new strategy and grapple with the implementation problem.” A study that included analysis of 1,300 pieces of research found that PD programs of 14 hours or less did not affect student achievement at all—in fact, they failed to even change teachers’ practices.

2. The real challenge with asking teachers to change or improve their practices comes at the implementation stage—and PD organizers must provide support during that process.

Research supports the expected in this case: teachers in a PD course can fully and enthusiastically embrace a new concept and intend to bring it back to the classroom, but the real test comes afterward. Too often, teachers fail to make PD suggestions stick for long because no one is around to help them sort through the real-life challenges that arise. According to research cited in the book Student Achievement Through Staff Development, teachers require an average of 20 distinct moments of practicing a new skill before it comes easily to them. They need support after PD sessions are finished—but while they’re still in this practicing mode.

3. The lessons presented in PD trainings should be tailored to a specific discipline and grade level as much as possible.

According to the National Staff Development Council report, teachers themselves say that their top priority in a PD training is gleaning information and tips about the specific content they teach. Other research backs up this takeaway, adding that content-specific PD trainings are more likely to improve teacher practice and student learning.

Many of the groups producing this research and disseminating findings recommend that policy makers take it upon themselves to adopt standards for professional development programs and help to fund them. Teachers and school administrators can help push policy makers to ensure that such standards are not only put in place but also carefully upheld within schools. Teachers stand to benefit, but most importantly, so do their students.