Teacher professional development (PD) is often defined as, “structured professional learning that results in changes to teacher knowledge and practices, and improvements in student learning outcomes" (Darling-Hammond, Hyler & Gardner). Research has illustrated that teacher competency and skill is directly correlated to student achievement. Policy makers, educators, parents, and students alike, all have a vested interest in identifying the central aspects of effective teacher PD to enhance student outcomes.
Like so many things, the key to understanding best practices for effective teacher PD resides in between the intersection of research and human determination. A recent report published by the Learning Policy Institute on effective teacher PD programs is an exemplar of this. They reviewed 35 methodologically rigorous studies that all showed a positive link between professional development and student outcomes. After comparing the programs, the report classified seven key, widely-shared elements of effective PD. Identifying these seven elements has the potential to streamline and enhance PD programs for educators and facilitate much-needed political action from policy makers.
31 out of the 35 studies reviewed contained some sort of discipline focused curricula (ex. mathematics, language arts, science). Though important on its own, a content-focused curriculum is significantly enhanced when the subject specific PD is delivered in a job-embedded setting. Job-embedded is defined as PD that is situated in teachers’ classrooms as opposed to in a removed environment.
Just like young students, adults also learn better when they are actively engaged in the topic. 34 out of the 35 studies included some sort of active learning. In the case of PD, teachers thrive when they can interact directly with the new practices they are learning and draw connections to their classroom environment.
Demonstrated in 32 out of 35 studies, collaboration can span a host of different definitions. Most commonly, it is defined by open dialogue between systems. These systems could be small and focused, such as the relationship between a teacher and a coach, or they could be much larger, extending outside of the immediate school system to include other educators and policy makers. The more extensive the collaborative system is, the greater the likelihood is that effective PD will be properly implemented.
There are many ways to model effective practices. Therefore, finding the proper fit for each school’s individual needs is key. Examples of models of effective practices reported in the reviewed studies include: videos or written cases of teaching, demonstration lessons, observation of peers, lesson plans, and curriculum materials like sample assessments and student work samples.
Coaching and expert support was employed in 30 out of the 35 studies. Coaching and/or mentoring often plays a crucial role in both modeling effective practices and job-embedded collaboration.
Access to consistent and reliable feedback on performance as well as time for self-reflection is an essential aspect of effective PD.
Although research has not yet identified a specific threshold for the duration of effective PD programs, the traditional “one and done” workshops are not enough to affect meaningful change.
Of the seven essential aspects of teacher PD mentioned above, Teachstone’s methodology embraces nearly all of the best practices. MyTeachingPartner (MTP)-Secondary was highlighted twice as being a strong example of effective PD. In two separate peer-reviewed studies, MTP-Secondary demonstrated learning gains equivalent to a 0.22 standard deviation increase or 50th to 59th percentile gain in achievement. These results were found at both 13 months and two years after MTP-Secondary PD first began. MTP provides a strong research-based remote option. These results are especially promising for teachers in rural locations who might otherwise not have access to PD opportunities available in suburban and urban areas.
Unfortunately, sometimes even well-designed PD programs fail to achieve the desired results. Why is this? The answer generally falls under two categories, a school-level failure or a system-level failure.
Like the name suggests, school-level failures are caused by issues specific to certain schools. Examples of this are, school mandated curricula that leave little time for teachers to use the new skills they learned during their PD. Lack of resources is another common cause of school-level failure, especially for teachers who are often forced to pay out of pocket for their classroom materials or whose schedules may not allow for adequate time for PD.
System-level failures are equally as treacherous and are often intertwined with school-level failures. These kinds of failures are indicative of larger problems, like poor data management and outcome tracking, failure to properly identify PD needs, mismatched coaching approaches, and lack of county-wide integration. Another common system-level failure is the inability to choose effective PD approaches in the first place due to limited resources.
First and foremost, well-designed PD programs must be implemented well to be effective. Because of this, policy makers should adopt state/county-wide standards for the implementation of PD. They should also restructure time management within school schedules to maximize time for professional learning and collaboration. One way to effectively achieve this is to integrate PD into ESSA school improvement initiatives. To avoid school and system-level failures, states, districts, and schools should all regularly and independently assess PD needs and outcomes. To further bolster the positive effects of PD, there also needs to be a focus on identifying and developing expert teachers as mentors and coaches. Lastly, policy makers should provide flexible funding for sustainable PD units that support collaboration, mentoring, coaching, and provide technology-facilitated opportunities for PD.
For more information, read the full report here.
Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., Gardner, M. (2017). Effective Teacher Professional Development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.
Emma Granowsky is a research and public policy intern at Teachstone this summer. She is a rising senior at Davidson College and is majoring in public health. She is interested in social disparities and the use of education policy as a form of primary health prevention. Last summer she taught reading to 3rd-5th graders through the Freedom School program sponsored by the Children’s Defence Fund.