Updated June 29, 2011
Professional development generally refers to ongoing learning opportunities available to teachers and other education personnel through their schools and districts. Effective professional development is often seen as vital to school success and teacher satisfaction, but it has also been criticized for its cost, often vaguely determined goals, and for the lack of data on resulting teacher and school improvement that characterizes many efforts.
With schools today facing an array of complex challenges—from working with an increasingly diverse population of students, to integrating new technology in the classroom, to meeting rigorous academic standards and goals—observers continue to stress the need for teachers to be able to enhance and build on their instructional knowledge.
Parsing the strengths and weaknesses of the vast array of programs that purport to invest in teachers’ knowledge and skills continues to be a challenge. Today, professional development activities include formal teacher induction, the credits or degrees teachers earn as part of recertification or to receive salary boosts, the national-board-certification process, and participation in subject-matter associations or informal networks. (Sawchuk, Nov. 10, 2010a).
Historically, administrators have favored the workshop approach, in which a district or school brings in an outside consultant or curriculum expert on a staff-development day to give teachers a one-time training seminar on a garden-variety pedagogic or subject-area topic. Criticized for their lack of continuity and coherence, workshops have at least in theory fallen out of favor. The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, for instance, defines all professional development funded through the law to include activities that “are not one-day or short-term workshops or conferences.” There is little evidence to suggest that states and districts adhere to this directive.
Even so, many teachers still appear to receive much of their professional development through some form of the one-shot workshop. Survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the most recent publicly available, show that in the 1999-2000 school year, 95 percent of teachers took part in workshops or training in the previous 12 months, compared with 74 percent who reported working in an instructional group and 42 percent who participated in peer observation (Broughman, 2006). The NCES has since conducted two additional administrations of the SASS, but updated data on these questions have not yet been made public.
Beginning in the 1990s, qualitative literature began to support a roughly consistent alternative to the workshop model of professional development. This preferred approach holds that for teacher learning to truly matter, it needs to take place in a more active and coherent intellectual environment—one in which ideas can be exchanged and an explicit connection to the bigger picture of school improvement is made. This vision holds that professional development should be sustained, coherent, take place during the school day and become part of a teacher’s professional responsibilities, and focus on student results (Wei, et al, 2009).
A major three-part study by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, in partnership with the National Staff Development Council (now Learning Forward), provides some of the most up-to-date descriptive information on professional-development trends in the United States.
The study, released in three phases in 2009 and 2010, drew on a variety of sources, including reviews of mainly qualitative literature, research on teacher learning in developed countries, surveys of teachers conducted by the Learning Forward group, survey data from the annual MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, and data from three administrations of the federal Schools and Staffing Survey. Among other findings, the reports stated that:
• U.S. teachers generally spent more time instructing students and less time in professional learning opportunities with their peers than those in top-performing countries.
• As of 2008, 78 percent of beginning teachers reported having had a mentor, though not always in the teacher's content area, up from 62 percent in 2000.
• The intensity of other types of professional development decreased between 2004 and 2008. Training of at least nine to 16 hours on the use of computers for instruction, reading instruction, and student discipline all declined notably, while training of up to eight hours in those areas increased. Training in content, however, increased during that time period.
• Teachers in four states—Colorado, Missouri, New Jersey, and Vermont—reported above-average participation in professional development. Those states shared common structures and strategies for teachers’ on-the-job training.
Several popular models for site-based staff development matured during the 2000s, including the now-ubiquitous professional learning communities, also known as “inquiry teams” or “learning teams.” In this model, teachers in either grade-level or content-area teams meet several times a week to collaborate on teaching strategies and solve problems. In the most sophisticated examples, teachers set common instructional goals, teach lessons in their individual classrooms, administer informal assessments to determine levels of student mastery, and then regroup as a team to analyze the data together. Then, they pinpoint areas of success, identify areas for improvement, and set goals for future teaching (Honawar, 2008).
In order to provide enough time for teachers to work together effectively, such models frequently require schools to overhaul their schedules or arrange for a delayed-start time (Sawchuk, Nov. 10, 2010b; Sawchuk, March 3, 2010).
Such practices can be paired with other opportunities for deepening practice, including observing fellow teachers and working one-on-one with classroom-based “coaches,” or content experts (Keller, 2007).
Other variations of site-based professional development include the Japanese practice of lesson study, in which a teacher creates and teaches a model lesson. The lesson is observed and sometimes videotaped so that colleagues can analyze the lesson’s strengths and weaknesses and determine how to strengthen the lesson (Viadero, 2004).
Hard data on which professional-development models lead to better teaching are difficult to come by. In essence, professional development relies on a two-part transfer of knowledge: It must inculcate in teachers new knowledge and skills such that they change their behavior, and those changes must subsequently result in improved student mastery of subject matter. Unsurprisingly, the complex nature of those transactions renders the field of professional development a challenging one to study. Much of the research conducted on professional development continues to be descriptive rather than quantitative (Sawchuk, Nov. 10, 2010c).
Quantitative research on the impact of professional development remains comparatively thin. A 2007 review of more than 1,300 studies on professional development conducted by researchers at the American Institutes of Research found only nine studies of professional-development programs that met rigorous scientific standards set by the What Works Clearinghouse, the arm of the federal Institute of Education Sciences that reviews experimental research on program impact.
On average, the study found, effective programs were characterized by an average of 49 hours of training The study’s authors cautioned against extrapolating the findings given the varying aims of the programs and the small sample sizes of participants (Yoon, et al; Sawchuk, Nov. 10, 2010c).
However, two federally funded, randomized field studies of intensive professional-development programs found no effects on student achievement, even though the programs were generally aligned with the features outlined in the 2007 review. In the first study, two professional-development approaches based on a popular early-reading program increased teachers’ knowledge of literacy development in the year of the intervention and in their use of explicit reading instruction, but had little effect on achievement among 2nd graders in high-poverty schools (Garet, et al, 2008).
A study looking at a secondary math professional-development initiative found that it yielded significant changes in teachers’ instructional practice, but (with one small exception), it did not improve teacher knowledge of rational numbers. The professional development had no impact on middle school students’ understanding of rational numbers (Garet, et al, 2011).
As annual student data became prevalent following the No Child Left Behind Act, some scholars have run statistical analyses of large sets of these to determine whether teachers with specific professional-development experiences get larger gains for their students than other teachers. Looking across annual data from Florida between 1999-2000 and 2004-05, one such study found inconsistent, but generally positive if small, correlations between content-focused in-service credits in math and middle school students’ achievement in that subject (Harris and Sass).
Only a handful of studies have examined newer, site-based approaches to professional development through quantitative means. One study concluded that students in schools whose learning teams relied on a set of formal protocols for guiding meetings improved more than those in a comparison group of schools where that structure was lacking. While this study relied on a quasi-experimental methodology rather than a randomized experiment, its findings could be a promising avenue for future research. (Gallimore, et al)
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