Finding Professional Development That’s Right for You

By Debra Viadero — April 10, 2008 7 min read
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Debra Viadero is an associate editor of Education Week. This article was originally published, in a different version, in Education Week.

“It was a lot of what we would call ‘sit and git’ workshops,” said Orr, now a reading specialist in the district’s Wild Horse Elementary School. “It was very fragmented, and there was no understanding that staff development could lead to student achievement.”

More than a decade later, the take on professional development has changed—and not just among Orr’s co-workers. Now many national policymakers and experts believe that professional development, if done purposefully and given greater allotments of time, can be an important tool for improving student learning.

As often happens in education, the research on such programs is still catching up with the rhetoric, but scholars are beginning to agree in broad terms on the kinds of professional development efforts that might translate into improved student learning.

Common Visions

Some of the current attention to professional development grows out of several studies in recent years that have highlighted the central role that teachers play in student learning.

The Write Stuff

Researchers have cited the National Writing Project, a federally supported network based at the University of California, Berkeley, as one effective model of professional development. Here are the group’s core principals:

•Teachers are the agents of reform; universities and schools are partners for investing in that reform through professional development.

•Professional development programs provide opportunities for teachers to work together to understand the full spectrum of writing development across grades and across subject areas.

•Effective professional development programs provide frequent and ongoing opportunities for teachers to write and to examine theory, research, and practice together systematically.

•Teachers who are well informed and effective in their practice can be successful teachers of other teachers as well as partners in educational research, development, and implementation.

•A reflective and informed community of practice is in the best position to design and develop comprehensive writing programs.

SOURCE: The National Writing Project (

A study of Texas districts in the early 1990s by Harvard economist Ronald Ferguson suggests, for example, that teacher expertise accounts for 40 percent of the difference in students’ scores on math and reading tests.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act reflects that recognition. Besides calling upon schools to staff classrooms with “highly qualified” teachers, the law says schools should annually increase the percentages of teachers in their buildings who receive “high quality” professional development.

The federal law defines high-quality professional development broadly, calling for programs that are “sustained, intensive, classroom-focused … and are not one-day or short-term workshops or conferences.” While that definition lacks specifics, it tracks closely with what researchers are discovering.

Experts know, for instance, that programs focused on the academic content that teachers must cover and on how students learn that content are more effective than those that impart generic teaching techniques.

They know that longer-lasting professional development tends to produce better results. They also know that such programs work best when they link to teachers’ daily classroom work—the tasks their students will have to do, for example, or the texts they will use.

To a lesser degree, researchers also have a hunch that it’s important for teachers to engage in learning sessions collectively—maybe with other teachers from the same department or grade—so that they can meet later to reflect on what they learned.

Agreement on many of these components is widespread enough that the Washington-based American Educational Research Association published them in a 2005 research guide for education leaders and policymakers.

Research Questions

Researchers can also point to particular models—such as the National Writing Project, a federally supported network based at the University of California, Berkeley, or Cognitively Guided Instruction, a program for teaching mathematics developed by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison—that have shown some success in changing classroom practices.

But they know less about particular aspects of staff development that might have more general applications. For instance, does it help for schools to have full-time “learning coaches” to work with teachers? Research on that fast-growing innovation is inconclusive, according to experts. The same goes for lesson-study teams, online professional development, and a myriad of other approaches.

Studies have been difficult to do because real classroom change is slow, expensive, and complicated to measure. And with multiple school-improvement strategies often taking place at once, experts say, the direct link between professional development and student achievement is not always clear.

Still, a number of reputable studies have identified links between certain types of professional development practices and positive changes in both teachers’ instruction and students’ achievement. While differing in scope and methodology, such studies tend to have some common themes—to the point that they seem to build on one another.

Time and Effort

In one prominent study, David K. Cohen, a researcher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and his research partner Heather C. Hill studied 559 California teachers learning to use a new state-approved math framework and new math curricula in the early 1990s that departed from practices then in use in the state. The teachers had participated in various kinds of professional development, from one- day workshops on cooperative learning to longer institutes where teachers worked with new curriculum units that state officials had developed.

Cohen and Hill found that teachers who had attended lengthier sessions that focused more on academic content tended to embrace curricular change more completely than those who hadn’t. More importantly, their students scored higher on state math exams than those of other teachers in the study. While the study could not prove cause and effect, the researchers ruled out some other explanations for the improvements, such as differences in classroom demographics or in teachers’ attitudes toward the new curricula.

Revamping Staff Development

Some research suggests that devoting adequate time to professional development may be the key.

In 1998, for example, a team of researchers led by Michael S. Garet of the American Institutes for Research in Washington surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,027 teachers on their staff development in math and science over the previous year. When teachers spent about the same amount of time in such activities, the study found, they made about the same progress in improving their knowledge and in making changes in their own classrooms. The improvements occurred regardless of whether the teachers had taken part in a workshop or in more innovative approaches, such as mentoring or study groups. The newer approaches, however, tended to be more sustained.

Indeed, a 2001 study by the Consortium of Chicago School Research found that professional development programs in Chicago public schools that were characterized by “sustained, coherent study; collaborative learning; time for classroom experimentation; and follow-up” had a significant effect on teachers’ instructional practices. The study also identified a reciprocal relationship between these types of professional development offerings and a school’s overall “orientation toward innovation,” suggesting the two feed off each other.

A 2000 study by the National Staff Development Council, meanwhile, examined the award-winning professional development programs at eight public schools that had made measurable gains in student achievement. The study found that in each of the schools, “the very nature of staff development [had] shifted from isolated learning and the occasional workshop to focused, ongoing organizational learning built on collaborative reflection and joint action.” Specifically, the study found that the schools’ professional development programs were characterized by collaborative structures, diverse and extensive learning opportunities, and an emphasis on accountability and student results.

Points for Policy

In 2005, the American Education Research Association published a research guide on teacher professional development directed at policymakers. The guide offers the following recommendations:

•Make sure that professional development focuses on the subject matter that teachers will be teaching.

•Align teachers’ professional development activities with their work experiences, using actual curriculum materials and assessments.

•Provide adequate time for professional development and include opportunities for observing and analyzing students’ understanding of the subject matter.

•Make sure that districts have reliable systems for evaluating the impact of professional development on teaching and learning.

SOURCE: American Education Research Association

Amy Orr’s district, the 22,000-student Rockwood school system outside St. Louis, adopted some of the newer approaches when it revamped its own staff-development practices several years ago.

Now, teachers at her school meet in teams regularly to analyze the school’s test results. Through the analyses, they pinpoint students’ knowledge gaps and what the teachers need, as a team, to fill the holes.

The teams might visit classrooms where students score better in a targeted area; recruit speakers; consult district specialists; study available research; and try new approaches and reflect on how they worked.

“If something interrupts our staff-development time now, we are not happy,” Orr said.

She believes this kind of training has had an impact both on student achievement and teacher satisfaction.

Some researchers warn, however, that new strategies are only as good as the content they incorporate.

The problem, says Thomas B. Corcoran, a co-director of the Consortium for Policy Reesearch in Education, is that fads, ideology, or charismatic staff-development “gurus” often dictate content choices.

Instead, he said, educators should look for programs grounded in solid research and tempered by clinical knowledge. When the research base comes up short, he says, schools should systematically study and evaluate their own efforts.


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