Good Professional Development Depends on Leadership, Study Finds

By Elizabeth Rich — May 26, 2010 2 min read

Schools that offer “good” or “outstanding” teacher professional development share a number of common traits, according to a new report out of England. The study was published by the Office of Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills—the English government agency that oversees K-12 education—and is based on observations of 40 primary and secondary schools. The schools were selected, in part, because of the success of their ongoing professional development programs.

The core findings of the report suggest that these schools all had strong leaders who shared an understanding that professional development can play a critical role in raising standards. The school leaders exhibited a high level of trust in and a willingness to involve staff in suggesting and implementing “necessary” school improvements; established clear policies on high-quality teaching and learning; and created school-based professional development with a selective reliance on outside support.

In schools where professional development was most successful—bringing results to students as well as raising the quality of teaching—staff members were given opportunities to reflect on what they learned. The study found that a school’s investment in professional development also promoted school-wide staff recruitment and retention.

One noteworthy feature among the school leaders, according to the study, was their shared focus on ascertaining the quality of professional development, and its suitability for their schools’ needs. The study found that successful school leaders considered whether professional development was integrated into school improvement plans, if school policies and practices were consistent, if staff was valued, and whether professional development was adequately monitored and evaluated.

In assessing the viability of professional development opportunities, the report notes that effective school leaders rely on several factors, including assessment data, attendance, grades, and classroom observations. They also solicit feedback from the school community, including students.

In addition, the study found that the school leaders tended to recognize and rely on the strengths of teachers and to make use of those assets. They also shared their staff’s expertise with other schools, organized joint events, and worked with partnering institutions. They also made effective use of coaches and mentors.

Where the school leaders created barriers to sustaining high-quality professional support, professional development suffered. The obstacles occurred when the leaders could not assess the cost or impact of professional development, failed to provide adequate training for subjects outside of English or math (particularly in elementary schools), lacked the skills to analyze assessment data, were unwilling to observe teaching, or tackle their own or staff weaknesses.