Education Opinion

Professional Development Has Come a Long Way

By Learning Forward — December 20, 2010 3 min read
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I was surprised to learn the Education Week‘s recent special report was the first study on professional development that it has published in 14 years. During this time, challenges in education have increased in their complexity, and the importance of quality professional development has increased as a result. Every teacher engages in some form of professional development every year; it is the process by which struggling teachers become quality teachers and quality teachers become master educators. No other strategy or technology has the breadth or depth of impact on the field that professional development does. Simply put, we have to get this right.

We applaud Ed Week for drawing some much-needed attention to professional development practices in the United States, and raising questions about how the field should proceed in improving professional development for every teacher. Answering questions like, “how should we define professional development?” and, “what are the standards for quality professional development?” is essential for advancing the practice.

Fortunately, through 15 years of research, the professional development field has put forward some high-quality answers. Learning Forward’s definition of professional development, and its standards for professional development clarify what constitutes high-quality professional learning. The comprehensive research conducted on the attributes of professional development that changes teacher practice identifies coherence, duration, active learning, collective participation, reform approaches, and content-focused as characteristics of professional development that produce results.

Learning Forward (then NSDC), in partnership with 10 education associations, developed the original standards for professional development in 1995. Seventeen professional associations contributed to the revision in 2001. Over 20 associations are currently engaged in a third revision to reflect the last decade of research. Approximately 40 states have some form of standards for professional development, many adopting or adapting NSDC’s Standards for Staff Development.

A three-phase study about the state of teacher professional development in the United States offers the most up-to-date view of professional learning research and practice.

Just in the last few years, we have seen two major themes define the growing field. The first is the emergence of professional learning communities as the primary professional development delivery strategy, which research suggests is a positive move for teachers and students.

We have also seen the growth of new systems of organizing teacher career paths, and the emergence of new roles for teacher leaders as facilitators, coaches, mentors, and more. Once again, research has confirmed the value of the peer and coaching relationships on teacher practice. For example, The Benwood Plan includes professional development as a core strategy for turning around low-performing schools and highlights the role of teacher coaches. Students benefit when teachers learn from peers.

McKinsey & Co. (2008) studied 25 of the world’s school systems, including 10 of the top performers. Among the top three things that matter most is ensuring that the system is available to deliver the best possible instruction for every child. This is accomplished by:

• building practical skills during initial training
• placing coaches in schools to support teachers and guide collaboration
• selecting and developing effective principals
• enabling teachers to learn from each other.

The field has come a long way in the last fifteen years. It is important that research continues and that districts that fail to apply the research are held accountable for their expenditures and their results. We have too much valuable research and too many good examples for anyone to claim they do not have access to the information.

Examples of professional learning in action are available for viewing at
Learning Forward, its 40 affiliates throughout the U.S. and Canada, and its 13,000 members around the world are committed to ensuring that all educators experience effective professional learning every day so that every student achieves. We will continue to advocate for continuous improvement in professional learning so that the effects realized for some are guaranteed for all educators and the students they teach.

—Stephanie Hirsh,
Executive Director, Learning Forward

The opinions expressed in Learning Forward’s PD Watch are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.