Research Briefing: Can Professional Development Work?

By Anthony Rebora — November 01, 2003 1 min read

A new survey of school leaders by the polling group Public Agenda points to an interesting disconnect: While significant numbers of school superintendents and principals see professional development as a key way to improve teacher quality, many teachers say it doesn’t actually help much.

The discrepancy suggests that professional development programs may not always be designed in ways that are especially conducive to teacher learning. Indeed, data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that most teachers’ professional development activities lack duration, follow-up, and connection to other school-improvement activities.

By contrast, a steady stream of research and commentary over the past ten years or so has argued that for teacher learning to truly matter, it must take place in a highly dynamic and coherent intellectual environment—one where ideas can be exchanged and tested and where there is an explicit connection to the bigger picture of school improvement.

Proponents of this approach say that professional development should comprise collaborative learning environments; teacher research and inquiry; engagement in practical tasks of instruction and assessment; exploration of relevant subject matter; and consistent feedback and follow-up. Instead of occasional staff-development workshops, they recommend teacher networks, study groups, university partnerships, peer reviews, online learning activities, and curriculum development projects. Some recent studies suggest that professional development conceived along these lines can in fact be effective.

Likewise, researchers tend to voice little support for the generalized training content often associated with “one shot” workshops. Instead, studies suggest that professional development is most effective when it exposes teachers to material that helps them deepen and contextualize their subject knowledge and prepares them to respond to individual student needs.