Professional Development Opinion

Here’s What Works Best in Teacher Professional Development

By Urban Education Contributor — April 02, 2018 5 min read
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This week we are hearing from the Multnomah County Partnership for Education Research (MCPER). This post is by MCPER Co-Directors Nicole Ralston, Assistant Professor at the University of Portland (@UPortland), and Jacqueline Waggoner, Professor at the University of Portland.

Today’s post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner’s perspective on this research.

At the Multnomah County Partnership for Education Research (MCPER), practitioner-scholars—Ed.D. students pursuing their degree while typically continuing their current educational profession as a teacher, administrator, or district office employee—get the opportunity to also participate in the partnership’s district-driven research, as outlined in our previous blog posts about the practitioner-scholar model and the experience of two Ed.D. students with that model. MCPER research projects are completed in two ways: Through an annual summer course involving the entire Ed.D. cohort, as was the case in our previous post, but also throughout the year by the partnership’s three doctoral fellows, who complete this research by working part-time, earning a stipend as well a full tuition scholarship in the process.

The district-requested research may involve literature reviews, program evaluations, and/or data analyses; however, the doctoral fellows often get to choose from a few topics based on their research interests, and over time develop a plethora of new knowledge and skills. This experience can impact doctoral fellows in long-lasting ways, sparking new interests or flaming previous ones, even leading to dissertation ideas and future job prospects.

This week, we will tell the story of one doctoral fellow whose research-practice partnership work inspired her research journey.

Why This Research

In early 2015, one of our district partners asked MCPER to complete a report on best practices for teacher professional development (PD). With research consistently reaffirming the importance of effective teachers and the impact of teacher quality on student achievement, the district had always been committed to teacher professional development. But what works best for professional development? How should it be administered? And how did the district’s current practices measure up to these best practices?

What The Research Examined

The district wanted answers to these questions and asked us to complete a literature review on best practices for providing professional development, to review the district’s current PD practices, including a review of roles and job descriptions of those that provided PD, and then to prepare a potential evaluation plan to help the district assess its work moving forward.

A beginning first-year doctoral fellow at the time, Rebecca Smith, quickly gravitated to this particular report when presented with the various research report options. Rebecca had spent 10 years teaching in K-12, and many of those years were spent mentoring new teachers. She was eager to learn about research surrounding teacher professional development and having an opportunity to work with actual district data was an added bonus.

What The Research Found

What she found in the literature review largely reinforced existent district practices, such as training instructional coaches to provide job-embedded trainings (train the trainer models). In addition, however, this research base offered the district support for changing policies and practices that may have become outdated or were flawed, such as sit-and-get professional development sessions. The literature review identified the key characteristics of effective professional development, including being content-focused, utilizing active learning, being coherent or consistent with other initiatives, including at least 20 hours of contact time, and involving collective participation. If done well, PD can improve student achievement by 21 percentile points. Too often, however, PD efforts not only fail to improve instruction but also leave teachers feeling dissatisfied with the experience.

The district was also interested in innovation, and many inventive methods of providing professional learning opportunities to teachers were provided back to them. These opportunities could be technology-based, such as utilizing free online learning resources like Edutopia or the Teaching Channel, or paid resources like Edivate; all of these provide PD videos, articles, and resources. Online PD networks can connect teachers from around the globe; for example teachers can participate in a plethora of different education chats on Twitter, #edchat being the original and most popular. PD efforts can be informal, like reading a research article or attending edcamps or “unconferences,” which are loosely structured with attendees creating the sessions on the spot, or more formal, structured, collaborative efforts, like Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), Lesson Study, and working with instructional coaches.

Despite many existing effective district policies surrounding professional development, this research project revealed additional areas for improvement. For example, the data analysis revealed that 71% of the staff members who identified as being in professional development positions did not have similar job descriptions. This led to confusion about the roles and responsibilities attached to the various job titles.

Implications For Practice

Our collaboration with the district resulted in a recommendation to develop a protocol for naming the positions, including the list of job responsibilities and duties, to promote consistency in the job duties of these personnel across the district. We also provided recommendations regarding the evaluation of PD activities. In addition to evaluating PD participants’ satisfaction with the trainings, research suggested that participants’ use of the PD skills and associated student outcomes should be evaluated. A recommendation was that the district should consider measuring the impact of PD via two key factors: change in instruction and improved student learning. Our partnership provided a report that included a plan for the district to collect and analyze quantitative and qualitative data from both teachers and students, and it suggested questionnaires, interview and observation protocols, learning logs, and assessments.

The district made exciting changes based on collaboration with the MCPER and its report; but perhaps even more wonderful was Rebecca’s journey during and after the process, which Rebecca will detail for you for herself on Thursday.

Previous blog posts by the Multnomah County Partnership for Education Research:

Curious about other research topics partnerships have written about for this blog? See this Guide to the NNERPP EdWeek Blog for all previous blog posts organized by research topic area to easily find other posts of particular interest to you!

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The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice 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.