Professional Development Commentary

Strengthening Professional Development

By Dennis Sparks & Stephanie Hirsh — May 24, 2000 8 min read
A national strategy to help teachers succeed.

The evidence that good professional development can yield dramatic improvements in student learning grows with each new study. Because teachers cannot teach content they have not learned, nor use methods that are unknown to them, the nation needs to expand opportunities for teachers to develop new knowledge and skills necessary to ensure the highest levels of student learning. Both school districts and states must do more homework on the best ways to use professional development to gain the most achievement for the lowest expense.

The lack of high-quality professional development for teachers explains much of the failure of past school reforms. In the absence of substantial professional development, many teachers naturally gravitate to the methods they remember from their own years as students. Studies show only about half of teachers use new instructional strategies aligned with high standards and specifically developed to lead all students to achieve. States cannot improve schools through mandating high standards and tough tests unless they give teachers the tools, support, and training to help them change their practice.

A growing body of research supports this link between students’ achievement and the quality of teaching. A Tennessee study by William Sanders, using 6 million test profiles, found that teacher effectiveness influenced student behavior more than any other factor. A Texas study of 900 districts found that teacher expertise explained 40 percent of the difference in student achievement and most of the performance gap between African-American and white students.

Moreover, evidence shows that quality professional development can help alter teacher behavior. In his research, University of Michigan scholar David Cohen found that sustained professional development tied to California’s elementary school mathematics curriculum improved teachers’ knowledge of mathematics and their ability to transfer that knowledge to students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, teachers who have attended extensive professional-development activities focused on standards are much more likely to use techniques and classroom activities that research has shown to be effective in raising student achievement. Nearly two-thirds of teachers participating in professional development said it had changed their teaching practice.

Many current programs of professional development do not help teachers and schools make lasting improvements.

Despite the power of professional development to improve teaching, the typical school district allocates it less than 1 percent of the budget for such activities. The resulting one-shot workshops and presentations frequently lack connections to the real challenges teachers face, and studies show that most programs are too short to be effective. And the current system that rewards teachers with higher pay according to higher education credits—regardless of their quality or topic—simply encourages teachers to take a hodgepodge of courses that may not be linked to the school’s needs. As a result, many current programs of professional development do not help teachers and schools make lasting improvements.

The potential of professional development to improve student achievement is so great that we cannot afford continued complacency toward the status quo. Instead, we need a plan to improve professional development that works on the national, state, and local levels.

Efforts to improve the nation’s teaching force should focus on the qualities researchers and practitioners have found most successful. Studies show that effective development is:

  • Focused on helping teachers become deeply immersed in subject matter and teaching methods;
  • Curriculum-centered and standards-based;
  • Sustained, rigorous, and cumulative; and
  • Directly linked to what teachers do in their classrooms.

Effective professional development makes the connection between subject matter and pedagogy. It creates regular opportunities for serious collaborative planning, expands teachers’ repertoires of research-based instructional methods, and links teachers to other professionals within and outside their schools.

What can we do at the local, state, and national levels to encourage a results-driven and job-embedded approach to professional development?

Because any successful strategy for improving teachers’ abilities requires significant changes at the national level, we propose the creation of a National Center on Professional Development to conduct and monitor research on effective professional development and its links to student learning. The center could help discover, evaluate, publicize, and disseminate new models for effective professional development and could, unlike existing federal labs and centers, provide a stamp of approval for high-quality programs. The center could sort through existing research and projects and use the Internet to publicize applicable findings. These potential applications could be transmitted electronically, in a “how to” format, directly to teachers, administrators, policymakers, and professional developers nationwide.

The national center could provide states, districts, and schools with tools to measure the quality and effectiveness of programs, assist them in determining staff-development needs, and help them build the necessary leadership. Its research and materials would point the way to using staff development to achieve the nation’s standards- based reform agenda.

At the state level, we need to improve the quality and availability of teacher training. In the past, lacking a way to differentiate between successful and unsuccessful programs, states have been reluctant to provide adequate funding for this training. But if America wants more capable teachers who can produce better results in the classroom, it must increase funding for staff development—and ensure that the money is aimed at increasing learning.

Currently, the typical school spends as little as half a percent of its budget on raising the abilities of its staff, while the typical private-sector company spends nearly three times as much. By relying on teachers to pay most of the cost of professional development, states have abdicated a role in controlling its content and quality. Raising the funding levels for high-quality, standards-based staff development will pay off for students in the long run.

We cannot expect teachers to use yesterday’s training to prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s future.

Our nonprofit professional association, the National Staff Development Council, already has begun this process by creating staff-development leadership councils in 10 states: California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, New York, and Texas. These councils help state educators and policymakers identify how to invest the billions of dollars already budgeted for professional-growth activities in ways that will raise student achievement. And the results are beginning to show:

  • Texas and Illinois are developing license-renewal processes that will provide incentives for teachers to participate in professional-development activities tied to student-learning outcomes, rather than those that simply accumulate hours.
  • California is monitoring the effectiveness of districts’ new professional-development programs in raising student performance.
  • Missouri is revising staff-development planning guidelines to ensure improved results.
  • The Louisiana state board of education recently adopted the NSDC standards for staff development.

On the local level, districts and schools need to build a new school model that embeds staff development into everything that teachers do. To achieve this vision of a learning school, staff development can no longer be viewed an adult “pullout” program. Continuous learning must be part of the daily work of every teacher in America.

Making the transformation to this new model will require changing how schools use time, as well as the responsibilities of teachers. The changes ultimately will result in a corps of teachers who, because they continue to learn, are better able to adapt to changing student needs.For districts seeking to create effective, high-quality professional-development programs, we offer the following guidelines:

  • Set clear and high standards for learning for all students and focus on the changes in teachers’ knowledge and practice this requires.
  • Hold superintendents and principals, as well as teachers, accountable for high-quality staff development that produces meaningful results for student achievement.
  • Invest in teacher learning, ideally allocating at least 10 percent of the budget to staff development.•Review school improvement plans to make sure they focus on student learning and specify powerful methods for reaching these goals.
  • Involve all teachers in the continuous, intellectually rigorous study of the content they teach and the ways they teach it.
  • Embed opportunities for professional learning and collaborating with colleagues in the daily schedule of teachers. We recommend that at least 25 percent of teachers’ time be devoted to their own learning and sharing.
  • Provide teachers with classroom-assessment and action-research skills that will allow them to determine if student learning is improving.
  • Recognize the importance of skillful leaders in the schools and at the district level who have a deep understanding of instruction, curriculum, assessment, and the organizational factors that affect student learning.

Following this plan can help us use professional development to raise the quality of leadership, teaching, and learning in our schools. Unless we do this, our efforts to improve education through standards and tests will unfairly fail more students without increasing their knowledge and skills.

We cannot expect teachers to use yesterday’s training to prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s future. By providing ways for teachers to learn from each other and by creating schools with optimal conditions for learning, professional development can enable all our teachers to become better equipped to help all our students reach the high levels of achievement they need to succeed.

Dennis Sparks is the executive director and Stephanie Hirsh is the associate executive director of the National Staff Development Council, the nation’s largest nonprofit professional association committed to educational staff development.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 2000 edition of Education Week as Strengthening Professional Development


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