Professional Development

Pressure Builds for Effective Staff Training

By Debra Viadero — July 26, 2005 9 min read

Back in the early 1990s, when Amy C. Orr started her teaching career in the Rockwood, Mo., school district, her colleagues dreaded the professional-development workshops they had to attend, she remembers.

“It was a lot of what we would call ‘sit and git’ workshops,” said Ms. Orr, now a reading specialist in the district’s Wild Horse Elementary School. “It was very fragmented, and there was no understanding that staff development could lead to student achievement.”

More than a decade later, the take on professional development has changed—and not just among Ms. Orr’s co-workers. Now many national policymakers and experts believe that professional development, which teachers often have regarded as wasted time, is potentially an important tool for improving student learning. But as often happens in education, the research on such programs and their effectiveness hasn’t kept pace with the rhetoric.

“I think we certainly know what not to do,” said David K. Cohen, a researcher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who has reviewed those studies. “I also think it’s pretty clear from the research that what passes for professional development most of the time has no discernible effect on kids’ learning of math or reading.”

Even so, researchers are beginning to agree in broad terms on the kinds of professional-development efforts that might translate into improved student learning. What teachers get in practice, though, sometimes bears little resemblance to that ideal. Across the nation, experts believe, many teachers still slog through one-shot workshops that are unrelated to what they do in their own classrooms—and still dread them as much as Ms. Orr’s colleagues once did.

Common Visions

Some of the current attention to professional development grows out of several studies in recent years that have highlighted the central role that teachers play in student learning.

One study of 900 Texas districts in the early 1990s by Harvard economist Ronald Ferguson suggests, for example, that teacher expertise accounts for 40 percent of the difference in students’ scores on math and reading tests.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act reflects that recognition. Besides calling upon schools to staff classrooms with “highly qualified” teachers, the 3½-year-old law says schools should annually increase the percentages of teachers in their buildings who receive “high quality” professional development.

The law also provides funding, $2.9 billion this year, that schools can use for professional development, class-size reduction, or other initiatives aimed at improving teacher quality.

“When the stakes got higher for students and teachers, the stakes got higher for professional development,” said Stephanie Hirsh, the deputy executive director of the National Staff Development Council, based in Oxford, Ohio.

The federal law defines high-quality professional development broadly, calling for programs that are “sustained, intensive, classroom-focused … and are not one-day or short-term workshops or conferences.”

In practice, just under half of teachers—48 percent—characterized their own most recent professional-development experiences as sustained and focused on content in a 2003 survey of a nationally representative sample of teachers in public and private schools by a pair of Vanderbilt University researchers.

While the federal definition lacks specifics, it tracks closely with what researchers are discovering.

Experts know, for instance, that programs focused on the academic content that teachers must cover and on how students think about that content are more effective than those that impart more generic teaching techniques.

They know that longer-lasting professional development tends to produce better results. They also know that such programs work best when they link to teachers’ daily classroom experiences—the tasks their students will have to do, for example, or the texts they will use.

To a lesser degree, researchers also have a hunch that it’s important for teachers to engage in learning sessions collectively—maybe with other teachers from the same department or grade—so that they can meet later to reflect on what they learned.

Agreement on many of those components is widespread enough that the Washington-based American Educational Research Association published them in a recent summary aimed at practitioners and policymakers.

“I think we’ve learned a lot, and there’s no excuse for offering teachers lousy professional development in the sense of it being an engaging, rich, and relevant experience,” said Thomas B. Corcoran, a co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, based at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

A Young Field

Researchers can also point to particular models—such as the National Writing Project, a federally supported network based at the University of California, Berkeley, or Cognitively Guided Instruction, a program for teaching mathematics developed by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison—that have shown some success in changing classroom practices.

But they know less about particular aspects of staff development that might have more general applications. For instance, does it help for schools to have full-time “learning coaches” to work with teachers? Research on that fast-growing innovation is inconclusive, according to experts. The same goes for lesson-study teams, online professional development, and a myriad of other approaches. (“States and Districts Send Literacy Coaches to the Rescue,” and “Educators See Classroom Visits as Powerful Learning Tool,” current issue)

“Research on professional development is still a fairly young field,” said Hilda Borko, an education professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “Research on teaching really didn’t get started as a field until the 1970s, and research on teacher learning and professional development is even newer.”

Studies have been difficult to do because real classroom change is slow, expensive, and complicated to measure.

“The link between professional development and its impact on students is not direct. It’s filtered through educators,” said Thomas R. Guskey, an education professor at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington. “And with multiple efforts for improvement taking place in schools simultaneously, it’s very difficult to isolate the improvements due to professional development.”

Most studies have relied on surveying teachers to determine whether a program works, asking them, for example, what they learned and whether they changed their classroom routines as a result. Only a handful probe deeper to find out whether teachers actually did anything different after the instruction or whether their students learned more.

Time Matters

Breaking the usual mold, Mr. Cohen and his research partner Heather C. Hill studied 559 California teachers learning to use a new state-approved math framework and new math curricula in the early 1990s that departed from practices then in use in the state. The teachers had various kinds of professional development, from one-day workshops on cooperative learning to longer institutes where teachers worked with new curriculum units that state officials had developed.

Mr. Cohen and Ms. Hill found that teachers who had attended lengthier sessions that focused more on academic content tended to embrace curricular change more completely than those who hadn’t. More important, their students scored higher on state math exams than those of other teachers in the study. While the study could not prove cause and effect, the researchers ruled out some other explanations for the improvements, such as differences in classroom demographics or in teachers’ attitudes toward the new curricula.

Devoting adequate time to professional development, in fact, may be more important than the shape those efforts take, according to Laura M. Desimone, an assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

She was on a team of researchers that in 1998 surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,027 teachers on their staff development in math and science over the previous year. When teachers spent about the same amount of time in such activities, the study found, they made about the same progress in improving their knowledge and in making changes in their own classrooms. The improvements occurred regardless of whether the teachers had taken part in a workshop or in more innovative approaches, such as mentoring or study groups. The newer approaches tended to be more sustained.

Scholars are less sure about exactly how much time is enough. The National Staff Development Council, for its part, has said schools should set a goal of providing every teacher with at least an hour a day for professional learning by 2007.

Finding the Gaps

Ms. Orr’s district, the 22,000-student Rockwood school system outside St. Louis, adopted some of those newer approaches when it revamped its own staff-development practices seven years ago.

Now, teachers at her school meet in teams each year to analyze the school’s test results. Through the analyses, teachers pinpoint students’ knowledge gaps and what the teachers need, as a team, to fill the holes.

The teams might visit classrooms where students score better in a targeted area; recruit speakers; consult district specialists; or try new approaches and reflect on how they worked.

“If something interrupts our staff-development time now, we are not happy,” Ms. Orr said.

Some researchers warn, however, that new strategies are only as good as the content they incorporate. The problem, says Mr. Corcoran, is that fads, ideology, or charismatic staff-development “gurus” often dictate those content choices now.

Instead, he says, educators should look for programs grounded in solid research and tempered by clinical knowledge. When the research base comes up short, he says, districts should systematically study and evaluate their own efforts.

Several major federal studies in the works now promise to offer additional guidance for practitioners and policymakers. One, a $12 million effort begun two years ago that focuses on 2nd grade reading, involves 90 schools in six districts.

Researchers have randomly assigned the schools to one of three kinds of content-oriented staff development. Teachers get a five-day summer institute with three follow-up sessions through the year; all of that plus learning coaches to work with them regularly in their own classrooms; or whatever form of staff development their districts now offer.

“One of the things we’ll be able to find out is, does coaching provide a value-added, extra benefit above and beyond good training and content?” said Marsha Silverberg, the U.S. Department of Education economist who oversees the study. The department’s Institute of Education Sciences is seeking a contractor to head a similar study in mathematics.

Besides measuring students’ learning gains, both studies will test teachers’ “pedagogical content knowledge”—in other words, both what teachers know about the subject matter and what they know about how children learn and think about it.

“One of the stumbling blocks for a lot of years was the presumption that it was not OK to test teachers,” said Iris Weiss, the president of Horizon Research Inc., a Chapel Hill, N. C., research group that is evaluating a National Science Foundation initiative focused on professional development.

Most experts agree that effective professional development involves more than offering a menu of workshops. While teachers’ unions often bargain to keep a wide array of options open for teachers, such approaches are too fragmented to bring about any kind of measurable change in students’ learning, experts say.

“It’s no longer about individuals making choices about whether they want to grow and learn,” said Ms. Hirsh of the National Staff Development Council. “We have to narrow the scope of what we offer to teachers and use it in a more deliberate way.”

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