Professional Development Explainer

Professional Development

By Anthony Rebora — August 04, 2004 8 min read
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Editor’s Note: This version was published in 2004. An updated version is available from 2011.

Professional development generally refers to ongoing learning opportunities available to teachers, and other education personnel, through their schools and districts. Effective professional development is seen as increasingly vital to school success and teacher satisfaction. With schools today facing an array of complex challenges—from working with an increasingly diverse population of students, to integrating new technology in the classroom, to meeting rigorous academic standards and goals—observers have stressed the need for teachers to be able to enhance and build on their instructional knowledge (National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, 1996).

Professional development has traditionally been provided to teachers through school in-service workshops. In the classic conception of that model, the district or school brings in an outside consultant or curriculum expert on a staff-development day to give teachers a one-time training seminar on a garden-variety pedagogic or subject-area topic. Such an approach has been routinely lamented in the professional literature. Experts variously say that it lacks continuity and coherence, that it misconceives of the way adults learn best, and that it fails to appreciate the complexity of teachers’ work (Little, 1994; Miles, 1995).

Even so, many teachers still appear to receive the bulk of their professional development through some form of the one-shot workshop. Survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that in 2000, teachers typically spent about a day or less in professional development on any one content area. Meanwhile, only 18 percent of teachers felt that the training they received was connected “to a great extent” to other school improvement activities, while 10 percent to 15 percent (depending on the content area of the training) reported that they were given significant follow-up materials or activities. The proportion of teachers who felt their professional-development activity significantly improved their teaching ranged from 12 percent to 27 percent (NCES, 2001).

Such data are consistent with anecdotal evidence: It’s no secret that many teachers view the professional-development opportunities available to them as uninspired, if not bordering on demeaning.

Dating back to at least the early 1990s, a steady stream of research and commentary has advocated a roughly consistent alternative to the workshop model of professional development. This preferred approach holds that for teacher learning to truly matter, it needs to take place in a more active and coherent intellectual environment—one in which ideas can be exchanged and an explicit connection to the bigger picture of school improvement is made.

Proponents of this view of professional development—so routinely prescribed as to be referred to as the “consensus view"—highlight the need for collaborative learning contexts, teacher research and inquiry, engagement in practical tasks of instruction and assessment, exploration of relevant subject matter, and consistent feedback and follow-up activities. In such experts’ recommendations, “top down” training seminars are often outweighed by a flexible but purposeful menu of teacher networks, study groups, partnerships with universities, peer reviews, online-learning activities, and curriculum-development projects (Little, 1994; Darling-Hammond, 1998; Smylie et al., 2001; National Staff Development Council, 2001).

Some recent studies suggest that professional development conceived along the lines prescribed by the consensus view can in fact be effective:

  • A 2000 study by the National Staff Development Council examined the award-winning professional-development programs at eight public schools that had made measurable gains in student achievement. The study found that in each of the schools, “the very nature of staff development [had] shifted from isolated learning and the occasional workshop to focused, ongoing organizational learning built on collaborative reflection and joint action.” Specifically, the study found that the schools’ professional-development programs were characterized by collaborative structures, diverse and extensive professional-learning opportunities, and an emphasis on accountability and student results (WestEd, 2000).
  • A 2001 study by the Consortium of Chicago School Research found that “high quality” professional-development programs—i.e., those characterized by “sustained, coherent study; collaborative learning; time for classroom experimentation; and follow-up"—had a significant effect on teachers’ instructional practices. The study also identified a reciprocal relationship between strong professional-development offerings and a school’s overall “orientation toward innovation,” suggesting the two feed off each other (Smylie et al., 2001).
  • 2000 longitudinal study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education tracked the experiences of teachers participating in activities financed by the federal Eisenhower Professional Development Program (primarily for efforts in mathematics and science). The study found that professional development that focused on “specific, higher-order teaching strategies"—for example, the use of problems with no obvious solutions—increased teachers’ use of such strategies. That was particularly the case, the study found, if the professional-development activity was collaborative in format; involved participation of teachers from the same subject, grade, or school; provided “active learning” opportunities for teachers; and was consistent with the teachers’ goals and other activities (Porter et al., 2000).

Such reports supporting changes in the way teacher training is conceived and organized are, in effect, supplemented by others that focus more directly on the content of successful professional-development programs. On the whole, those studies lend little support to the generalized curricula often associated with the workshop model. Instead, they suggest that professional development is most successful when it exposes teachers to content that helps them deepen and contextualize their subject-area knowledge and prepares them to respond to individual student needs.

  • In a 2000 study of effective teacher practices, a researcher for the Educational Testing Service linked higher student test scores in math with teachers’ professional-development training in higher-order thinking skills—for example, devising strategies to solve different types of problems—and in working with special populations of students. The study found a similar jump in science-test scores in connection with teachers who had had professional-development training in hands-on laboratory skills. The study’s data suggest that other, more all-purpose types of training content—e.g., i.e., classroom management, interdisciplinary instruction, collaborative learning—had a minimal or negative effect on student scores (Wenglinsky, 2000).
  • In an oft-cited 1998 analysis of evaluative studies of professional-development programs in math and science found that programs focusing contextually “on subject knowledge and on student learning of particular subject matter” had a greater effect on student learning than those prescribing generic sets of “teaching behaviors.” The researcher hypothesizes that by giving teachers a richer understanding of how students learn in a subject, the more successful programs enabled teachers “to continue to develop and refine their own practices.” Significantly, the study found that organizational aspects of the programs such as duration and follow-up had little measurable effect on student outcomes. However, the author acknowledges that enhanced structural features might improve programs with strong subject-area content (Kennedy, 1998).
  • A 2000 professional-development guide for reading teachers adopted by the Learning First Alliance, an organization of 12 major national education associations, advocates an extensive, specialized regimen of subject-area training. The guide asserts that each stage of student “reading acquisition is worthy of intensive focus in a long-range professional development"—with training sessions “supported by readings that explain psychological, linguistic, and educational reasons for the recommended practices.” The goal is to give teachers the depth of knowledge necessary to meet students’ diverse and changing needs (Learning First Alliance, 2000).

Although a growing number of signs point to the efficacy and value of certain models of teacher training, no one suggests that designing and sustaining successful professional-development programs is easy or inevitable. Indeed, one reason the much-maligned workshop model has persisted appears to be the organizational and financial difficulties of implementing alternatives (Little, 1994; Darling-Hammond and McLaughlin, 1995).
In general, for high-caliber professional-development programs to take root, experts emphasize the importance of strong and engaged instructional leadership on the part of the school principal. They also stress the need for innovative and coordinated management of funding and teachers’ time. And they call on governments and school systems to provide greater financial and administrative support (Smylie et al., 2000; WestEd, 2000; Wenglinsky, 2000; Porter et al., 2000).

More broadly, some commentators point to the need for thorough examination of school policies and practices to identify “embedded” elements of school culture and infrastructure that stand in the way of changes in professional development (Darling-Hammond and McLaughlin, 1995; Smylie et al., 2000).

Related Tags:

Darling-Hammond, L., “Teacher Learning That Supports Learning,” Educational Leadership, 1998.
Darling-Hammond, L., and McLaughlin, M.W., “Policies That Support Professional Development in an Era of Reform,” Phi Delta Kappan, 1995. Reprint by MiddleWeb.
Kennedy, M.M., “Measuring Progress Toward Equity in Science and Mathematics Education,” Wisconsin Center for Education Research, 1998.
Learning First Alliance, “Every Child Reading: A Professional Development Guide,” 2000.
Little, J.W., “Teachers Professional Development in a Climate of Education Reform,” U.S. Department of Education, 1994.
Miles, M. B., “Forward,” Professional Development in Education: New Paradigms and Practices, Thomas Guskey and Michael Huberman, eds., Teachers College Press, 1995.
National Center for Education Statistics, “Teacher Preparation and Professional Development: 2000,” 2001.
National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, “What Matters Most: Teaching for America’s Future,” 1996.
Standards for Staff Development, “Standards for Staff Development,” 2001.
Porter, A.C., Birman, B.F., Garet, M.S., “Does Professional Development Change Teaching Practice? Results From a Three-Year Study,” 2000. See “Executive Summary.”
Smylie, M.A., Allensworth, E., Greenberg, R.C., Harris, R., Luppescu, S., “Teacher Professional Development in Chicago: Supporting Effective Practice,” Consortium on Chicago School Research, 2001.
Wenglinsky, H., “How Teaching Matters: Bringing the Classroom Back Into Discussions of Teacher Quality,” Educational Testing Service, 2000.
WestED, “Teachers Who Learn, Kids Who Achieve: A Look at Schools With Model Professional Development,” 2000.

How to Cite This Article
Rebora, A. (2004, August 4). Professional Development. Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from


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