Professional Development

Study: Most Professional Training for Teachers Doesn’t Qualify as ‘High Quality’

By Madeline Will — November 23, 2016 3 min read
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The majority of training offered to teachers—80 percent—doesn’t align with the new federal definition of high-quality professional learning, a new study finds.

But 20 percent of the professional development offered does meet the federal definition under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, according to a report by the Frontline Research & Learning Institute, a division of Frontline Education, which is a K-12 software company. The study, which was released this week, examined almost 377,000 activities completed by 107,870 educators in 203 school systems across 27 states, between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2016. Altogether, the study examined 3.2 million enrollments in PD activities.

ESSA, the federal K-12 law that replaced the No Child Left Behind Act, defines high-quality professional learning as meeting six criteria: sustained (not a stand-alone, short-term workshop), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused.

According to the report:


  • 87 percent of professional development activity enrollments were not sustained. In fact, the percentage of one-time activities offered to teachers has been slowly increasing over the past five years.
  • The average length of time educators spend in PD activities was 4.5 hours. That’s one-third as long as the minimum requirement to be intensive.
  • Just 8 percent of PD activities offered were in a collaborative format. Collaborative activities include team-learning meetings, coaching, mentoring, peer observations, curriculum- or lesson-development projects, and professional learning communities.
  • The majority of professional development is job-embedded, meaning that “learning takes place as an integrated part of day-to-day professional practice.” The study found that educators are choosing to participate in activities offered by their own school or district, rather than those provided by a third party.
  • Just 8 percent of PD activities are data-driven. Less than 5 percent of activities include a focus on data or assessment.
  • Professional learning is classroom-focused, meaning it provides immediate support to teachers so they can succeed in the classroom. Eighty-five percent of activities studied were aligned with at least one classroom-focused standard. (To see the eight classroom-focused standards and their breakdown by enrollment, see the graph below. Click to zoom in.)

Professional development has long been criticized for being costly, unfocused, and even ineffective. A study released last year could not find a link between teachers who improved their performance and the specific professional development they reported receiving.

“There’s a trope that professional learning isn’t effective; teachers don’t like it,” said Sarah Silverman, the vice president of Whiteboard Advisors, an education policy research firm, and one of the authors of the report, in an interview. “It was surprising to see it broken down specifically.”

While there are two bright spots in the report—the findings that teacher professional development is, for the most part, classroom-focused and job-embedded—the researchers call for major improvements to professional development. If school leaders focused on improving just 15 percent of professional learning offerings each year, the report said, the gap between current practices and high-quality PD could be closed in just over five years.

Frontline Research will release three additional reports that dive into the six criteria and offer specific recommendations for districts on how to improve. The reports will be released in January, February, and March.

Elizabeth Combs, the managing director of Frontline Research and the other author of the report, said in an interview that she hopes that school districts will start to think about how these findings relate to their own professional learning offerings.

The future recommendations will “help districts understand how they can move their own practice further ... [and] help districts identify where they are today and where they’d like to be in the future,” Combs said.

“This is positioned as an opportunity,” she added. “This is an opportunity for schools to think about that pathway [to improve]—you don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you are.”

Chart via Frontline Research & Learning Institute


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.


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