When done right, professional development can improve teacher practice and student experiences. But when done wrong, it can have little to no impact and end up frustrating teachers who don’t see any relevance to their work. And it’s all part of a costly, $18 billion market with little quality control.
A new paper, published by the Research Partnership for Professional Learning and written by researchers at Harvard Graduate School of Education and Brown University, examines the literature to understand what works in the field of professional development—and, just as importantly, what doesn’t.
“Teachers in different schools, in different subject areas, in different districts have very different experiences with their professional learning,” said John Papay, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown and a co-author of the paper. “Some of it, we know, can be effective, and some of it, we know, isn’t effective. The challenge is, how do we maintain this investment in and emphasis on professional learning and teacher development throughout the career while also working to make it more effective?”
The research review analyzed both individual studies and syntheses of teacher professional learning, relying mostly on studies that identified a causal impact of the PD on teaching and learning. However, the researchers noted that their review cannot say with certainty that the PD formats and contents are the sole factors behind any success with student outcomes.
It finds that the most effective forms of professional development focus on improving what teachers do in classrooms—their day-to-day practice. It also has an element of accountability involved, so teachers are motivated to change and improve.
Here are five takeaways from the report.
1. PD should focus on instructional practices rather than content knowledge
Over the past two decades, professional development has focused on building teachers’ content knowledge, said Heather Hill, a principal investigator and professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and a co-author of the paper. The idea was that if teachers have a firm understanding of, say, how fractions work, they will be better at teaching fractions.
But the body of literature suggests that’s not necessarily the case, Hill said, adding that the realization was “personally a little earth-shattering.”
Instead, professional development that focused on changing teachers’ instructional practice—such as by identifying key teaching strategies and providing support for carrying out those changes in the classroom—was found to be more effective for improving student outcomes.
One study in the review directly compared elementary science PD that focused on deepening content knowledge to PD that was focused on analyzing videos of lessons. Teachers spent the same amount of time in both professional development experiences. Students of teachers who did the lesson-analysis PD outperformed students of teachers who did the content-deepening PD by 20 percentile points on a research-developed assessment.
The researchers hypothesized that content-focused professional development might not last long enough for teachers to learn enough about the subject to truly make a difference in their instruction. Also, those types of PD programs often don’t offer much support for the day-to-day practice, and teachers need to be able to connect their learning to their existing curriculum materials or lesson plans, the researchers said.
2. PD should prioritize concrete materials for practice over general principles
There are two approaches toward PD that can be at odds. The first is to give teachers materials like curricula, lessons, and assessment items that offer concrete ways to reach the goal, but may leave them without a strong understanding of the learning philosophy behind the new approach. The second is to emphasize more general principals to promote broader and more lasting changes in instruction, but leave it up to the teachers themselves to integrate those changes in their existing lessons, materials, and assessments.
For example, one approach to PD could focus on helping teachers learn how to use formative assessment items in their classroom and giving them some models; the other approach might emphasize design principles so teachers can create their own new formative assessment items.
The research review found that focusing PD on concrete materials is more effective than teaching general principles, which usually ends up requiring teachers to do additional work on their own time. PD that provides support for the day-to-day is more likely to increase uptake and improve the quality of the implementation.
“It needs to be job-relevant in a way that teachers can see how it improves their practice and is not asking them to do extra work,” Hill said.
3. Have follow-up meetings after PD or coaching
A low-cost way to boost the effectiveness of a PD program is to add a post-implementation follow-up meeting, the research review found. Teachers can share their experiences implementing the practices learned and receive feedback from colleagues and program facilitators. They can also ask questions and voice concerns about parts of the new program that are particularly challenging to implement.
These sessions are typically collaborative, so teachers can share ideas with one another and perhaps even improve the program by customizing it to meet the needs of their students and school.
Also, the paper notes, follow-up sessions offer some accountability—teachers are more likely to implement the practices if they know they will need to report on how it went to their colleagues and facilitators.
4. PD should help teachers build relationships with students
Past research has shown that strong teacher-student relationships can lead to higher student academic engagement, better attendance, better grades, fewer disruptive behaviors and suspensions, and lower school dropout rates. Those effects were strong even after controlling for differences in students’ individual, family, and school backgrounds.
These relationships can be fostered and improved through targeted professional learning, the researchers found.
The University of Virginia’s school of education offers professional-development support focused on improving teacher-student interactions. The program, called MyTeachingPartner, has been associated with student gains in learning and the closing of the racial discipline gap in high school.
Hill said she has witnessed facilitators in those trainings share easy-to-implement strategies for teachers to better connect with students. For example, a facilitator urged teachers to stand at the door as students file in at the start of the class, greeting them individually and asking questions about their life outside of school (like how a basketball game went).
These are “on its face, very simple strategies that actually can be pretty powerful,” Hill said.
5. Coaching and teacher collaboration are key strategies
The research review emphasized the effectiveness of both peer collaboration and coaching. Evidence suggests that teachers can and do learn from each other, and that when schools promote collaboration, teacher practice and student outcomes improve. Coaching—which can include modeling instruction, co-planning lessons, direct feedback, and other consultations and support—has also been found to successfully improve classroom instructional quality and student outcomes.
However, the design of these practices matters. Collaboration should be focused on shared and specific goals for improvement rather than meeting to vaguely improve practice. And teachers should have dedicated and protected time to work and learn together.
Meanwhile, coaching is most effective when it’s more focused—when the coaches can focus on working with teachers instead of administrative duties, and when the coaches also receive some professional development and leadership support.
Yet the realities of school operations these days often don’t allow for these conditions, the researchers said. Many schools are struggling to staff classrooms, and coaches are often tapped to act as substitute teachers, pulling them away from the core functions of their jobs. And collaboration time can be put at risk when teachers have to cover other classrooms.
“There’s coaching as it is in the literature, and coaching that exists in schools,” Hill said.
Educators have a lot on their plates this school year, and teacher stress levels are still high, surveys show. Still, teachers are tasked with helping students recover unfinished learning as a result of the pandemic, making effective professional development more important than ever, the researchers said.
“Finding opportunities for teachers to engage in professional learning seems particularly critical now because that type of support, that type of ongoing development ... leads to teachers feeling more satisfied [in their jobs, which can] alleviate burnout,” Papay said. “Cutting out professional learning or not prioritizing it will, in some ways, lead to larger challenges downstream.”