Most teachers say that their professional learning isn’t providing them with much access to expert advice, especially when it comes to supporting English learners and students with disabilities, according to a new survey of educators from the RAND Corporation.
The research, conducted during the 2021-22 school year, surveyed a nationally representative sample of about 8,000 math, science, and English/language arts teachers across grades K-12.
“There’s a sort of disconnect,” said George Zuo, an associate economist at the RAND Corporation, and the lead author on the report. “The specific needs that teachers had were not always aligned with what professional development was able to provide.”
This and other findings from the report document how teachers use professional learning, and what options they find most helpful.
Teachers surveyed said that the type of professional development they participated in most often was collaborative learning—either work time with colleagues or more structured meetings, like professional learning communities. Thirty-nine percent of teachers said they did this at least weekly. Coaching and workshops were less common.
When teachers are in professional learning, they’re often using the time to focus on how to implement curriculum or to analyze student assessment data. But a big chunk of time is also devoted to creating their own materials.
More frequent participation in professional learning was linked with stronger instruction—teachers who said they participated more regularly were also more likely to say that they used standards-aligned practices in the classroom. But this connection didn’t extend to teachers’ perception of student outcomes. “Unfortunately, we didn’t find a [clear] link with student achievement,” Zuo said.
In part, he said, this lack of a relationship between more professional learning and student achievement could be a result of the measures used. The report relied on teacher reports of both student performance and frequency of completing assignments.
But more broadly, other studies have struggled to establish a link between professional learning and student outcomes.
Decades of research have shown that teacher quality is strongly connected to student achievement, so it would seem likely that helping teachers become better at their craft would lead to better results for students. But there’s little evidence on what approaches to professional learning would lead to these improved outcomes for kids.
Wanted: Opportunities for teachers to share expertise across departments
One of the “core issues” teachers identified with professional learning in this survey was a lack of access to expertise on the topics they were working on, Zuo said.
This was an especially pressing problem when it came to the needs of English learners and students with Individualized Education Programs and 504 plans.
It’s a finding that resonates with Katherine Alfaro-Haithcock, an English learner teacher in Russellville City Schools in Alabama. Professional learning is often siloed, she said, with general education teachers and specialized teachers receiving different offerings.
“When we have our professional development courses, or meetings with English learner teachers, we say, ‘This is something that general education teachers should be doing with us,’” Alfaro-Haithcock said.
Her district does make an effort to connect teachers across specialties, she said, giving general education teachers time to meet with the English learner coach at the beginning of the year. But Alfaro-Haithcock said she wants to see more frequent opportunities for this kind of cross-departmental planning.
Districts and schools could take steps to tailor professional learning to the composition of the student body, Zuo said. But there are some bigger structural challenges at play, too, he added.
The most common type of professional learning reported in the study was collaborative—teachers meeting with their peers to plan or learn together. But if a large percentage of the student body is English learners, and few teachers have expertise in working with English learners, schools may need to bring in outside experts for workshops or coaching, Zuo said.
“If there’s no existing expertise within your school, you’re going to have to get it from somewhere,” he said.