Does Professional Development for Teachers Work?

Katie Novak
Katie Novak
January 22, 2021

Tips and strategies that ensure that professional learning positively impacts student achievement. 

Sometimes, when I begin a professional development session, I ask educators to think back to their most disastrous PD experiences. This usually gets the conversations/virtual chat going, as we remember the good, the bad, and the ugly. My all-time favorite professional development nightmare occurred when a speaker, who was there, in person, asked us to tuck away our devices to watch a video of her present for 30 minutes. I KID YOU NOT. The woman was there, in front of us, watching herself sitting at her desk and presenting a video. No graphics, no closed captions. Just her at her desk. Bless her heart. 

It took everything I had to keep a straight face. 

Because we have experiences like this, we sometimes grumble and groan when we see professional learning on our schedules. Of course, we know there is brilliant, relevant, engaging professional learning. But because there is a chance of the most devastating kind, the thought of PD may be like anticipating an appointment for a root canal. 

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PD providers have to move away from traditional learning models and environments that are exclusively “sit and get”. 

 

With teachers’ schedules more jam-packed than ever, the thought of adding professional development into the mix may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Let’s face it – teacher burnout is at an all time high – so it is no wonder that any administrators and teachers ask me if it is really necessary to carve out time for professional learning. Does professional development for teachers actually improve outcomes for learners? The answer is, it depends. 

Professional learning can have a significant impact on educators and students when it’s done well. And when it’s done poorly, it sucks time like an aquarium snail sucks the bottom of the tank. So, what works, and what doesn’t? To help answer the question, I hit the research. 

After reviewing evidence-based practices in professional learning, I’ve put together the following tips and strategies that ensure that professional learning positively impacts student achievement. 

  1. It must be ongoing. 

    One and done is not going to do it!! Research is clear that single-shot, one-day workshops have no impact on student achievement (Yoon et al., 2007). When examining studies that met the What Works Clearinghouse evidence standards, researchers noted that high-quality professional learning is ongoing. Teachers who receive substantial professional development—an average of 49 hours— can boost their students’ achievement by about 21 percentile points (Yoon et al., 2007). Creating professional learning communities (PLC), leveraging instructional coaches, and creating professional development series all ensure that teachers can invest their time in learning long after the one-day workshop!

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  3. Embrace the Cloud! 

    Eventually, COVID-19 will be behind us, but don’t feel like you have to rush back to face-to-face learning. Hanover Research (2019) published a report, Teacher Perceptions of Professional Development. They found that the most applicable and meaningful professional development was online workshops/seminars, college and university courses, and conferences/workshops/seminars conducted by external providers. The research from Hanover was done in 18-19, before everything went virtual, but online learning still topped their charts of the most relevant and applicable professional development. As you’re planning PD, embrace blended models. But as shared previously, it may not impact student achievement unless the learning continues. 

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  5. Provide exemplars and scaffolds.

  6. Students aren’t the only ones who benefit from clear goals and expectations. High quality, meaningful PD that impacts students provides educators with a clear goal, or “why” as well as a vision of what best practices look like. Teachers may view models that include lesson plans, unit plans, sample student work, observations of peer teachers, and video or written cases of teaching (Darling-Hammond, Hyler & Gardner, 2017). It’s also great practice to model the practices that will be implemented in the classroom so teachers can experience learning for themselves. 

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  8. Move beyond content-area PD.

  9. Research from the Institute for Education Sciences (IES, 2016) suggests that although intensive content-focused PD improves teachers’ knowledge, it does not translate into improvements in student achievement. Therefore, if you’re scheduling content area PD, make sure it’s through the lens of a pedagogical framework like Universal Design for Learning (UDL), blended learning, project-based learning, etc…  A report from the Learning Policy Institute (Darling-Hammond, Hyler & Gardner, 2017) doubles down on the research and also notes that effective professional development has an intentional focus on discipline-specific curriculum development as well as pedagogies.

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  11. Ditch One-Size-Fits-All.

  12. There is variety in how people process information – be sure to plan for how learners will interact with, make sense of, and demonstrate their thinking about their learning. My PD nightmare was as passive and as one-size-fits-all as it gets. Research is clear that effective PD is active PD where participants have opportunities to participate in self-guided learning. PD providers have to move away from traditional learning models and environments that are exclusively “sit and get”. 

Research is clear that professional development can have a positive impact on student learning when it’s done using evidence-based practices. Clearly, not all PD is created equal. So, whether you’re an educator, an administrator, or a PD provider, be sure that you’re designing professional learning that is ongoing, uses a blended model, offers numerous models, integrates content and pedagogy, and provides numerous, flexible pathways for all educators. Given the incredible variability of our educators, we have to ensure that we are implementing the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) within our workshops, seminars, instructional coaching, PLCs, and faculty meetings. And please, for the love of all that is good, don’t play a video of yourself talking for 30 minutes if you’re there in person. 


References

  • Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., Gardner, M. (2017). Effective Teacher Professional Development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.
  • Hanover Research. (2019). Teacher perceptions of professional development. Retrieved from https://www.hanoverresearch.com/reports-and-briefs/2019-teacher-perspectives-professional-development
  • Institute for Education Sciences. (2016). Does content-focused teacher professional development work? Findings from three institute of education sciences studies. Retrieved from https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20174010/ 
  • Yoon, K. S., Duncan, T., Lee, S. W.-Y., Scarloss, B., & Shapley, K. (2007). Reviewing the evidence on how teacher professional development affects student achievement (Issues & Answers Report, REL 2007–No. 033). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest. Retrieved from http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs

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