Teaching the Teachers: Effective professional development

With 46 states and the District of Columbia climbing on board, the looming Common Core State Standards are shaping up to be one of the largest educational reforms in recent history. The academic benchmarks for math and English Language Arts represent a retreat from the traditional rote, fact-based style of instruction toward teaching that fosters critical thinking and problem solving among students. But research shows that teaching for critical thought isn’t widespread in our classrooms (Nystrand and Gamoran, 1991; Nystrand et al., 1999; Kane and Stainger, 2012).  Meeting the demands of the Common Core means teaching teachers new approaches to instruction; in other words, reform demands effective professional development.

Recent education reforms have urged teachers to foster collaboration, debate and reflection among students, in order to develop cognitive processes like those called for in the new standards. Ironically, districts rarely apply these same learning techniques to developing teachers. At the same time, teacher’s performance is increasingly tied to their students. This is a disparity that must be corrected. 

Professional development can no longer just be about exposing teachers to a concept in a one-time workshop, or giving teachers basic knowledge about a teaching methodology. Instead, professional development in an era of accountability requires a fundamental change in a teacher’s practice that leads to increases in student learning in the classroom.

Effective Professional Development

In order to use professional development as a vehicle for improvement, districts need to know how teachers learn new skills. Districts have typically assumed teacher learning is straightforward, with teachers merely needing to be presented with information about effective teaching strategies. But research suggests teachers’ learning process is more complex than that.   

  • Most teachers only experience traditional, workshop-based professional development, even though research shows it is ineffective.  Over 90 percent of teachers participate in workshop-style training sessions during a school year (Darling-Hammond et al., 2009). This stands in stark contrast to teachers’ minimal exposure to other forms of professional development (Darling-Hammond et al., 2009).  Despite its prevalence, the workshop model’s track record for changing teachers’ practice and student achievement is abysmal.  Short, one-shot workshops often don’t change teacher practice and have no effect on student achievement (Yoon et al, 2007; Bush, 1984).
  • The largest struggle for teachers is not learning new approaches to teaching but implementing them.The reason traditional professional development is ineffective is that it doesn't support teachers during the stage of learning with the steepest learning curve: implementation. In the same way that riding a bike is more difficult than learning about riding a bike, employing a teaching strategy in the classroom is more difficult than learning the strategy itself. In several case studies, even experienced teachers struggled with a new instructional technique in the beginning (Ermeling, 2010; Joyce and Showers, 1982). In fact, studies have shown it takes, on average, 20 separate instances of practice, before a teacher has mastered a new skill, with that number increasing along with the complexity of the skill (Joyce and Showers, 2002).     
  • In order to truly change practices, professional development should occur over time and preferably be ongoing. During the implementation stage, initial attempts to use a new teaching strategy are almost certain to be met with failure, and mastery comes only as a result of continuous practice despite awkward performance and frustration in the early stages. Without support during this phase, it is highly unlikely that teachers will persevere with the newly learned strategy.  Research bears this out.  When professional development merely describes a skill to teachers, only 10 percent can transfer it to their practice; however, when teachers are coached through the awkward phase of implementation, 95 percent can transfer the skill (Bush, 1984; Truesdale, 2003). Therefore, if districts want real changes in teaching practice, they have to provide ample and ongoing support during implementation. Studies show that effective professional development programs require anywhere from 50 to 80 hours of instruction, practice, and coaching before teachers arrive at mastery (French, 1997; Banilower, 2002; Yoon et al., 2007).  
  • Coaches/mentors are found to be highly effective in helping teachers implement a new skill. In coaching, teachers work with a master educator before, during and after a lesson, getting feedback on their implementation of a newly learned teaching skill. Numerous studies have shown coaching to be successful at changing teacher practice and improving student learning (Showers, 1984; Slinger, 2004; Knight 2007; Batt, 2009; Stephens et al., 2007; Knight and Cornett, 2009). Before coaching, however, teachers need to get a solid foundation of knowledge about the teaching strategy. This presentation of knowledge should be active, not passive (Roy, 2005; Richardson, 1998).  Further, modeling by the coaches has been shown to be very effective at helping teachers grasp a new teaching approach before they attempt implementation (Roy, 2005; Goldberg, 2002; Rice, 2001; Black, 1998; Licklider, 1997).      
  • Professional development is best delivered in the context of the teacher’s subject area. Regardless of whether teachers are working with coaches or in professional learning communities, teachers need to be working with the content they teach. Teachers don’t find professional development on generic topics useful (Peery, 2002; Redding and Kamm, 1999; Dunn and Dunn, 1998).  However, professional development that focuses on teachers analyzing the specific skill and concept they’ll teach in their discipline is not only well-received by teachers, but has also been shown to improve both teacher practice and student learning (Bland de la Alas and Smith, 2007; Carpenter et al., 1989; Cohen and Hill, 2001; Lieberman and Wood, 2001; Merek and Methven, 1991; Saxe, Gearhart, and Nasir, 2001; Wenglinksky, 2000; McGill-Franzen et al., 1999; Darling-Hammond et al., 2009).  
  • Research on effective critical thinking strategies is lacking, but teachers don’t have to wait and can lead the way by establishing professional learning communities. While there are several research-backed instructional strategies, the research base is still in its infancy. Therefore, schools need teachers to not just be implementers of effective teaching strategies, but also innovators of strategies that foster critical thinking.  Many schools have done this through professional learning communities, communities of teachers in the same content area who create instructional innovations, support each other during the implementation stage, and reflect on the results. In essence, the community of teachers serves as coaches for each other. Research shows that effective professional learning communities can change teacher practice and increase student achievement (Dunne et al., 2000; Rosenholtz, 1989; Lous and Marks, 1998; Little, 1982; Wiley, 2002). In addition, several studies have found that student achievement is higher in schools with strong professional communities, where collective responsibility, collaboration and collegiality among teachers are fostered (Little, 1982; Newmann and Wehlage, 1995; Louis et al., 1996).

Funding Effective Professional Development

Many districts may embrace the call for more effective professional development but fear that they will be unable to fund such programs.  Such worries are valid; however, there’s reason to believe that effective professional development funding won’t necessarily require more spending, just a restructuring of current spending.  

  • Because of vague accounting codes, most districts don’t actually know what they’re spending on professional development.  Most districts’ broad accounting codes, such as “instructional support,” capture more than just professional development spending, and therefore are ineffective at isolating professional development spending (Odden et al., 2002). This means many districts are in the dark about how much they’re actually spending on teacher training.  
  • Research suggests that current professional development spending may be substantial, anywhere between two and five percent of total district spending. Researchers who have gone beyond accounting sheets to really pinpoint district professional development spending have found that before the recession, most districts were spending between two to five percent of their total budget on professional development (Odden et al., 2002). Recent economic challenges, however, suggest that figure might be lower than that. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the past five years have been the worst on record for state budgets, which collectively sunk to its lowest level in 2010 with a $191 billion deficit. For the school systems that depend on state revenue for most of their funding, it has meant continual cuts, not the least of which is in training and development. In the American Association of School Administrators most recent survey, 69.4 percent of districts reported they would be cutting professional development funds to balance their budgets this coming year. Nonetheless, it will serve districts well to do an accounting of dollars spent on training. It may reveal that current dollars are larger than assumed.  
  • The largest cost of effective professional development is actually teachers’ time; there are many ways districts might think about purchasing this. The coaching and professional learning models require large amounts of teachers’ time in order to be effective, preferably three to four hours per week for collaboration and coaching (Killion, 2013). There are limits, of course, to how much time can be added to teachers’ work schedules. In many districts, this time would have to be negotiated as part of the contract and possibly compensated. Districts might purchase teacher time by: providing stipends for professional development that are calculated at a different pay rate than teaching hours; paying for substitutes to cover teachers’ classes; or reducing the teaching load of teachers and hiring more staff (Odden et al., 2002). 
  • Case studies suggest that districts may be able to restructure spending for effective professional development without spending significantly more. In a well-known model for restructuring from the 1990s, District 2 in New York City revamped its professional development approach to improve student achievement with great success. The district created coaches for teachers as well as professional learning labs where teachers could observe excellent instruction. However, the district got rid of isolated, one-shot workshops. Such a program did not require millions in extra spending, just a restructuring of funds to buy teacher time and coaching staff. The district was able to hold professional development spending to three percent, a figure within the range of what research says most districts spent pre-recession to support an effective program aimed improving student achievement (Elmore and Burney, 1997).  

Ultimately, these studies give districts reason to think that having effective professional development, the kind of professional development that really changes the way teachers teach and leads to more student learning, is not something completely out of the realm of possibility. Indeed, districts could have enriched learning communities for teachers without spending much more than they are likely spending today on ineffective professional development.  

Questions for School Districts to Consider

Some additional questions for schools, districts and board members to consider when thinking about professional development: 

  • What existing professional development does the district provide? 
  • Does the district’s current professional development programming align with research about teacher learning?
  • Is professional development producing an impact on student learning? 
  • How is spending for professional development tracked by the district? 
  • Does the district need to develop more effective accounting codes to pinpoint professional development spending? 
  • How much exactly is the district spending on professional development? 
  • How much teacher time is paid for within the current contract that is not used for individual teacher planning or classroom teaching? 
  • Which model for purchasing teacher time is most cost efficient for the district? 
  • What current in-house staff can be used to provide coaching and professional learning communities? 
  • What external resources can be used to staff coaching and professional learning communities? 
  • Is an in-house or consulting model of staffing more cost efficient and effective for the goals of the professional development, or is it better to have a combination of the two? 

This summary is based on a report prepared for the Center for Public Education by Allison Gulamhussein.

Allison Gulamhussein is a doctoral student at George Washington University and a former 
high school English teacher. She was the spring 2013 policy intern for the Center for Public 

Published September 2013. Copyright Center for Public Education.