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Stronge & Associates: If Most Professional Development Is Proving Ineffective, What Works Best?

By Jess Hench & Xian Xu
Stronge & Associates: If Most Professional Development  Is Proving Ineffective, What Works Best?

In recent decades, professional development (PD) has evolved into a dynamic, reflective, and collaborative improvement process we view as essential to meeting the critical demands of today’s schools. Teachers need to continuously expand their knowledge of subject content, research-based teaching strategies, assessment, and classroom management to meet the diverse learning needs of students. While the belief and best efforts for PD are genuine, the results are proving to be disappointing, at best. In fact, recent large-scale studies in the U.S. found that most PD failed.
What Doesn’t Work with PD
A study supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (2014) found that US$18 billion is spent annually on PD, and a typical teacher spends about 68 hours each year on professional learning activities, often mandated by the school district. When self-guided professional learning and courses are included, total annual PD time is about 89 hours.
However, teachers believe too many current PD offerings are not effective, and they are proving to be right. Here are a few sobering facts about PD from a 2015 U.S. study by The New Teacher Project (TNTP):
• Districts are investing as much as US$18,000/teacher/year in teacher improvement.
• Teachers spend about 10 percent of their school year on development, yet only three in ten demonstrate substantial improvement.
• No particular kind or amount of PD consistently helps teachers improve.
• School systems are not helping teachers understand how to improve, or even that they should.
• Teachers feel their PD is not tailored to their development needs or teaching context.
Researchers agree that PD that is unrelated to teacher content and pedagogy produces minimal results, due to insensitivity to individual differences among teachers, lack of specificity and intensity, insufficient hands-on practice and feedback, little or no follow-up, not enough time built into teachers’ schedules for PD, and not enough time and training built into school leaders’ administrative tasks to support teacher learning (e.g., Thomas 2008).
Researchers, including Linda Darling-Hammond, found that U.S. teachers, compared to those in top-performing countries, spend more time instructing students, but less time in professional learning activities. And, unfortunately, PD increases teachers’ knowledge in certain subject areas but does not impact student achievement.
What Does Work with Professional Development
Adult learning research suggests that teachers learn best when they actively participate in meaningful learning experiences. Contemporary educators want to plan, implement, analyze, and reflect upon their own practice in collaboration with other professionals. When they are actively engaged in a learning community, they tend to become more self-directed, goal-oriented, and responsible for their own learning.
Professional development that is sustained over time and is content-specific is more likely to be effective. A three-year longitudinal study found that PD focused on specific teaching practices increased teachers’ use of those practices in the classroom (Desimone et al. 2002). In other words, effective PD programs tend to directly focus on classroom-based knowledge and practice: the subject content, how students learn that content, and the use of effective pedagogical methods. Also, based on the findings of one meta-analysis, teachers who received substantial PD (49 hours) boosted their students’ achievement by 21 percentile points across all content areas (Yoon et al. 2007). For PD to support an increase in student learning outcomes, sufficient time must be coupled with high quality development.
PD also is effective when it involves active learning techniques: it should be relevant, hands-on/scenario based, interactive and energizing, and delivered by someone who understands teachers. It also should include a structured agenda and objectives, and treat teachers like professionals. Teachers prefer highly personalized learning experiences, such as working with peers and mentors or attending conferences of their choice that are germane to the teachers’ instructional assignments and responsibilities.
Critical factors that may directly impact the success of PD include the level of support provided by the school and district, the culture of learning within the school, and sufficient time, facilities, and materials. Follow-up and feedback were found to be essential components of effective PD programs, as they support the development of new skills and facilitate the changes advocated in the programs. PD that tells teachers what to do and how to do it without follow-up does not produce long-term results, largely because teachers have no part in initiating or planning the changes they are required to implement. Additionally, effective PD uses modeling, coaching, and collective problem-solving so that teachers can engage in reflective and experimental inquiry as they connect new concepts and strategies to their own unique contexts.
The TNTP report calls PD a “mirage.” Most teachers studied felt their PD was not useful in helping them prepare for the changing nature of their jobs, it was not a good use of their time, they could have read and learned the material on their own, and it was not customized to fit their needs. The authors of The Mirage point out that, in education, we focus so much attention on differentiating instruction for our diverse students, but we do not treat teacher development the same way. Our teachers will not develop with a one-size-fits-all approach. Let’s make professional development work for us!

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