A New Perspective on Professional Development

Written by: Amy Auletto

Primary Source:  Green & Write, January 9, 2017

A substantial amount of money is being spent on professional development with little evidence of its impact. Photo courtesy of Images Money.

A substantial amount of money is being spent on professional development with little evidence of its impact.

Professional development has long been touted as a way to improve teaching. A substantial amount of time and money is invested into learning opportunities for teachers in an effort to strengthen their ability to effectively instruct students. A report by The New Teacher Project (TNTP) looked at professional development (PD) practices in several large districts across the country and found that an average of $18,000 is spent annually per teacher on opportunities intended to improve teaching. Put another way, this means that the largest 50 school districts are spending at least $8 billion per year on PD! The costs associated with PD extend beyond its price tag; a substantial amount of time is also invested into this additional training. Teachers surveyed by TNTP reported spending 17 hours per month, or 19 full school days per year, outside of the classroom on PD. A substantial portion of this training likely takes place during the regular school day, leaving students with substitute teachers and costing learning opportunities as well.

Despite this enormous investment, we do not have a clear idea as to which professional development opportunities are most effective or how exactly teachers learn and apply new skills to their classrooms. Evidence linking PD to instructional improvement is inconclusive. TNTP was unable find any connection between teacher evaluation ratings and participation in PD. Most teachers in TNTP’s report did not receive top evaluation ratings, some teachers became less effective, and only 3 in 10 teachers saw an increase in effectiveness. Given these findings, it is clear there is room for improvement in the teaching profession and that professional development, as it is currently being implemented, is not doing enough.


How Does Professional Development Improve Teaching?

A recent study by Dr. Mary M. Kennedy, professor emeritus at Michigan State University, provides a new framework for understanding professional development. In her paper titled How Does Professional Development Improve Teaching?, Kennedy reviewed 28 PD studies and organized them along two dimensions – the teaching problem they attempted to address and the method by which teachers enacted what they learned. Kennedy identified four teaching problems—portraying curricular content, containing student behavior, enlisting student participation, and exposing student thinking—as well as four methods of delivering PD to teachers—prescription, strategies, insight, and knowledge. These four methods exist on a continuum in terms of how much autonomy is afforded teachers, with prescription offering the least autonomy and knowledge offering the most autonomy in implementation. The majority of PD studies that Kennedy examined were focused on presenting curriculum to students, and the primary methods they employed were prescription and strategies, which offer the least autonomy to teachers.

Kennedy also estimated the effectiveness of each of these PD programs in terms of student learning. She found that PD programs focusing on any of the four teaching problems are able to improve student learning but those focusing exclusively on content knowledge were the least effective. Professional learning communities for teachers varied in their effectiveness, and further examination of what is happening in these communities is needed to understand how they work. PD programs that require more hours are more effective, except in the case of prescriptive programs, in which case additional hours do not provide added benefits. Similar to professional learning communities, instructional coaches vary in value. More effective coaches spent more time collaborating with teachers on lesson planning.

Kennedy concluded with a number of observations and thoughts on professional development. First, her findings raise questions about motivation. While teachers can be required to attend PD, learning and implementing new instructional practices are not mandatory. Kennedy also noted that some of the PD programs she studied actually yielded negative results which may be due to resistance or resentment from teachers. One critical factor in evaluating PD is who is delivering it. Reputable programs delivered by experienced groups who work directly with teachers have more success than those who rely on intermediaries with little experience in teacher learning. Finally, Kennedy suggested that future research focus on how PD programs motivate and engage teachers and whether teachers find the experiences to be meaningful.


Room For Improvement

PD must encourage real learning as opposed to simply being another responsibility for teachers to juggle. As Kennedy’s research highlights, we are beginning to have some idea as to which types of PD will yield the best results. Yet, we still have a long way to go in terms of understanding how teachers are motivated, how they learn, and how they apply what they have learned to their practices. We are currently pouring a substantial amount of money and time into programs that do not always yield results. Let’s make sure that these limited resources are being used on effective programs so that PD can consistently improve teachers’ instructional practices and, in turn, increase student learning.

Contact Amy: aulettoa@msu.edu

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Amy Auletto
Amy Auletto is a doctoral student in Educational Policy. She is interested in the impact that equitable funding and access to effective teachers have on the educational outcomes of disadvantaged student populations. Prior to beginning her studies at Michigan State University, she taught middle school math in Detroit. Amy earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology, master of Social Work, and MA in educational studies from the University of Michigan.