What’s Not Working in Professional Development?

If you believe some startling new research, the answer is that most of what we are currently providing in teacher professional development is ineffective. As we mentioned in the back-to-school trends update, a new report called The Mirage from TNTP, a nonprofit formerly known as The New Teacher Project, claims that despite that we say we know about what works in teacher professional development, the reality is that “the evidence base for what actually helps teachers improve is very thin.”

Since districts average $6,000-$8,000 per year, per teacher for professional development, to say that we really don’t have much evidence about how to help teachers improve their practice is a pretty big deal. Federal Funding tops  $2 Billion per year through Title II for teacher and principal funding. The Mirage tells us that teachers spend an average of 24 hours per year in one-time professional development workshops. That’s three full days spent over the course of the school year and it’s actually more in some districts – up to a full week.

If one-off professional development workshops are not improving teaching practice and positively impacting student achievement, is there anything that is?

The Center for Public Education (CPE) tells us that it takes 50 hours of instruction, practice and coaching before teachers can master and implement a new teaching strategy. And the instruction and coaching must be ongoing – not a one-shot workshop. Here are their recommendations for effective professional development.

  • Must be of sufficient duration.
  • Must be ongoing, and allow time for teachers to be introduced to new practices and to tackle implementation challenges.
  • Professional learning must be customized to address specific problems teachers are facing as they adopt new practices.
  • Learning experiences must be engaging and require active participation and multiple avenues into new concepts or practices.
  • Modeling should be used to introduce new concepts and strategies.
  • The content should not be generic. Grade-level appropriate for elementary teachers and discipline-aligned for middle and high school teachers.

Opportunities for Marketers

If most of what publishers have provided teachers in professional development is ineffective, then there is a huge gap between need and solution. That always means opportunity. What can publishers do to help districts solve this problem? It’s certainly not any more one-off workshops on a particular curriculum or program.

Doug Lemov, educator and professional learning coach, suggests that teaching is a “performance” profession. What he means by that is that like all performers, teachers need instruction and lots of guided practice to improve their performance. When we think of musicians, artists, or sports leaders, we understand that it’s taken them years of dedicated practice and coaching to master their art. Why would teachers be any different?

Like any other profession, teachers can be encouraged to change their practice through coaching. Whether from their principal or an instructional coach, the coaching dynamic sets up a positive framework for effecting change. Video is emerging as an important tool for both modeling new teaching strategies and implementing them through observation, self-reflection, and coaching.

So, if we accept that our current mode of professional development is ineffective, and we begin to think about professional learning as ongoing, job embedded, essential and engaged learning opportunities, how do we help our customers, the districts, be more effective at developing the people in their organizations, the teachers, to master their craft to positively impact student achievement?

If we focus on this idea of teachers as performers, what programs can we create to help districts increase teacher effectiveness and improve student achievement?