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Digging Deeper Into PD Research

In my last blog post I noted that decades of research demonstrates the positive impact of professional development that is designed well and implemented with fidelity, and noted that, despite this fact, skepticism among researchers persists. This skepticism is based on numerous counter studies and reports showing that specific professional development initiatives "fail" to achieve their intended results.

Since we know that professional learning designed and executed well has positive impact on teacher performance and student achievement, I often wonder what went wrong the in the studies that showing no impact, or even "failure," of these professional development initiatives. In reading the studies, I often find the failure is not in professional development itself, but is the result of the specific design of the professional development being studied, loose execution of the design, a lack of follow through on the part of the teachers, or administrators in the study. To test for these common breakdowns in professional development, I ask the following questions:


  1. Did the PD in the study offer a one-shot workshop and expect magic over night?

  2. Did the PD in the study offer a workshop and two follow up sessions then proceed to measure results?

  3. Did the PD in the study select content for teacher learning that did not align with the goals for student learning?

  4. Did the research and PD expect voluntary and occasional coaching to produce actual, long term improvements?

  5. Did the study evaluate outcomes prematurely when the initiative was really designed to have its full effect in three to five years?

  6. Did administrators abandon their responsibilities to those with little or no authority?


An affirmative answer to any of these questions is likely to result in a "false negative." In other words, studies may find the professional development in question did not achieve its goals, but we must be vigilant in reminding the skeptics, and our colleagues, that quality professional learning is the only way we will continue to improve teaching and learning in our education enterprise--and that decades of high-quality research back up this fact.

Stephanie Hirsh
Executive Director, Learning Forward

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