The Need for Focused, Sustained PD
A recent study conducted by the American Institutes for Research and MDRC examined the impact of a professional development program on the knowledge and teaching skills of 7th grade mathematics teachers. The study found that two years after implementation, there was no evidence that the professional development resulted in improved teacher knowledge, or improved student achievement. (Erik Robelen reported on the study's findings on Ed Week's Curriculum Matters blog.)
While disappointing results like these are often used as ammunition against professional development, effective professional development continues to be the most powerful strategy schools have to ensure all teachers acquire the knowledge and skills they need to help students succeed.
For hundreds of thousands of public school educators, professional development is the only means they have to increase their knowledge, skills, and effectiveness. Professional development occurs in many different ways, in many different contexts, and its results depend on many different factors. It is very important to understand that this study is not a broad indictment of professional development per se. It is a finding that one, narrow professional development program, implemented under a particular set of circumstances, did not have the impact its sponsors intended.
In effect, the study confirms what is known about professional development generally: if it is not rigorously conceived and managed, its results will be compromised. In this case, the designers of the program apparently did not anticipate the negative impact of teacher mobility and did not or could not control for it.
The study confirms that to impact student achievement, professional development must be intensive enough to significantly increase teachers' knowledge and skills. A cardinal principle of effective professional development is that it is focused, intensive, and sustained enough to impact what teachers know and can do in their classrooms. The study concludes: "Because we do see a correlation between the teacher knowledge total score and student achievement, these findings suggest that programs positively affecting teacher knowledge have the potential to increase student performance. Still, the magnitude of the correlation indicates that an effective program targeting student achievement through teacher knowledge would need to have a substantial impact on teachers."
The study focused on the professional development program's effects on student achievement. It did not, however, thoroughly probe why the program did or did not achieve its intended results. For example, it appears the professional development program primarily sought to increase teachers' knowledge. Consequently, the research examined whether the teachers' knowledge increased. However, increased knowledge alone does not automatically translate to more effective pedagogy; there are many other factors that influence whether and how teachers use their knowledge to advance their students' learning. Even though the program provided some intermittent coaching to the teachers, it is at least questionable whether it was intensive enough to ensure the teachers' effective and consistent application of their new knowledge, or to hold the teachers accountable for the same.
Examining professional development to understand its impact on student achievement is important, and there is a need for additional research with this focus. However, understanding results, or their absence, without deeply understanding what caused the results, addresses only half the issue. To increase the impact of professional development, educators responsible for it must know which specific practices, if faithfully implemented, will impact the performance of teachers and the achievement of their students.
Distinguished Senior Fellow, Learning Forward