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What Elements Make Teacher Professional Development High Quality?

A report last fall found that the majority of professional development—80 percent—doesn't align with the new federal definition of high-quality training. So, what is working?

The fourth and final installment of a report series by the Frontline Research & Learning Institute, released last week, highlighted district best practices on high-quality PD. The institute is a division of Frontline Education, which is a K-12 software company. For this report series, researchers examined a nationally representative sample of 203 school districts, which included data from over 107,000 teachers who participated in almost 377,000 activities over a five-year span (between 2011 and 2016).

The federal K-12 law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, defines high-quality PD as meeting six criteria: sustained, intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom focused. Sarah Silverman, the vice president of Whiteboard Advisors, an education policy research firm, and one of the authors of the report, said in an interview that there wasn't a clear framework of what these criteria mean, so the report defined key metrics for each category: 

  • Sustained: taking place over an extended period that's longer than one day. Only 13 percent of PD activities that teachers enrolled in consisted of more than three meetings.
  • Intensive: focusing on a discrete concept, practice, or program. The average length of PD activities was 4.5 hours.
  • Job-embedded: taking place in real time in the classroom. Sixty-three percent of PD activities studied were offered within the school system.
  • Collaborative: involving multiple educators working on the same concept or practice to gain a shared understanding. Just 9 percent of enrolled activities were collaborative.
  • Data-driven: based on and responsive to real-time information about the needs of teachers and their students. Only 8 percent of activities that were offered aligned to this format. 
  • Classroom-focused: relevant to the instructional process. Eighty-five percent of PD activities aligned with this standard.

Data-driven professional development is the biggest challenge for school districts, Silverman said. When implemented correctly, it creates a feedback loop by identifying what teachers need to get better at a certain component of instruction, and then offering clear learning opportunities to help them get better. 

For example, the Greece school system in New York, highlighted in the report, has developed a group of 26 educators from across the district who meet reguarly to discuss and analyze data. This council surveys educators on the usefulness of their professional learning immediately after the activity and then again after the educators integrate what they learned. Then, the council members analyze other data sources, like lesson plans, to assess changes in practice—and trends in student learning outcomes—over time. That way, the council can use data to determine what professional development is working and what are the needs for future learning opportunities. 

Greece has been tracking its progress for each indicator of high-quality professional development through a management system. More than 13 percent of its PD activities are data-driven, and the district has a goal of 25 percent. 

Meeting those goals takes time, Silverman said: "We imagine it might take a school district five to 10 years to get to a really robust professional learning system."

Next, Silverman and the other author of the report, Elizabeth Combs, the managing director of Frontline Research, will continue to study data and trends in professional development over time. They will make tools available to school districts to help them measure the metrics of these indicators themselves, Combs said. 

The report comes soon after President Donald Trump's budget proposal slashed Title II funding for professional development. The budget, which still has to be approved by Congress, said that Title II grant money is "spread too thinly to have a meaningful impact on student outcomes. In addition, there is limited evidence that teacher professional development ... has led to increases in student achievement."

Silverman and Combs both expressed concern that if the cut was enacted, it would send the message that professional development isn't worth the investment.

"If we're not willing to invest in helping [teachers] develop the skills they need, we're never going to make progress," Silverman said. "Professional learning isn't what it could be, but it can be much better."

For more innovative ways districts and states are overhauling their PD systems, see Education Week's recent report, which includes stories on PD under ESSA, microcredentials, linking PD to teacher evaluations, and more. 

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