Research Finds Professional Development is Key—If It’s Done Right

By Richard M. Long

Specific conditions make a difference in whether professional learning is effective. Learning Forward shows how, when these conditions are met, student learning will improve

Sometimes it makes all the difference if you use the right definition and process.  

After decades of half-hearted federal support for professional development, there is now data to support the investment in teachers and administrators. The new analysis was presented during a Congressional briefing late last month by Learning Forward that demonstrated how professional learning impacts student learning.  Along with the research presented, the briefing highlighted how the findings have been successfully applied in diverse settings.   

From Tennessee, Assistant Commissioner Paul Fleming shared how their Title II investments were used to impact leadership development in schools across the state.  Chad Sutton from the North Kansas City School District outlined how they focused on collaborative professional learning and how that was implemented and resulted in greater student learning.  Additionally, Pat Jones, an instructional coach in Washington, supported student learning by providing ongoing coaching to teachers throughout the district.  The results were that “teachers get better faster.”  All three demonstrated how the evidence is successfully applied.

As the examples highlight, there are specific conditions that make a difference in making professional learning effective. These are that schools and school districts support professional development, as defined by the Learning Forward standards, and have the conditions in place to be sustained and support student learning. These conditions are the key characteristics found in the definition in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the latest version of ESEA.  This definition describes what effective professional learning looks like in practice:

  • Professional learning that impacts outcomes is based on data from student and teacher performance;
  • It is collaboratively planned and executed by a team of teachers engaged with the students;
  • It is intensive, intentional and sustained (ie, not an adult pull-out program); and,
  • It is job-embedded (occurs within the school day) and is focused on what is happening in classrooms.

In reviewing the research on professional learning, Learning Forward found that there are four key ways districts are using their Title II dollars consistent with the research/evidence components that make a difference. The first is the appropriate use of coaches, with 63 percent of funds from ESSA Title II-A used for coaching.  As 43 studies highlighted, there are extensive positive effects on teachers’ instructional practices when coaching is used as the methodology. “Coaching helps teachers get better faster,” Learning Forward’s Executive Director Stephanie Hirsh summarized.

However, like any significant change, there is more than one component. Professional learning works better when it is used as part of a sustained collaborative process. This allows for teachers to explore and adapt what they are doing to fit the needs of each classroom and strengths of each teacher.  It also encourages a continuous process of learning. Learning Forward also found that having quality instructional materials makes a difference as well (this is important as it isn’t the materials that drive instruction, rather it is the teachers using the tool). Additionally, all of these components work effectively when the building and district leadership is able to provide the structure needed to evaluate the student and teacher data, create the management system to implement what is needed, and adapt those plans as experience demonstrates.

The implications of these findings are significant. First, student outcomes are improved when professional learning provides the wider education community with the blueprint to implement a significant process of change and improvement. This is true if the initial focus is a computer-based program, multi-tiered systems of support, and/or changes to support school safety and school culture.  Second, as it turns out, teachers have a more positive impact on student learning when the teachers are working and planning together. Third, the core concept of teachers becoming capable faster is a significant help to the growing problem of new teachers leaving the field because they are frustrated.  This tool provides a method to help new teachers become master teachers more quickly.

However, there is also an impact on national policy.  Just before ESSA was written in 2015, several senior staffers shared with me the observation that professional development really doesn’t work.  Even 10 years ago a Congressman told me that he and most of his colleagues thought that money for professional development went into the coffers to be used against them.  Yet, there also was a vague belief that the tool of professional development would make a difference.  Now, we know that, under certain and specific professional conditions, it does.  

It is time to move ahead.

Richard M. Long is executive director of the Learning First Alliance.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.



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