Several of the most frequently heard criticisms of teacher professional development may not have a shred of evidence to support them.
Many anecdotal perceptions of professional learning do not stand up to scientific study while other commonly held beliefs are based on outdated research, say the authors of “Dispelling the Myths,” a new report by the Research Partnership for Professional Learning, a coalition of PD experts and providers based at Brown University’s Annenberg Institute.
The report’s top takeaway for administrators is that quality is more important than quantity when it comes to PD, says Heather Hill, a professor of teaching and teacher leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Educator and a visiting faculty member at the Annenberg Institute. “Well-placed professional development that helps teachers build skills they will use in class fairly immediately is probably the sweet spot, much more so than PD that is more abstract on content knowledge absent a focus on specific practices,” she says.
The effectiveness of teachers is the No. 1 factor in student success. But while school districts, states, and the federal government spend as much as $8 billion a year on professional development, the institutions also lack data about which programs work best and why some fail, the Annenberg report says.
“There’s a clear focus on helping teachers with the task they have to do in classrooms every day, whether that’s implementing curriculum really well, assessing student work and understanding what’s going on with that student, whether that’s creating a positive atmosphere—when PD focuses on these things, those programs do tend to improve student outcomes,” Hill says.
Here’s a breakdown of the reality behind the biggest misperceptions around PD:
Myth #1: Professional learning is a waste of time and money.
Truth: Evidence shows that PD improves teachers’ skills and instructional practice to significantly improve student learning.
Districts have been criticized for spending heavily on PD with little to show for it. But a meta-analysis of dozens of studies has found that “the difference in effectiveness between teachers with instructional coaches and those without was equivalent to the difference between novice teachers and teachers with five to 10 years of experience.” An analysis of STEM professional learning programs showed increases in student test scores.
Myth #2: PL is more effective for early career teachers than veterans.
Truth: PL opportunities have been shown to support teacher development at all levels of experience.
Teachers do grow their skills more rapidly during the early years of their careers, partly because they receive more on-the-job learning opportunities. But research proves that teachers continue to expand their abilities as their careers continue. Recent studies have found that the average teacher improves their effectiveness at raising student achievement by about half as much between years five and 15 as they did during the first five years of their career.
Myth #3: PL programs must be job-embedded and time-intensive.
Truth: Programs of varying lengths and formats can produce wide-ranging benefits.
Intensive on-the-job training can be highly effective, but it’s not the only way to build teachers’ skills. Recent research has not been able to link the length of PD programs to better student outcomes.
Analysis has also shown that summer workshops—during which teachers are away from their classrooms—provide significant boosts in student learning. Spreading PD out across several semesters also appears to be just as effective as short-term, high-intensity training.
Myth #4: Improving content knowledge is key to improving instructional practice.
Truth: PD that targets instructional practices is more likely to shift student learning.
Researchers have found no correlation between better student outcomes and time-intensive PD that produced modest improvements in content knowledge. On the other hand, PD focused on shifting instructional practices tended to improve student outcomes. Helping teachers learn why and when to use specific strategies seemed also benefited students.
Myth #5: Research-based PD is unlikely to work at scale or in new contexts.
Truth: With strong implementation, programs can have positive effects across a wide range of schools.
K-12 leaders sometimes worry that even evidence-backed programs may not suit their schools’ or districts’ unique needs. Also, some PD programs have buckled at scale. But recent evaluations have found that several large-scale PL programs are working over a wide range of schools. Also, variability of effectiveness can be driven by variability of implementation. “For example, new programs that suffer from a lack of support from school leadership, or that fail to make time and space for teachers to sustain learning, appear more likely to fail,” the Research Partnership for Professional Learning report says. The chance of success increases when leaders are invested in PD programs that are aligned with other district instructional guidance.
Myth #6: Districts should never modify research-based PD programs.
Truth: Practice fidelity first and then adapt.
Over the long term, PD programs do not have to be implemented exactly as intended by their designers. And while shoddy implementation can sink a program, recent studies of PD in new curricula suggest that “adaptation with guardrails” can even improve student outcomes beyond a program’s initial intent. Teachers can begin to modify elements of a program while keeping its core concepts in place.