Johnson: Teacher Professional Development Is in a Rut, but Better Research Can Help. New Partnership Is Looking to Do Just That

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When the topic of teacher professional development comes up, educators often groan. Teachers are overtaxed, and their professional development experiences frequently feel like a waste of time. When I was in the classroom, I was one of those groaning educators. I would sit through professional development that bore no relation to the content I taught or the needs of my class, and wonder: What am I learning that will actually benefit my students?

Professional development has a checkered history. For years, researchers have found teacher professional development programs to be largely ineffective. Less than half of math and science programs included in a recent research synthesis showed positive impacts on teacher knowledge and practice, and only one-third showed positive impacts on student outcomes. Practically speaking, like my experience, this means that educators are not being given the opportunities to truly develop new skills and knowledge.

In fact, even in my professional development days, PD became such a dirty word that my colleagues and I preferred an alternative term representing a reimagined way of thinking about how we could improve our craft: professional learning.

When we consider what we are asking of teachers today — to accelerate student learning, to address student trauma, to support students in recovering from a global pandemic — it is more important than ever to understand how ineffective the old model was and get real about how we’re going to address what we don’t know.

A new and growing body of research suggests that professional learning, done well, can both increase teacher morale and raise student outcomes. This means it is:

In short, effective professional learning should be relevant, so teachers should not perceive a disconnect between it and their daily work. And, quality is more important than quantity — how valuable the experiences are matters more than the number of hours spent in the training.

Teacher learning based on this research shows impact. For example, a robust, randomized controlled trial of the National Writing Project's College-Ready Writers Program found a statistically significant impact on the content, structure and quality of student writing. Why does it work? One key element is that College-Ready Writers introduces teachers to new instructional techniques through a highly collaborative and supportive cohort of educators who meet regularly, share expertise and learn together. Those who partake hone their teaching of argumentative writing through classroom demonstrations, co-teaching and coaching that is adapted to the needs of their students and schools. One teacher commented to researchers studying the program that, “everything that they have gone over has been something that we could immediately go back to the classroom and implement and see results.”

Still, despite these promising outcomes, research on teacher professional learning too often focuses on whether a program works, not on the how and why. More information is needed about specific features that make some programs more effective than others, so designers understand how to create and implement better teacher learning opportunities. And more work needs to be done on engaging teachers; with only 29 percent saying they are satisfied with the current state of professional learning, programs cannot simply assume educator buy-in.

What’s needed, in short, is a concerted effort to deepen research on teacher professional learning. The Research Partnership for Professional Learning, a collaboration of professional learning organizations and researchers at the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, is doing some of this work by uniting experts to drive a transformation of professional learning research and practice in the United States. To help focus the field, the partnership recently released a learning agenda that outlines its goals for improving teacher learning research and practice, including:

  • Shifting the types of questions that researchers study. Currently, most professional learning evaluates the effectiveness of specific programs in a thumbs-up or -down manner. Instead, the partnership will pursue studies that shed light on programs' comparative effectiveness, to learn why certain approaches work so well.
  • Building knowledge across organizations and the educators they work with. Each partnership member has a different approach to professional learning. Some focus more on content, others on teacher mindsets; some engage with teams of teachers, while others work with coaches or instructional leaders. Of course, they all work with a variety of states and districts. Asking the same research questions across these different models and communities will rapidly increase understanding of what works and why.
  • Using randomized experiments to test specific program features, building knowledge about what works in a comprehensive manner.

Why does this matter? The partnership’s members believe that if you don’t take teacher learning seriously, you’re not taking student learning seriously. By pushing the field forward through the study of effective design, the partnership hopes to encourage the development of learning opportunities that both engage teachers in their own professional development and accelerate their acquisition of new knowledge and skills.

Ultimately, it is students who will benefit the most from this much-needed shift.

Given the dramatic changes brought on by COVID, professional learning has never been more important. But it can’t be left to guesswork and unproven programs that fail to engage the educators it is intended to reach. Only by working together and building innovative research partnerships will we make the kind of rapid progress that the educators and students of this nation deserve.

Sarah Johnson is a founding member and vice chair of the Research Partnership for Professional Learning and CEO of Teaching Lab, a nonprofit organization that partners with schools and districts to improve teaching and learning.

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