Can Professional Development Actually Help Teachers Develop?

Recently we have seen an increase in the criticism of professional development (“PD”) for teachers.  This concern, which teachers have been voicing for years, is now supported by a report released by the private education firm TNTPThe report found that “despite the billions of dollars we are pouring into teacher development every year, we have very little to show for the expenditure.”  This is not an entirely new realization; education researchers have been studying PD and its effectiveness for decades.  One influential longitudinal study investigated the influence of professional development on teaching strategies. However, ask any teacher if they’ve sat through an ineffective PD, if they were talked at by PD session leaders about content that doesn’t apply to their classroom, if they wasted precious grading or planning hours because they had to satisfy certain PD requirements, and you would be hard-pressed to find a single “no.”

As practioners, we recognize the unhelpful PD session as an unfortunate part of the job.  And if novice teachers start their careers being hopeful that PD will improve their practice, with every poorly planned and decontextualized PD experience, that hope diminishes.  It does not take long for teachers participating in an ineffective PD to take out their phone and start checking their Instagram feed, not unlike a disengaged high school student. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way!

Education leaders are not just highlighting the reasons for lack of teacher growth after PD, they are also thinking about how to improve PD.  Heather C. Hill, an associate professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, offered steps for Fixing Teacher Professional DevelopmentIn a highly influential piece, Samuel L. Odom, Director of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute and Professor at UNC- Chapel Hill School of Education, wrote about the enlightened PD model, which recognizes the necessity of steps beyond the PD for taking “evidence based practices into every day practice.”  The idea is that PD can’t be an outside-inside, one-off, “take-this-list-of-things-and-do-them” approach.  Rather, PD must be a comprehensive, asset-based approach, which involves members of the community.  And the PD support must be continuous and position stake-holders in the school as competent decision-makers.

What does this look like? 

One helpful way to think about implementing effective PD is to anchor the conversation in the actual work.   For instance, what would a more effective PD model, which aims to support teachers who work with diverse learners, entail?

Many novice diverse learner teachers struggle with knowing how to ask the right questions.  Instead of focusing on learning the needs of the student(s), they often jump to the intervention phase, hoping to “solve” the problem, with the best of intentions.  Novice teachers want to know what is written in the IEP, what the manual says, and what tools to use.  They want to diagnose the student, put the student in a category, and then apply whatever “on-size-fits-all” solution is meant to help.   

As such, while professional development that promises to train teachers to quickly “fix” diverse learner problems sounds appealing, it will not empower the teacher to grow professionally.  Why?  Because teachers need to be given tools to analyze the needs of individual learners and differentiate the support – this of course is profoundly difficult to do, as well as teach, in a PD session. 

Furthermore, we know that students don’t just have one learning style - they aren’t simply, say, audio learners and therefore need a book on tape.  It’s much more complex.  One student might need different supports across contents, and this differs from student to student, grade level, and even day to day.

An effective PD model needs to teach and model for novice teachers not just what to do with struggling students, but first how to think about a struggling student.


Author: Boris Krichevsky