The first large-scale study of the effects of different characteristics of professional development on teachers’ learning sampled more than 1,000 mathematics and science teachers across the United States.
Results indicate three core features of professional development activities that have significant positive effects on teachers’ self-reported increases in knowledge and skills and changes in their teaching. These include a focus on subject-matter knowledge, opportunities for active learning, and coherence with other development activities.
Three core features
Michael S. Garet, Beatrice F. Birman, and Kwang Suk Yoon, American Institutes for Research; Andrew C. Porter, University of Wisconsin/Madison; and Laura Desimone, Vanderbilt University, used data from a national evaluation of the Eisenhower Professional Development Program, which supports professional development for mathematics and science teachers.
This study examined the form an activity took; the duration of the activity, including the total number of contact hours as well as the time span over which the activity takes place; and the degree to which the activity emphasizes the collective participation of groups of teachers from the same school, grade or department.
Focusing on content
Professional development varies in the amount of emphasis it gives to academic subjects — both in-depth understanding of the subject and study of the ways students learn particular types of material. There is emerging evidence that the degree of content focus is a central component of high-quality professional development.
Promoting active learning
The opportunity to link ideas introduced during professional development to the context in which teachers work appears to support teachers’ learning as well as actual change in classroom practices. Activities such as reviewing students’ work, observing other teachers, cooperative planning of classroom implementation, practice sessions with feedback, and opportunities to give presentations, lead discussions and produce written work are effective ways for teachers to improve their skills.
The extent to which a development activity is perceived by teachers to be part of a coherent program of learning influences its effectiveness. Activities are more likely to be effective if they are connected to teachers’ goals and aligned with other development activities and with state and district standards and assessments. It helps when teachers are able to work with others who are engaged in similar efforts to improve their teaching. Networks of teachers help one another sustain their motivation to learn and change.
School-based programs more effective
Development programs that take place in the teachers’ schools tend to have a direct positive effect on teachers’ knowledge and skills. School-based development programs tend to last longer, are more likely to include active learning, and to encourage professional communication with other teachers. All these features have a positive influence on increasing skills and knowledge.
It is clear from this study that many professional-development activities do not include these features. These researchers report that providing activities with multiple high-quality features is challenging and expensive. They estimate the average cost for a high-quality professional development activity is more than $500 per teacher — more than double what districts typically spend.
These results suggest several ways for improving professional development. For example, sustained and intensive professional development is more likely to have a lasting impact on teaching and learning. Professional activities that focus on academic subject matter, that give teachers opportunities for “hands-on” practice, and that are integrated into the daily life of the school are more likely to enhance teachers’ knowledge and skills.
It is important to focus on the duration, collective participation, subject-matter emphasis, active learning and integration with school goals and curriculum when designing professional development. A major challenge to providing this type of high-quality professional development is cost.
Longitudinal research is needed to follow teachers’ professional development over several years, focusing on the relationships between professional development, teacher learning, teacher change and, ultimately, student learning.
“What Makes Professional Development Effective? Results From a National Sample of Teachers” American Educational Research Journal Volume 38, Number 4, Winter 2001 Pp. 915-945.
Published in ERN March 2002 Volume 15 Number 3