A new article in the MDRC newsletter, “Professional Development for Teachers: What Two Rigorous Studies Tell Us,” describes studies in which PD on the workshop / follow-up coaching model was found to have very little effect. They conclude that: “New thinking emphasizes a broader conception of teacher learning that involves all teachers in a school in a professional learning community that is engaged in a continuous and collegial cycle of learning, practice, reflection, and improvement.” This kind of result is why we work with teams at their school and district sites on their current challenges, not providing them knowledge and follow-up support in a decontextualized way.
The professional development that was provided went far beyond the “one-shot” workshop approach that has been widely criticized; it instead included intensive summer institutes, follow-up group sessions, and coaching of individual teachers. The evaluations of the interventions employed random assignment design, and, as a result, they supply unusually rigorous evidence about the effects of the professional development that was offered both on instruction and on student achievement.
The impacts of both interventions were substantially less positive than had been hoped.
Most critically, students of teachers who received the training scored no higher on subject-matter achievement tests than students of teachers who did not receive the training.
Moreover, in the reading study, professional development that included one-on-one coaching as well as group workshops did not lead to significantly larger impacts than professional development involving just the workshops. In the mathematics study, receiving two years of professional development did not lead to better results than receiving just one year.
A number of factors likely reduced the effectiveness of the professional development and the researchers’ ability to measure that effectiveness. [E.g., teacher turnover and the two-year time frames]
Non-experimental analyses that were conducted as part of these two studies, along with other research, suggest that the theory of change underlying the studies is correct: professional development of the type that was delivered is associated with increased teacher knowledge and that teacher knowledge and improved instruction is associated with higher student test scores. But changes in teacher-related variables must be substantial — considerably larger than they were in these studies — to move the needle on student achievement even a small amount.
By themselves, the findings of the two studies do not mean that professional development efforts cannot work. New thinking emphasizes a broader conception of teacher learning that involves all teachers in a school in a professional learning community that is engaged in a continuous and collegial cycle of learning, practice, reflection, and improvement. Randomized trials to test professional development that is reinforced within professional learning communities are in order. At the same time, in-service training should not be the only vehicle for improving student achievement.