6 Myths About Teacher Professional Development (Opinion)

Teacher professional development takes up billions of dollars every year and a lot of teachers’ time, but there’s virtually no evidence that teacher training actually improves teaching. A massive 2014 meta-analysis by the Federal Institute of Educational Sciences, for example, assessed 643 studies on PD in K-12 math education and found only two that met the established bar of evidence by the What Works Clearinghouse and had positive results. Linda Darling-Hammond, former president of the American Education Research Association, candidly noted that the “training [educators] receiving is episodic, myopic and often meaningless. Well, John Papay and Nathaniel Schwartz of Brown University and Heather Hill of Harvard, all scholars at the Annenberg Institute, think people like me are overly pessimistic about it. They dug into PD to see what works and what we can do better (see their brief here). I thought it was worth sharing their perspective.

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It’s a tough time to be a teacher. COVID has wiped out years of learning for millions of students, too many of them also suffering from grief, anxiety, and depression. This means effective teaching is more important than ever. This requires schools to do all they can to provide teachers with the support and professional learning they need to hone their skills. Unfortunately, “professional development” is often seen as just another problem that needs to be solved instead of the solution it could be.

We recently spent several months digging into the latest professional development research. We reviewed half a dozen research reviews and a series of more recent, rigorously conducted studies of teacher professional development programs. We have also revisited the studies on which much of our current conventional wisdom is based. The result of our findings: Much of what we think we “know” about teacher professional learning is not fully supported by the latest research. In all, we identified six “myths” associated with teacher professional learning.

Myth 1: Professional development is a waste of time and money. While many programs are expensive and do not enhance teaching or learning, there is evidence that professional learning box lead to changes in teachers’ teaching skills and practices and significantly improve student outcomes. In fact, decades of research, including strong evidence from gold standard randomized experiments— show that effective professional learning programs can help teachers significantly improve student academic and non-academic achievement.

Myth 2: Professional development is more effective for early career teachers and less effective for seasoned teachers. We recognize that teachers improve faster early in their careers due to substantial on-the-job learning. Recent evidence suggests that previous research showing that teachers stopped improving after their first few years in the classroom was based on overly strong methodological assumptions. Studies that relax these hypotheses find substantial growth in teacher skills even after the fifth grade. Additionally, several recent studies of professional learning opportunities have documented positive effects on teacher development at all levels of experience.

Myth 3: To be effective, the professional development of teachers must be integrated into their work and be time-consuming. Longer professional learning provides more opportunities for teachers to deepen content; however, the meta-analyses that spawned this myth took place during the 2000s, when only a handful of rigorous evaluations of LP had been conducted. New meta-analyses encompassing dozens of more recent studies tell a somewhat different story: This time period, alone, is no guarantee that the programs will change instructional practice or student outcomes. Job-embedded PL also doesn’t necessarily perform better than other formats; in fact, a more recent meta-analysis found that PLs with summer workshops performed better than those without this feature.

Myth 4: Improving teachers’ content knowledge is key to improving their teaching practices. The myth of “content knowledge” stems from a cascade of correlational evidence, particularly in mathematics, showing that teachers who lack essential content knowledge tend to have relatively poor teaching practice. However, researchers recently evaluated several time-intensive programs that led to modest improvements in teachers’ content knowledge, but did not result in significant improvements in teaching quality or student achievement. students.

Myth 5: Research-based professional learning programs are unlikely to work on a large scale or in new contexts. It is true that many programs that are successful in their initial stages of development fail when scaled up to serve more schools and teachers; however, not all programs fail as they grow. Recent, rigorous evaluations of several large-scale PA programs have found positive average effects across a wide range of schools.

Myth 6: Loyalty is the key. Implement programs without any fidelity to the model will produce unknown effects, and so we often hear that “fidelity” is paramount. Yet the need to adapt to local contexts is acute. In fact, two recent LP-focused studies centered on a new curriculum suggest that “coping with guardrails” may actually help to reinforce impacts on student outcomes beyond what is possible through adaptation. only loyalty to the program.

These six myths run deep and have an outsized influence on how states and districts invest in their teachers. Nor are they nuanced enough to lead to intelligent policy decisions.

We have published more information about these myths in a brief“Dispelling the Myths: What the Research Says About Teacher Professional Learning”, with the Research Partnership for Professional Learning (RPPL), a new coalition of professional learning organizations, researchers and funders. The RPPL approach does not just examine a professional development program to determine whether it “works” or not. Instead, RPPL looks at the services offered by major PD providers and looks at what features make PD effective. By identifying specific design principles that positively impact teacher performance and student success, RPPL hopes to develop resources and insights that are both actionable and persuasive to decision-makers.

We are collaborating on this work with RPPL because we believe that the preponderance of teacher development research has either looked at the wrong things or is too narrowly focused on “shop” programs that tell us little about teacher development. professional learning that most teachers receive. of their schools and districts.

These results are an opportunity to transform the research and practice of professional learning in the United States. After all, how can we be serious about student learning if we aren’t also serious about teacher learning?

John P. Papay is Associate Professor of Education and Economics at Brown University’s Annenberg Institute. Heather C. Hill is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Annenberg Institute at Brown University. Nathaniel Schwartz is Professor of Practice at Brown University’s Annenberg Institute and a member of the Policy Lab.

Norma A. Roth