July 22, 2003 | Volume 1 | Number 15
What Professional Development Structures Best Affect Classroom Instruction?
What Professional Development Structures Best Affect Classroom Instruction?
What professional development structures are most likely to affect classroom instruction?
Professional development has long been a staple of the education profession. In most states, teachers are required to undergo a specified number of hours of training for recertification. In addition, salary schedules frequently award increased compensation as teachers take additional college coursework leading to a master’s degree or a doctorate. Over the last decade, a large body of research has accumulated that examines the effectiveness of professional development experiences. Work done for the National Partnership for Excellence and Accountability in Teaching (NPEAT) identified nine general principles from these studies. Effective professional development
- focuses on what students are to learn and on how to address the different problems students may have in learning the material.
- is based on analyses of the differences between actual student performance and goals and standards for student learning.
- involves teachers in the identification of what they need to learn and in the development of the learning experiences in which they will be involved.
- is primarily school-based and built into the work of teachers.
- is organized around collaborative problem solving.
- is continuous and ongoing, involving follow-up and support for further learning.
- incorporates the evaluation of multiple sources of information on student learning and the processes involved in implementing the professional development lessons.
- provides opportunities to gain an understanding of the theory underlying the knowledge and skills being learned.
- is connected to a comprehensive change process focused on improving student learning.
While these principles appear in whole or in part in a variety of professional development programs and studies, little research has been completed to quantify the extent to which professional development actually influences classroom instruction. It is this gap that the research highlighted here hopes to inform.
This study looked longitudinally1
at the results from a national cross-sectional study of professional development activities focused on mathematics and science instruction and funded under Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The authors looked at six variables consisting of three structural variables:
- reform type (was the professional development experience a traditional workshop, course, or conference, or was it a new form, such as a study group, teacher network, mentoring activity, etc.);
- duration; and
- collective participation (was the activity focused on groups of teachers from the same schools, grade levels, or courses, or was the experience “one-size-fits-all”);
and three “core” variables:
- active learning (active engagement in analysis of effective teaching and learning);
- coherence (experiences that align teachers’ goals, state standards and assessments, and continuing communication among teachers); and,
- content focus (the extent to which the activities focused on deepening teachers’ content knowledge in science and math).
Because of the study’s longitudinal design (covering the years 1996–99), its authors were able to examine the extent to which the introduction of new professional development activities actually changed reported practice.
The study focused on 207 math and science teachers in 30 schools across 10 districts. One school from each level (elementary, middle, and high) was selected in each district. These schools were selected to ensure that a wide range of professional development opportunities was represented; 57 percent of the schools were high poverty. The 207 teachers were drawn from the total body of teachers returning surveys (n=452, with a 75% return rate) but were limited to those instructors who taught the same classes all three years, returned surveys each year, and participated in professional development activities in the 1997–98 school year. Using the teacher-administered surveys, the researchers attempted to identify specific teaching practices used in years one and three and related professional development activities in year two and then examine the impact of the year two activities on year three instruction. The authors focused on three areas of instruction: use of technology, instructional methods, and assessment practices.
Across all three areas of instruction, the researchers found that the occurrence of teacher professional development experiences accurately predicted the increased use of the professional development activities in the classroom. Though the degree to which the activities influenced instruction varied, in all cases it was significant. The authors next looked at the six quality indicators described above. Most showed a positive impact on effectiveness, but only a few characteristics had significant effects:
- Collective participation and active learning significantly increased the effect of professional development focused on technology.
- Reform type and active learning increased the impact on instruction.
- Reform type and coherence increased the influence on assessment reform.
According to the authors, many of these findings are consistent with previous research. In applying new technology, teachers often use each other as resources; thus, increased learning in a collective group is not surprising. Similarly, it is expected that teachers will perform better when the experience setup allows them to apply the professional development content, rather than simply absorb information. Because nontraditional training is often more sustained, a greater impact on instruction is predictable. The same is true of the significant effect on assessment. When teachers are offered training that is coherent and focused on alignment of practice and state standards, improved assessment experiences are the result.
Math and science teachers undergoing professional development experiences are most affected by this study.
Because the data gathered for analysis was generated through surveys, actual practice could vary significantly from the self-reported practices. The study also did not directly examine student learning, assuming that improvement in teaching practice will result in improved student learning. The sample examined was constructed systematically (as opposed to randomly), so findings may not be representative of the larger body of teachers. Additionally, though professional development activities were measured in year two, the authors did not control for experiences that might have affected practice in years one and three. Finally, in some cases the authors were reporting significance at the .10 level, which is a relatively weak test for significance (typically, researchers use more restrictive levels of .05 or .01).
The Bottom Line
Professional development is more effective in changing teachers’ practice when it is organized around the collective participation of teachers (from the same school, department, or grade levels), focused on active learning activities (teachers are allowed to apply what they are learning), and coherent (aligned with teachers’ professional knowledge or community, as well as with state or district standards and assessments).
Desimone, L. M., Porter, A. C., Garet, M. S., Yoon, K. S., & Birman, B. F. (2002). Effects of professional development on teachers’ instruction: Results from a three-year longitudinal study. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 24(2), 81–112. Abstract retrieved July 3, 2003, from http://www.aera.net/pubs/eepa/abs/eepa24/eepa2421.htm.
Cook, C. J. & Fine, C. (1997). Critical issue: Finding time for professional development. North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. Retrieved July 3, 2003, from http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/educatrs/profdevl/pd300.htm.
National Partnership on Excellence and Accountability in Teaching. (1999). Characteristics of effective professional development. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved July 3, 2003.
Pritchard, F. & Ancess, J. (1999). The effects of professional development schools. Washington, DC: National Partnership on Excellence and Accountability in Teaching. Retrieved July 3, 2003.
Warren Little, J. (1999). Teachers’ professional development in the context of high school reform: Findings from a three-year study of restructuring schools. Washington, DC: National Partnership on Excellence and Accountability in Teaching. Retrieved July 3, 2003.
ASCD-supported professional development resources and tools are available at http://www.ascd.org/portal/site/ascd/menuitem.51d81290deb240a98d7ea23161a001ca/.
Longitudinal research includes the repeated observation or examination of a set of subjects over time with respect to one or more variables.
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Dan Laitsch serves as ASCD's consultant editor for ResearchBrief. Laitsch is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, and is coeditor of the International Journal for Education Policy and Leadership.