6 Myths About Teacher Professional Development

Teacher professional development absorbs billions of dollars each year and lots of teacher time, yet there’s hardly any evidence that teacher training actually improves teaching. A massive 2014 meta-analysis by the federal Institute of Education Sciences, for instance, evaluated 643 studies of PD in K-12 math instruction and found just two that met the evidentiary bar set by the What Works Clearinghouse and had positive results. Linda Darling-Hammond, a former president of the American Education Research Association, has frankly noted that the “training [educators] receive is episodic, myopic, and often meaningless.” Well, Brown University’s John Papay and Nathaniel Schwartz and Harvard’s Heather Hill — all scholars at the Annenberg Institute — think folks like me are unduly pessimistic on this score. They’ve dug into PD to see what’s working and what we can do better (see their brief here). I thought it worth sharing their take.

— Rick

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

We recently spent several months digging into the newest research on professional development. We looked at a half-dozen research reviews and a series of newer, rigorously conducted studies of teacher professional learning programs. We also revisited the studies on which much of our current conventional wisdom is based. The upshot of our findings: A lot of what we think we “know” about teacher professional learning isn’t fully supported by the latest research. In all, we found six “myths” associated with teacher professional learning.

Myth 1: Professional development is a waste of time and money. While it is true that many programs are expensive and do not improve teaching or learning, there is evidence that professional learning can lead to shifts in teachers’ skills and instructional practice and significantly improve student achievement. In fact, decades of research — including robust evidence from gold-standard randomized experiments — show that effective professional learning programs can help teachers substantially improve students’ academic and nonacademic performance.

Myth 2: Professional development is more effective for early-career teachers and less effective for veteran teachers. We recognize that teachers do improve more rapidly early in their careers due to substantial on-the-job learning. Recent evidence suggests that earlier research showing teachers stopped improving after their first years in the classroom relied on overly strong methodological assumptions. Studies that relax these assumptions find substantial growth in teacher skills even after year five. Furthermore, several recent studies of professional learning opportunities have documented positive impacts on teacher development at all levels of experience.

Myth 3: Professional learning for teachers must be embedded in their jobs and be time-intensive in order to be effective. Longer professional learning provides more opportunities for teachers to dig deeply into content; however, the meta-analyses that begat this myth took place during the 2000s, when only a handful of rigorous evaluations of PL had been conducted. Newer meta-analyses encompassing dozens of more recent studies tell a somewhat different story: That time, on its own, does not guarantee programs will move the needle on instructional practice or student outcomes. Nor does job-embedded PL necessarily work better than other formats; in fact, one newer meta-analysis found PL with summer workshops outperformed those without this feature.

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

Myth 5: Research-based professional learning programs are unlikely to work at scale or in new contexts. It’s true that many programs that see success in their initial development phases fail when expanded to serve more schools and teachers; however, not all programs fail as they expand. Recent, rigorous evaluations of several large-scale PL programs have found positive average effects over a wide range of schools.

Myth 6: Fidelity is key. Implementing programs without any fidelity to the model will yield 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 studies focused on PL centered on new curriculum suggest that “adaptation with guardrails” can actually help strengthen impacts on student outcomes beyond what is possible through program fidelity alone.

These six myths are deeply rooted and have an outsized influence on how states and districts invest in their teachers. They are also not nearly nuanced enough to give rise to smart policy decisions.

We’ve published more 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. RPPL’s approach does not just examine one PD program to determine if it “works” or not. Rather, RPPL looks at the services offered by big PD providers and it seeks to determine what features make PD effective. By identifying the specific design principles that make positive impacts on teacher performance and student achievement, RPPL hopes to develop resources and knowledge that are both actionable and persuasive with policymakers.

We’re collaborating on this work with RPPL because we believe the preponderance of research on teacher development has either examined the wrong things or is too narrowly focused on “boutique” programs that don’t tell us much about the professional learning that most teachers get from their schools and districts.

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

John P. Papay is an associate professor of education and economics at the Annenberg Institute at Brown University. Heather C. Hill is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Annenberg Institute at Brown University. Nathaniel Schwartz is a professor of practice at the Annenberg Institute at Brown University and a fellow at The Policy Lab.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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Frederick M. Hess

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.