«Designing Professional Development That Works Evidence supporting the effectiveness of professional development is often anecdotal. A research-based study ...»
Why do so few professional development activities have these desirable features? First, providing activities with multiple high-quality features is challenging and requires a substantial amount of lead time and planning, which schools and districts may not always have. Second, these features are expensive. We estimate that it costs an average of $512 to give a teacher a high-quality professional development experience, which is more than twice the amount that districts typically spend.
Our national probability sample results, backed by case studies of selected sites, support and extend previous work in identifying six key features of effective professional development.
Specifically, our research indicates that professional development should focus on deepening teachers' content knowledge and knowledge of how students learn particular content, on providing opportunities for active learning, and on encouraging coherence in teachers' professional development experiences. Schools and districts should pursue these goals by using activities that have greater duration and that involve collective participation. Although reform forms of professional development are more effective than traditional forms, the advantages reform activities are explained primarily by the greater duration of the activities. Our research also identifies the high-quality characteristics that are more prevalent (coherence) and those that are less common (active learning).
Given the central role of teachers in making standards-based reform successful, it is essential that staff development provide the content and opportunities necessary to foster teacher learning and changes in practice. A major challenge is cost. Schools and districts understandably feel a responsibility to reach large numbers of teachers. But a focus on breadth in terms of the number of teachers reached comes at the expense of depth in terms of the quality of the experience. The questions, then, are, Should districts continue to spread professional development across as many teachers as possible? Or should they focus on a smaller number of teachers so that they provide higher-quality, more influential professional development?
This is a tough choice for most schools and districts, where serving a smaller number of teachers is not a politically popular decision. But our results suggest a clear direction: To provide useful and effective professional development that has a meaningful effect on teacher learning and fosters improvements in classroom practice, schools and districts should focus funds on high-quality professional development experiences, either by serving fewer teachers or by investing more resources.
Endnote The city names are pseudonyms.
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Authors' note: Elizabeth Eisner helped conceptualize the study and refine the analyses and evaluation reports.
This research was conducted pursuant to Contract Number EA97001001, U.S. Department of Education. The views expressed are those of the authors. No official endorsement by the U.S. Department of Education is intended or should be inferred.
To order copies of the complete report, Designing Effective Professional Development: Lessons from the Eisenhower Program, e-mail your request to Edpubs@inet.ed.gov or call (800) USA-LEARN.
Beatrice F. Birman is Managing Research Scientist and Laura Desimone is Research Scientist at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). Andrew C. Porter is Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. Michael S. Garet is Chief Research Scientist at AIR. The authors can be reached in care of Beatrice F. Birman, American Institutes for Research, 1000 Thomas Jefferson St., NW, Washington, DC 20007 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
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