Teacher PD Gets a Bad Rap. But Two Approaches Do Work

By Heather C. Hill

In our last “What Works” essay, we cast serious doubt on the value of teachers analyzing student test data. Studies find the practice on average doesn’t produce student learning gains. We also noted that the practice is widespread, often forming a cornerstone of teachers’ professional learning time.

This raises a question: If this study of student data doesn’t improve schools, what should teachers do with their professional learning time?

It’s fair to say that many researchers have come to believe that professional development programs of any type are largely ineffective for increasing teachers’ skills. Driving this view are a handful of large, high-profile studies funded by the federal government over the past decade, which have returned near-zero impacts of PD on student learning.

Fortunately, scholars have studied many other teacher professional learning in the past two decades, and recent evidence points to two forms as particularly promising.

Promising practice #1: Teachers study curriculum materials

The first practice helps teachers take a deep dive into new curriculum materials. In a recent review of 95 STEM instructional-improvement programs, several colleagues and I found that when teacher PD focused on the curriculum materials teachers would use in their classrooms, student performance rose about 10 percentile points. In comparison, programs featuring either a teaching focus alone or a new curriculum focus alone resulted in just a 6 percentile point gain.

In PD workshops with a curriculum focus, teachers often use the materials, with colleagues, as if they were students—meaning they solve problems, conduct investigations, and think about mistakes students typically make with the material. In that way, teachers learn exact content coupled with exact instructional methods. For instance, where content-focused professional development might teach several different ways to model the problem 32 minus 21, teachers in a curriculum-focused program learn the specific model used in their materials. Curriculum-focused PD also gives teachers something to “bring back” to the classroom rather than having to adapt materials later or scour the internet for suitable lessons. Some evidence shows that instructional quality is stronger when teachers use a standard curriculum of any type, rather than cobbling together materials from various sources.

Research into pre-K programs finds a similar story. Curriculum plus teacher professional development and regular classroom coaching provide, in the words of early-childhood scholars, the “strongest hope” for improving classroom quality at those grade levels. Exploratory analyses of such programs suggest the value of giving teachers scripts for their lessons, flexibility in using the scripts, and time for collaborative planning.

A change in the use of teacher learning time from analyzing student data to studying curriculum materials would likely be uphill work, granted. A nationally representative 2006 survey found fewer than a third of teachers engaged in extended study of curriculum materials in the previous year, and I suspect that picture is little changed. Many teachers today report that after receiving new materials, they attend only brief workshops that cover the basic structure of the materials, how to adapt lessons for English-language learners, how to access online components, and so forth. For many schools, intertwining instructional methods and curriculum will be new territory.

Promising practice #2: Structured coaching

The majority of U.S. schools, federal statistics suggest, have access to an instructional coach, typically for English/language arts, math, or science. But do the coaches help improve student outcomes? A recent research review by Matthew A. Kraft of Brown University and David Blazar of the University of Maryland suggests that when coaches engage in individualized, intensive, and sustained work with teachers—basically one-on-one coaching or something similar—the coaches can have strong effects on classroom practice and student outcomes. The intensive coaching programs boosted teachers’ classroom practice by 20 percentile points, as measured by classroom observation instruments, and increased participating students’ performance by about 6 or 7 percentile points as compared with students in classrooms where teachers were not coached. Subject-specific coaching programs were more likely to be effective than subject-general programs, and programs that paired coaching with new curriculum materials improved instruction above and beyond the average effect.

The kind of coaching these authors highlight—individualized, intensive, and sustained—may be atypical in U.S. classrooms. Anecdotally, district-employed coaches often serve many roles in schools: curriculum designers, assessment administrators, facilitators of the study of student data, and even short- and long-term substitutes. As a result, coaches may work one-on-one with only a small number of teachers over a limited number of observation and feedback cycles. Thus while the majority of schools appear to employ coaches, they may not be maximizing coaches’ potential.

Several larger lessons grow from looking across these two promising approaches.

First, focusing directly on instruction—through delving into curriculum materials or through coach feedback and teacher reflection—can be a powerful lever for changing that instruction. Second, many successful programs feature informal accountability for change. Coaches regularly appear in teachers’ classroom to check in, keeping instructional improvement on the front burner. Similarly, STEM programs posted stronger student learning gains when teachers convened after the start of implementation to discuss progress and troubleshoot problems. Scheduling that meeting likely helped teachers move forward with their implementation plans.

Third, coaching and curriculum-focused PD may help teachers focus on building their skill in one kind of instruction, rather than having their heads continually turned by different instructional approaches. Often, U.S. teachers must work with a curriculum that suggests one instructional method, a coach who suggests another, and professional development PD that suggests a third. By contrast, both one-on-one coaching and curriculum study help build teacher expertise in one approach.

Finally, even the best professional learning needs a strong school culture to take root. Teacher openness to feedback, a sense of collective responsibility, school leadership support for both instructional improvement and the chosen PD makes a big difference in bringing about student gains. A future essay will consider the role leaders play.

Heather C. Hill is a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and studies teacher quality, teacher professional learning, and instructional improvement. Her broader interests include educational policy and social inequality.