New Report Advises Closer Look at What Ails Teacher PD Before Reaching for Remedies

Blog Post
June 2, 2016

With the enactment of the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and forthcoming regulations, states and school districts are poised to re-evaluate their current efforts to provide a high-quality education to all of their students. But while many recognize the outsized influence that teachers have in helping students succeed, they continue to struggle with how to ensure that all students have access to excellent educators. Most states and districts had begun efforts to put new teacher evaluation and support systems in place to improve the quality of teaching before ESSA removed any federal conditions around these systems. Now, some are reassessing how to move forward with these efforts and how to utilize ESSA funds available for growing teachers’ and school leaders’ abilities.

Historically, states and districts have largely invested in teacher professional development or “PD”—ranging from one-time workshops to collaborative peer learning communities—as the primary strategy to help teachers improve their practice. Despite its potential, in its present state, PD has gained a poor reputation among educators and those who study education, in part because of little evidence that the significant investment of time and financial resources in PD has been consistently impactful.

What is keeping teacher PD from having its promised impact? If PD is ailing, should states and districts be looking at other strategies for raising the quality of teaching for students? In a new report, No Panacea: Diagnosing What Ails Teacher Professional Development Before Reaching for Remedies, New America explains what is preventing PD from reaching its potential for growing teachers’ knowledge and skills in service of their students—information states and districts should know before reaching for remedies to current teacher improvement issues.

In the report, we identify how key obstacles, often reinforced by professional culture challenges, prevent the four elements of a productive PD cycle from occurring: 1) identifying teachers’ development needs; 2) selecting aligned, evidence-based PD approaches; 3) implementing approaches with fidelity; and 4) assessing outcomes. We also highlight how federal, state, district, and school-level actors each play a role in contributing to some of these obstacles and professional culture barriers, as do educator preparation programs.

While No Panacea does not prescribe detailed “remedies,” the report summarizes high-quality research evidence for the types of PD which have been shown to have a substantive impact on teacher and student learning when well- implemented. It also outlines three strategies identified as critical to high-performing international education systems in prior research, which we plan to explore further in future work. First, given the crucial role leaders play in successfully implementing effective PD pathways and in developing and sustaining a supportive professional learning culture, we argue that the attention should be here most intensively, to ensure leaders are well equipped to play these roles. Part of this effort will require rethinking principals’ roles and delineating where other instructional leaders can and should play a role within the PD process. Second, we make the case for revisiting evaluation and accountability systems to have a focus not just on student learning and growth, but also on adult learning and improvement.  And finally, we highlight the need to think about how to repurpose time and resources to sufficiently invest in these efforts, and ensure that schools are designed with adult learning in mind, in addition to student learning.

No Panacea makes it clear that no single actor is responsible for all of the obstacles to meaningful teacher professional development or for remedying them. We make the case that it is critical for all stakeholders to reflect on the roles they and others play related to teachers’ development and acknowledge that no magic cure-all or silver bullet exists to overcome current obstacles to improving teacher practice. Rather, it will take a concerted effort among the various players to shift toward more holistic approaches and systemic improvements to PD over time. But such efforts are the most likely way to ensure that all educators—and even more importantly, all of their students—receive the learning opportunities they need and deserve.

To read the full report, click here.