What Does High-Quality Research Say about Developing Teacher Practice?

Blog Post
March 16, 2017

In the age of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—and its focus on evidence-based strategies— states and school districts have the opportunity to re-evaluate their current efforts to provide a high-quality education that ensures that all students have access to excellent educators. Most states and districts have implemented teacher evaluation and support systems, but they are now in place to reassess how to move forward and utilize ESSA funds available for improving the quality of teachers and leaders in their schools.

Below is an excerpt from our recent paper, No Panacea: Diagnosing What Ails Teacher Professional Development Before Reaching for Remedies, that outlines promising practices for growing teachers’ knowledge and skills in service of their students.

Many studies of professional development [or “PD,”] have been conducted, and yet there is still a lack of rigorously- designed research in this area. Still, a few high-quality studies* identified by the Institute of Education Sciences’ What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) provide guidance around aspects of PD programs that can lead to improved teacher and student learning outcomes, and adult learning theory** offers perspectives on why:
  • PD needs to be explicitly relevant to teachers’ professional lives and responsibilities. Research suggests that the most effective PD content is focused on specific strategies and relevant to teachers’ daily professional lives, including grade and content areas, and problems of practice. Adult learning theory posits that making PD content relevant to teachers’ daily practice is effective because it helps motivate professional learning, and also encourages relevance of PD opportunities based on work context and prior experiences. To maximize teachers’ learning, research finds that the PD content should also align with the other standards, assessments, and goals that teachers engage with in their professional lives.
  • Teachers need substantive time to learn new knowledge and skills. Teachers must spend a fair amount of time in a given PD program before they can see effects on their classroom practice and on student learning; this ranged anywhere from 14 to 80 hours for the specific programs in the studies identified by WWC. Spacing these hours out over weeks or months, as opposed to learning in a compressed time period, can help teachers retain what they learned.
  • Active learning shows promise. Aside from time and content, the approach or delivery of PD influences its effectiveness as well. For example, personalized coaching and active learning—including opportunities to practice and receive feedback on newly-learned techniques—have been shown to improve teacher and student outcomes. Adult learning theory also suggests that taking a problem-solving approach during PD, such as creating and discussing new lessons plans to address current students’ gaps in learning, is a helpful learning technique.
  • Focused and well-organized collaboration between teachers can be beneficial. Collaboration between teachers—when it is done in focused, well-organized, expert-led teacher teams—can improve student learning and trust between teachers. However, more rigorous sustained, well-implemented research is still needed on which types of collaboration most successfully improve teacher practice and student outcomes.
To be clear, research-based PD alone is not a miracle drug for changing student outcomes. A recent report by Learning First found evidence that several other nations and provinces—British Columbia, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore—have had success with teacher development strategies that employ some combination of these elements. However, in none of these systems was using research-based PD the only element playing a role in improving student outcomes; these systems tended to undertake other strategic professional learning reforms around the same time.

As such, none of the evidence-based factors will be sufficient for successful professional learning on their own, but rather provide insight into the foundational elements necessary for success. And while reliable research has tended to investigate the impact of specific, contained PD programs, efforts embedded into the everyday work of schools and teachers that reflects these key aspects of effective PD (such as sustained, well- implemented professional learning communities) hold promise in fostering teacher learning as well.

*The Institute of Education Sciences’ What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) standards for rigorous research include valid experimental or quasi-experimental research design, measurement of student outcomes, and generalizable results.
**While elements of adult learning theory can help provide a rationale for why certain elements of PD are found to be most effective, little rigorous research has been specifically attempted to investigate the theory as a whole.