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Maximizing Teacher Professional Development

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To impact student learning, teachers need quality support and professional learning.

Teacher development costs schools many dollars and lots of time each year. While there are many programs available for improving teaching, research supporting best practices is not as abundant. When school leaders take time to evaluate commonly held beliefs about teacher professional learning in relation to research-based practices, they can develop quality training programs that improve teacher performance and create a positive impact on student learning.

Myths About Teacher Professional Development

In a February 2022 brief from the Research Partnership for Professional Learning (RPPL) titled Dispelling the Myths: What the Research Says About Teacher Professional Learning, Brown University professors examined the myths surrounding teacher professional learning. The brief evaluates common claims about teacher professional learning against the research evidence. The examination found that most deeply rooted beliefs about effective teacher learning was not supported by research-based evidence.

In the brief, the professors summarized their research into six myths and responded to each one citing evidence of research-based practice.

Myth 1: Professional learning is a waste of time and money.

Evidence shows professional learning can lead to shifts in teacher practice and significantly impact student learning. However, the type of learning is what is most important. One of the most effective strategies to support teacher learning and performance is instructional coaching. The professors found that “the difference in effectiveness between teachers with instructional coaching and those without was equivalent to the difference between novice teachers and teachers with five to ten years of experience.” Ultimately, professional learning for teachers is important, and evidence supports strategies that provide robust impact on practice.

Myth 2: Professional learning is more effective for early career teachers compared to veteran teachers.

Evidence shows professional learning benefits all teachers regardless of experience level. Early career teachers rapidly grow because much of their learning is connected to on-the-job training and learning opportunities. The key to gaining maximal impact for veteran teachers is to differentiate learning options and provide them time for collaborative partnerships based on areas of relative strength and weakness.

Myth 3: Professional learning programs must be job-embedded to be effective.

Professional learning can be effective in a variety of settings for different lengths of time. How the time is used is more impactful, and it is best to provide varied activities for teachers throughout the year. Both job-embedded and other formats (e.g., summer workshops, etc.) are similarly effective. The goal is to find strategies that meet the learning needs of the individual teacher at the right time of the year.

Myth 4: Improving teachers’ content knowledge improves instructional practice.

The belief that weak instructional practice is a direct correlation to lack of key content knowledge is an example of when correlation does not equal causation. Research shows that the most effective teacher learning programs are those that create concrete changes in instructional strategy and practice. While content knowledge is important, research shows that shifting teachers’ instructional practice has the greatest impact on student outcomes.

Myth 5: Research-based professional learning is unlikely to work in new contexts.

Concerns arise that specific research-proven programs are context-specific and will not meet the unique needs of the school or group of teachers. While there are times when programs do not successfully expand beyond the initial training site, research shows that implementation flaws often occur because of lack of leadership support or the failure to make time and space for teachers to implement their learning in the classroom. The take-away is that even the strongest research-based program will have a varied effect if the investment is weak and not aligned with the instructional goals of the school.

Myth 6: Schools should implement research-based programs with high fidelity and no modifications.

There is a common belief that schools must implement professional learning programs as the designer intended. While implementation is key, research supports the notion of “adaptation with guardrails.” The thought is that implementation should start with high fidelity, but once teachers gain a familiarity and comfort with the program, careful and intentional adaptations can occur. If outcomes are positive, program tweaks can occur within the confinements of the core elements of the program. Research shows that allowing teachers some autonomy to change the program intentionally can improve overall outcomes.

The six myths presented by the authors of the brief provide a basis for school leaders to explore teacher professional learning opportunities in a deeper way. The goal should be to dispel commonly held beliefs when they are not working and leverage those strategies that improve teacher performance and impact student achievement in the best ways possible.

Moving Forward

As the workload and demand on time continues to increase for teachers, school leaders need to evaluate the quality and impact of professional learning. Opportunities should add value to current practices, as well as correlate to the improvement of student learning. With a research-based mindset and a focus on pedagogical improvement, teacher learning can shift from what has conventionally been done to research-based methods that provide maximal impact on professional practice and student learning.

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Jennifer Barton
Jennifer Barton
Senior HR and Compensation Consultant

Jennifer Barton joined HR Services in 2018. She assists with compensation planning and development, staffing reviews, training, and other HR projects. Prior to joining TASB, Barton served for 19 years in Texas public schools as a principal, assistant principal, teacher, and coach.

Barton earned master’s degrees in education and educational leadership from The University of Texas at Austin and Lamar University. She holds a Texas superintendent certificate and is a SHRM-CP.

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