A proven approach to professional development for teachers


SUMMARY: Much has been reported about a recent study of 10,000 teachers that concluded professional development for teachers is largely unsuccessful. The study, by the nonprofit organization TNTP, states it found no evidence that any particular approach to, or amount of, professional development consistently helps teachers improve in the classroom.

By David Slykhuis
Interim Head, Department of Educational Foundations and Exceptionalities
Associate Professor of Science Education
James Madison University College of Education

Much has been reported about a recent study of 10,000 teachers that concluded professional development for teachers is largely unsuccessful. The study, by the nonprofit organization TNTP, states it found no evidence that any particular approach to, or amount of, professional development consistently helps teachers improve in the classroom.

It is disappointing to see language with such negative connotations used in conjunction with teachers. Teaching is a profession deserving of more respect than it currently garners. The money spent in all three school districts examined in this two-year study DID improve teacher performance. In fact 19-30 percent of the teachers met their most rigorous definition of improvement and these teachers were in 95 percent of the schools in the sample. They simply did not improve as much as the researchers had hoped, and the researchers were not able to point to a single reason for improvement. This speaks to the complex job of teaching and how it is very difficult to study in a controlled manner. Every day, every class, and every student, presents a new set of challenges that must be met by schools and teachers. These challenges aren’t systematic, and often can’t be anticipated, forcing schools and teachers to make difficult decisions.

The primary measure of professional development in this study was simply the hours spent in professional development activities. The researchers concluded there was little impact of the professional development due to the fact the number of hours of professional development for teachers who showed gains in performance and for those who showed no gain were similar. This is a poor measure of the effectiveness of the professional development for two reasons; first, all teachers, regardless of their performance, are required by school divisions to attend professional development. Therefore, if all teachers are attending the same professional development, teachers with gains or losses in performance are all going to have similar numbers of hours of professional development, making differentiation based on this metric nearly impossible. 

Second, there was no measure if the professional development offered to the teachers was research based for effectiveness. The body of research suggests professional development should be sustained, collaborative and connected to practice. The professional development in the research study took on the ‘spray and pray’ approach, appearing to offer a wide variety of professional development on ever changing topics. Instead, it should have been focused on one aspect of teacher practice with teachers participating in a sustained topic over an extended period of time while collaborating and working in small groups.

The results of this study were not surprising given the expectations placed on teachers and schools. Schools, and in turn teachers, are facing increasing pressure to produce higher test scores. School districts often turn to the latest trend promising to raise scores and quickly push out professional development on these topics. Many of the newer trends, such as a return to problem based learning, flipping the classroom, or increased technology, likely can have positive impacts on students test scores. They can’t, however, show an impact after an afternoon of training and a mandate from administration. In fact, in such an approach, teachers may often feel confused and frustrated as to the expectations placed on them in the classroom, leading to observations and evaluations of their teaching practice to not show growth.

Professional development for teachers during the school year is an admirable idea, but difficult for teachers to absorb and put into practice. The expectation on today’s teacher is to meet each and every student in their classroom at their level and to help them grow as a learner. Students have different socio-economic backgrounds, different nationalities and cultures, and different languages spoken in their homes. Teachers must prepare multiple versions of every lesson for every class, grading multiple versions of every assignment for every student, and suddenly teachers have an armful of grading and planning to be completed each night. Given this reality, when teachers attend professional development during the school year, they tend to be more focused on what they need for tomorrow than trying to learn and implement a new teaching strategy.

There are examples of proven quality teacher professional development. One such example is the Content Teaching Academy at James Madison University. Teachers attend this research based professional development for one week over the summer. The week is intensive and is sustained throughout the school year online, and the teachers are placed in small academies for collaboration around a common topic. The evaluations by teachers who have attended the Content Teaching Academy are overwhelmingly positive and teachers often pay their own way to attend year after year. School districts know they are getting a high quality professional development and readily send multiple teachers. The Content Teaching Academy has been offering professional development to teachers since the year 2000 and over 7,000 teachers have attended, impacting over 3,000,000 students.

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About this series:

Taking on Tomorrow was created to showcase the expertise, scholarship and research of faculty in all disciplines at Madison. A number of factors determine who will be in the spotlight at any given time and what aspect of their work will be highlighted. In this installment, we feature Dr. David Slykhuis, interim head of the department of educational foundations and exceptionalities in the College of Education.

To nominate a faculty member to be featured in "Taking on Tomorrow," please e-mail Eric Gorton at Please provide a brief explanation of why you are nominating this faculty member. Self nominations are encouraged.

head shot of Dr. David Slykhuis from interview

Related Content:

Washington Post — Study: Billions of dollars in annual teacher training is largely a waste

Richmond Times — Soifer: Rethinking how to help teachers improve

Published: Friday, October 2, 2015

Last Updated: Thursday, October 20, 2016

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