Northwest Regional Comprehensive Center

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What the Research Says About Professional Development

Professional development consists of such a broad and complex array of interrelated but disparate learning opportunities, it is difficult to measure their overall effect on teacher’s knowledge and instructional practice. Research suggests that some types of professional development are effective at changing teacher instructional practices and some types of teacher practices are more effective at increasing student achievement. There is no body of research that causally links effective professional development approaches to increased student achievement.

Professional development programs are judged effective primarily because they change instructional practice in a way that seems to increase student achievement. There are certain common features of professional development that have been associated with changes in teacher knowledge, practice, and by extension, student achievement.

Professional development programs that are deemed effective share the following characteristics:

  • Strong content focus on higher order, subject-matter content and the pedagogy of how students learn that content
  • Active learning opportunities during the school day for teachers to get involved in inquiry-oriented, learning approaches, such as observing and receiving feedback, analyzing student work, or making presentations
  • Collective participation in collaborative, learning opportunities with groups of teachers from the same grade, subject, or school to build interactive learning communities
  • A consistent body of professional development activities that build the coherence of teacher knowledge, school curricula, district policy, and state reforms
  • Sufficient duration and span that spreads professional development activities over the school year or semester and includes at least 20–40 hours of contact time
  • Evaluation design that collects data on at least one measure of each program objective, including quality of implementation of development activities, gains in teacher knowledge, changes in classroom practices, and increases in student achievement

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