5 Steps to Effective and Transformative Professional Development

Alvin Crawford

At last year’s Learning Forward Conference in Texas, Linda Darling-Hammond (the respected Professor of Education at Stanford University and Director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future) was asked about the effectiveness of teacher professional development. She said that while she believes some districts are doing a great job and could just tweak it around the edges, about 90% of school districts need to think about starting over and redesigning their PD.

Ninety percent.

Or consider the 2009 national research report, which reported that, when asked about their experience in professional development, “most of those teachers…reported that it was totally useless.”

Because the first step to fixing anything is admitting something needs fixing, it’s time to admit PD needs fixing – and fast.

While the adaption of new initiatives such as College and Career-Readiness Standards (CCRS) and Education Equity offer great promise, these standards are new to everyone – putting even more strain on PD.

But what is truly transformative PD that will effectively train superintendents, principals and teachers? We have an idea already.

Here’s a five-point strategy that my company, Knowledge Delivery Systems (KDS), has designed to help build great PD.

1) Follow the research. We know a great deal about what actually works in PD. To be transformative, strategic professional development needs to be intense, continuous and sustained to have a lasting impact. The Center for Public Education’s Teaching the Teachers reports that effective PD takes 50 hours or more on a given topic.

Reaching that benchmark is important. Last year, 750 teachers in Philadelphia took 50 hours of the KDS PD program on Response to Intervention (RTI) and increased their competency by 44%.

2) Go online. Taking PD at least partially online isn’t something nice – the math tells us it’s essential. There simply aren’t enough PD hours available to teach all of America’s teachers the new skills and standards they will be expected to master.

The type of scaling that online PD offers – reaching thousands instead of dozens at a time – is the only way.

3) But not online exclusively. Some people will want to use the efficiency of online PD to move the old PowerPoints and lectures online and call it a day. That sort of “check the box” PD that we’ve been clinging to for decades, won’t work.

Face-to-face common planning time and online support communities are both essential – a true blended approach. To learn a skill it’s also been proven that coaching, modeling, observation, feedback and time for teachers to reflect on what they’ve learned, is essential.

4) Allow self-pacing and collaboration. We know not every student learns the same way or at the same pace yet we expect teachers to.

Good PD courses should be paced by the teacher, allowing them time to absorb and practice what they’ve learned at their own speed. In addition, ongoing interaction and peer engagement are needed to refine skills and model successes consistently over time.

5) Start Right Now. No one believes an overhaul or update of PD practices will be easy or fast – implementing new standards won’t be either.

But because we know PD needs an update and we know what to do, there’s no reason to wait.

New standards chart a bold and compelling vision for the nation’s students. But standards won’t prepare students for success beyond graduation if we use traditional methods of PD to implement them. It hasn’t worked for over twenty years, why will it work now?

Our future depends on getting PD right – preparing and supporting education leaders and teachers with the best research and tools we have today instead of tweaking around the edges.


This post is part of our “Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning” series. If you have thoughts about what today’s school leaders should know and be able to do and how they should be prepared, we’d love to hear from you. Contact [email protected] with the subject “Preparing Leaders” for more information.

To learn more about Deeper Learning environments for students, teachers and leaders check out:

Alvin Crawford is the CEO of Knowledge Delivery Systems (KDS), a leading provider of strategic and blended professional learning solutions for K-12 school districts and educators. Follow Alvin on Twitter with @alvincrawford.


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Jarod Bormann

I couldn't agree more with this article. I've been on the receiving end of PD that has felt like "another thing on my plate." Now, in my new position, I get to work with schools directly on issues like this. I've worked with one school district that has scrapped traditional PD and replaced with a specific kind of Personalized PD that focuses on three steps to instructional change. http://tinyurl.com/oelweinpd


Hi Alvin,

I really enjoyed your article on teacher professional development, it’s exciting to see how this is changing the way we teach and am so glad that it is being acknowledged and rewarded in schools across the US.

My company has just developed some new professional development courses, and I would love to have you check them out. You can view them here: http://www.teacherstep.com/

We have developed courses by Teachers for Teachers; and they are fantastic as they contain real course material, from algebra and calculus to how to apply the new Common Core State Standards in the classroom. The classes also award either 3 graduate credits per course or renewal credits, depending on which the teacher is looking for, and come in two course levels (mastering and fundamentals).
Hope to hear back from you soon, my email address is below.

And thank you so much – your articles are inspiring!
Warmest Regards,
-The TeacherStep Team
[email protected]

Eva Robinson

I do agree that the usefulness of the professional development course should be examined after a certain time interval. PD plays a crucial role in the professional life of an educator and hence a teaching professional should enroll in such a professional development course in order to enhance his teaching capability. A lot of factors should be taken into consideration prior to choosing a personal development course for the teachers.

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