4 Characteristics of Transformative Professional Development

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If any education expert, policy maker or practitioner sat down with a blank sheet of paper and made notes about what needs fixing in our schools, I’d bet that improving professional development would make that list.

We know the dismal numbers. According to a recent study, some school districts spend, on average, $18,000 per teacher per year on professional development. With about 3.5 million teachers on the job in the US, that’s billions of dollars in annual PD spending.

According to a new study (and many before it) that money is mostly wasted. That new study found that about 70% of teachers showed no improvements in teacher learning or effectiveness. Some teachers actually regressed.

To be clear, even though it’s not working, I’m not in favor of taking money out of professional development. I am for using that money – but far less of it – to get professional development right. I want to invest in making PD systems that actually help teachers get better, much better. I want to help build professional development efforts that transform teachers and improve student outcomes, speed the adoption of new technologies and ensure important principles such as equity really take root in schools.

We can’t abandon PD, nor can we afford to keep the broken system of professional development that exists today. We can’t just tweak our current practice and expect that much will change in terms of outcomes for teachers or for students. We need to overhaul our approach to developing certified teachers to improve outcomes for students. While there is no one-size-fits-all answer, we do know what works and what we need to change in order to achieve better teacher practices and outcomes for students.

We should consider how teachers learn and acknowledge the dual modalities for teacher development: one more formal and focused on acquiring new skills and the second, an ongoing sharing of ideas and best practices in a less formal learning community.

In the traditional model, we offer a variety of professional development workshops and hope teachers take advantage of the offerings. Let’s accept the reality that this model of choice doesn’t accomplish much. It’s not deep enough, it generally doesn’t provide active collegial learning and there is little or no follow up. At a system level, we should provide more focused and scaled professional development that addresses key problems of practice that are important for all teachers.

Let’s explore the more formal way of teacher training and call it Strategic Professional Development with four common characteristics:


As much as there is a desire to individualize professional development, there are key problems of practice in every district.  There are many ways to allow for differentiation and choice within professional development, but to maximize impact and return on investment, we should develop a common language and understanding in non-negotiable areas like college and career ready standards or support for diverse learners.  Here there should be an expectation that all teachers become experts in this practice.

Collegial Learning 

Teaching is engaging. It’s interactive. Learning better teaching should be too.

Many traditional PD workshops are sit and get.  We know that yields no outcomes for teacher knowledge or student achievement outcomes. There’s also a difference between reading about a new teaching practice and seeing it, watching someone do it or practicing it yourself. Good PD programs not only allow peer-to-peer learning and modeling, they include it by design.

Intensive, Sustained and Continuous

Despite the current practice of doing a one day workshop and calling it done, almost all of the research on effective PD describes intensive, sustained and continuous professional development on a particular content or pedagogy for more than 50 hours.  To some this is daunting.  In practice, however, it amounts to less than 30 minutes a day of focus on acquiring new skills and collaborating with coaches and peers around the work followed by job-embedded applications of new skills in the classroom.

Improving PD also means recognizing that teachers – like their students – learn in different ways and at different speeds. The best programs allow for self-pacing in development and allow for questions and reflection and exploration.

Good programs also build on the premise that learning doesn’t stop – especially for teachers. In fact, the research suggests that teachers need to apply a skill more than 20 times in order to gain mastery.   Support, collaboration, community, peer feedback and practice should be ongoing. If teaching and learning don’t stop for students, the support shouldn’t either.

Analyze and Optimize 

The lack of good measurements made it impossible to know what was and was not working in PD.   For many, the benefits of flipping PD and using online professional development to scale the learning include real time metrics on teacher progress and improvement. Better information unearths best practices and builds on efficiencies across many professional development implementations.

Where PD systems built on these four pillars have been used, the results have been, predictably, easy to measure and (modesty aside) spectacular. In one urban school district which deployed a pilot program of our system, teachers showed a 44% boost in competency across the board. Even more, the new development programs we tested cost just $500 per teacher instead of the $18,000.

While it may not be practical to check off every box in an education improvement list, reimagining and reengineering professional development absolutely is. We know how to do it better and for less money. The only remaining question is why we haven’t yet.

This post is a part of a blog series in the upcoming “Getting Smart on Transformative Professional Development” Smart Bundle produced in partnership with Knowledge Delivery Systems (@KDSI). Join the conversation on Twitter using #TransformPD.

For more, see:

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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