I recently read an IES-funded study, called “The Effects of a Principal Professional Development Program Focused on Instructional Leadership.” The study, reported by a research team at Mathematica (Hermann et al., 2019), was a two-year evaluation of a Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) program in which elementary principals received 188 hours of PD, including a 28-hour summer institute at the beginning of the program, quarterly virtual professional learning community sessions in which principals met other principals and CEL coaches, and 50 hours per year of individual coaching in which principals worked with their CEL coaches to set goals, implement strategies, and analyze effects of strategies. Principals helped teachers improve instruction by observing teachers, giving feedback, and selecting curricula; sought to improve their recruitment, management, and retention strategies, held PD sessions for teachers; and focused on setting a school mission, improving school climate, and deploying resources effectively.
A total of 100 low-achieving schools were recruited. Half received the CEL program, and half served as controls. After one, two, and three years, there were no differences between experimental and control schools on standardized measures of student reading or mathematics achievement, no differences on school climate, and no differences on principal or teacher retention.
So what happened? First, it is important to note that previous studies of principal professional development have also found zero (e.g., Jacob et al., 2014) or very small and inconsistent effects (e.g., Nunnery et al., 2011, 2016). Second, numerous studies of certain types of professional development for teachers have also found very small or zero impacts. For example, a review of research on elementary mathematics programs by Pellegrini et al. (2019) identified 12 qualifying studies of professional development for mathematics content and pedagogy. The average effect size was essentially zero (ES=+0.04).
What does work in professional development?
In sharp contrast to these dismal findings, there are many forms of professional development that work very well. For example, in the Pellegrini et al. (2019) mathematics review, professional development designed to teach teachers to use specific instructional processes were very effective, averaging ES=+0.25. These included studies of cooperative learning, classroom management strategies, and individualized instruction. In fact, other than one-to-one and one-to-small group tutoring, no other type of approach was as effective. In a review of research on programs for elementary struggling readers by Inns et al. (2019), programs incorporating cooperative learning had an effect size of +0.29, more effective than any other programs except tutoring. A review of research on secondary reading programs by Baye et al. (2018) found that cooperative learning programs and whole-school models incorporating cooperative learning, along with writing-focused models also incorporating cooperative learning, had larger impacts than anything other than tutoring.
How can it be that professional development on cooperative learning and classroom management are so much more effective than professional development on content, pedagogy, and general teaching strategies?
One reason, I would submit, is that it is very difficult to teach someone to improve practices that they already know how to do. For example, if as an adult you took a course in tennis or golf or sailing or bridge, you probably noticed that you learned very rapidly, retained what you learned, and quickly improved your performance in that new skill. Contrast this with a course on dieting or parenting. The problem with improving your eating or parenting is that you already know very well how to eat, and if you already have kids, you know how to parent. You could probably stand some improvement in these areas, which is why you took the course, but no matter how motivated you are to improve, over time you are likely to fall back on well-established routines, or even bad habits. The same is true of teaching. Early in their careers teachers develop routine ways of performing each of the tasks of teaching: lecturing, planning, praising, dealing with misbehavior, and so on. Teachers know their content and settle into patterns of communicating that content to students. Then one day a professional developer shows up, who watches teachers teaching and gives them advice. The advice might take, but quite often teachers give it a try, run into difficulties, and then settle back into comfortable routines.
Now consider a more specific, concrete set of strategies that are distinctly different from what teachers typically do: cooperative learning. Teachers can readily learn the key components. They put their students in mixed groups of four or five. After an initial lesson, they give students opportunities to work together to make sure that everyone can succeed at the task. Teachers observe and assist students during team practice. They assess student learning, and celebrate student success. Every one of these components is a well-defined, easily learned, and easily observed step. Teachers need training and coaching to succeed at first, but after a while, cooperative learning itself becomes second nature. It helps that almost all kids love to be noisy and engaged, and love to work with each other, so they are rooting for the teacher to succeed. But for most teachers, structured cooperative learning is distinctly different from ordinary teaching, so it is easy to learn and maintain.
As another example, consider classroom management strategies used in many programs. Trainers show teachers how to use Popsicle sticks with kids’ names on them to call on students, so all kids have to pay attention in case they are called. To get students’ immediate attention, teachers may learn to raise their hands and have students raise theirs, or to ring a bell, or to say a phrase like “one, two, three, look at me.” Teachers may learn to give points to groups or individuals who are meeting class expectations. They may learn to give students or groups privileges, such as lining up first to go outside or having the privilege of selecting and leading their favorite team or class cheer. These and many other teacher behaviors are clear, distinct, easily learned, and immediately solve persistent problems of low-level disturbances.
The point is not that these cooperative learning or classroom management strategies are more important than content knowledge or pedagogy. However, they are easily learned, retained, and institutionalized ways of solving critical daily problems of teaching, and they are so well-defined and clear that when they have started working, teachers are likely to hold on to them indefinitely and are unlikely to fall back on other strategies that may be less effective but are already deeply ingrained.
I am not suggesting that only observable, structural classroom reforms such as cooperative learning or classroom management strategies are good uses of professional development resources. All aspects of teaching need successive improvement, of course. But I am using these examples to illustrate why certain types of professional development are very difficult to make effective. It may be that improving the content and pedagogy teachers use day in and day out may require more concrete, specific strategies. I hope developers and researchers will create and successfully evaluate such new approaches, so that teachers can continually improve their effectiveness in all areas. But there are whole categories of professional development that research repeatedly finds are just not working. Researchers and educators need to focus on why this is true, and then design new PD strategies that are less subtle, more observable, and deal more with actual teacher and student behavior.
Hermann, M., Clark, M., James-Burdumy, S., Tuttle, C., Kautz, T., Knechtel, V., Dotter, D., Wulsin, C.S., & Deke, J. (2019). The effects of a principal professional development program focused on instructional leadership (NCEE 2020-0002). Washington, DC: Naitonal Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
Inns, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (2019). A synthesis of quantitative research on programs for struggling readers in elementary schools. Available at www.bestevidence.org. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Jacob, R., Goddard, K., Miller, R., & Goddard, Y. (2014). Exploring the causal impact of the McREL Balanced Leadership Program on leadership, principal efficacy, instructional climate, educator turnover, and student achievement. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 52 187-220.
Nunnery, J., Ross, S., Chappel, S., Pribesh, S., & Hoag-Carhart, E. (2011). The impact of the National Institute for School Leadership’s Executive Development Program on school performance trends in Massachusetts: Cohort 2 Results. Norfolk, VA: Center for Educational Partnerships, Old Dominion University.
Nunnery, J., Ross, S., & Reilly, J. (2016). An evaluation of the National Institute for School Leadership: Executive Development Program in Milwaukee Public Schools. Norfolk, VA: Center for Educational Partnerships, Old Dominion University.
Pellegrini, M., Inns, A., Lake, C., & Slavin, R. (2019). Effective programs in elementary mathematics: A best-evidence synthesis. Available at www.bestevidence.com. Manuscript submitted for publication.
This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.