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Convention Save the Date

Student Achievement

Professional Development: A Key Strategy for Improving Student Learning

High quality staff development is essential for improving the learning of all students. This professional development, however, must be very different from past approaches if it is to produce high levels of learning for students and staff members.

Most traditional staff development activities do not focus on teachers’ content knowledge, instructional skills, or other classroom-related knowledge and skills. Too often the focus continues to be on "safe" topics such as student self-esteem, teacher morale, and communication with parents. The small amount of staff development that focuses on teachers’ instructional knowledge and skills is often not sufficiently rigorous or sustained to produce lasting on-the-job changes.

Starting from New Assumptions about Teaching and Learning

High Expectations for All Students: The federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed in 2001, requires that states have challenging academic standards; test students annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school; and other regulations designed with the goal of increasing student achievement so that all students reach proficient levels by the 2013-2014 school year.

Central in this call for school improvement is the belief, supported by research, that almost all students can learn at very high levels and that most student failure is preventable. This is a big shift from past societal expectations, influenced largely by the belief that schools could do little to overcome the challenges some students brought with them into the classroom in the form of poverty or an unsupportive home environment.  But a growing number of school districts across the country are proving that it is possible to produce dramatically higher levels of learning, while showing virtually no differences between the achievement of the poorest and most affluent students in the district.  Across entire school districts, students in every subgroup (black, white, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged) are achieving at or above state or district standards in reading and math. A core reason for their success: providing teachers with the ongoing opportunity to develop the knowledge and skills they need to teach so all students learn well. 

Teaching Matters: These higher expectations for students raise the bar in what we’ve expected from educators. We can no longer assume that teaching is an innate gift or that education majors learn all they need in college. To teach well, teachers must understand the material they are teaching; understand how to present critical ideas in powerful ways, organize a useful learning process, and adapt instruction to the different learning styles and needs of their students. A growing body of evidence indicates that teacher effectiveness is not fixed, and that when teachers of all experience levels learn powerful skills and methods to use with students in the classroom, student achievement increases.

Professional Development that Improves Student Learning

Studies show that high quality, research-based professional development is essential for improving teaching in ways that will impact all students' learning.  But that staff development looks dramatically different than the norm today in many school districts.

Over the years staff development has been used to cover everything from workshops to help teachers understand their legal duty to report suspected child abuse, to night or summer courses teachers take to earn credit toward an advanced degree or certification, to start-of-school workshop days for staff.  But these one-shot sessions and unconnected studies do little to produce better results for students across entire school districts.

New kinds of professional development opportunities are beginning to take hold—and research is documenting their success in improving student learning.  Generally, these programs are:

Grounded in student need in an academic content area: Much of traditional professional development has been generic, focusing on topics such as learning styles, brain research or classroom management. These approaches have their uses, but recent research indicates that professional development aimed at improving student achievement is most effective when grounded in a specific academic content area, such as reading, math or science. Districts use assessment data to identify specific learning needs of students and set goals to improve the results around those needs. This locally determined improvement goal, based on data about student learning needs, determines the focus of professional development activities. The entire staff engages in an initiative to improve instruction around that area of need, usually by studying and receiving training in a specific teaching strategy or model.

Research-based: It’s important to ensure that the training provided lives up to the promise of improved teaching and higher student achievement. The most effective efforts focus on teaching strategies backed by research that shows those strategies are effective in producing higher student achievement. Teachers and administrators carefully study the research that supports claims made by advocates of a particular approach to instructional improvement and choose the approaches best suited to work with their students.

Collaborative and ongoing: This type of professional development requires an ongoing study of teaching and learning throughout the school year, not just one-shot sessions or separate, unconnected projects or classes. Teachers meet as whole faculties and in smaller teams. These teams are sometimes called learning communities, communities of practice, study teams or peer coaching teams. The small teams meet on a regular basis, preferably several times a week, for the purposes of learning, joint lesson planning, studying student data, and problem solving. Their goal is to improve their daily work to advance the achievement of students around the district goals for student learning.  Time within the regular school day is a key resource for this team problem-solving and learning.

Embedded in the system: Professional development cannot be an add-on, occasional event that teachers must juggle with their other duties and obligations. There must be a comprehensive structure, embedded in the everyday life of school, that ensures that teachers can acquire the skill and knowledge they need, practice what they learn and then reflect on the results.  This structure includes time and expert resources for formal training sessions, materials necessary to implement the new learning, and time for collaboration during the school day to practice the new learning, plan lessons together, etc.

Built on effective training processes: For a teacher to learn a new behavior and effectively apply it in the classroom, several steps are involved.

  • Theory: Understanding the theory and principles behind the new skills and strategies.
  • Demonstration: Observing an expert teacher in action, modeling the new skill. This can occur live or through videotape.
  • Practice:  Practicing the new behavior in a safe context, such as a classroom or in front of a coaching partner.
  • Coaching:  Trying out the behavior with peer coaching and support in the classroom.

It’s important that the formal training be provided by an expert trainer—someone for whom this teaching strategy is second nature, not someone who has just read about it or been to one workshop.

Led broadly: Professional development that has the potential to improve student learning requires such sophisticated, persistent efforts to coordinate that it is unlikely to succeed without consistent and sustained leadership at all levels of the system.  Everyone who affects student learning is involved. Teacher leaders and principals form a leadership team to plan and implement professional development activities in a building.  Principals often learn the new teaching skills along with their teachers.  As one principal said, “How can I be an instructional leader in our building when I don’t have the very skills I am evaluating in the teachers?” Vocal and visible commitment from district administrators is needed to support improvement of instruction districtwide. The superintendent and other district leaders can set and hold to the agenda for the initiative and provide firm guidance on fundamental issues of instruction.  In the past, teachers have often been left to discover or invent good practices without such guidance. The school board ensures that the “ends” of the effort stay focused on improving student learning, provides the necessary resources and time, and holds the system accountable for getting better.

Connected: Effective professional development is closely linked to the broader context of school improvement. The professional development program doesn’t stand alone. School leaders must ensure that professional development is aligned with other foundations of school improvement, such as school improvement goals, student standards, curricular frameworks and assessments.

Evaluated: The results of professional development are monitored by changes in teacher knowledge and skills and improvements in student learning. The guiding questions are: Are teachers effectively implementing their new skills in the classroom?  Are students learning more as a result?

The School Board’s Role

Establishing this new model of professional development in a school district is challenging work. It pushes administrators to lead in new ways and to learn to support new, districtwide professional development efforts. Teachers are being asked to change habits and traditions in how they’ve approached their learning. Parents must come to understand how this time affects their child, and sometimes the schedule of the school day.  School boards have an important role to play in supporting this change:

  • Send a clear message that the priority for your district’s professional development effort is to improve student learning.
  • Ensure that the professional development program is integrally linked to the broader context of school improvement in your district.
  • Allocate time for all members of the school staff to meet weekly for sustained, in-depth, collective study of teaching and learning.  The built-in weekly time (preferably two hours or more) can be used for the collective study of student learning, training, and for peer coaching teams to meet.
  • Ensure that instructional initiatives are selected and implemented because of their potential and documented success for increasing student performance.
  • Guarantee the structures exist to support and sustain effective implementation of the program. These structures include time for training and collaboration, resources for an expert trainer, instructional materials and adequate assessment.
  • Help parents and the community understand that altering student schedules so that teachers have time for training and planning improves the quality of instruction for all students.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of professional development efforts by changes in student learning.
  • Advocate with state and federal legislators for adequate funding and supports for quality professional development.

Resources and Helpful Links

  • On the IASB Web site: Helping Your Community Understand Professional Development.
  • Iowa Dept. of Education Professional Development Model Executive Summary at
  • National Staff Development Council,
  • “Staff Development, Innovation, and Institutional Development.” In Changing School Culture Through Staff Development, by Michael Fullen. Alexandria, VA:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1999.
  • The New Structure of School Improvement:  Inquiring Schools and Achieving Students, Joyce, B., Calhoun, E., Hopkins, D.   Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press, 1999.
  • “Focusing Staff Development on Improving the Learning of All Students,”  by D. Sparks. In Handbook of Research on Improving Student Achievement, second edition, Gordon Cawelti, Editor.  Arlington, VA:  Educational Research Service, 1999.
  • Handbook of Research on Improving Student Achievement, Educational Research Service, 1999.