Déjà vu in American education: The woeful state of professional development

Call it the worst-kept secret in education—and one of the field’s most baffling paradoxes. Why is a profession focused on learning so inept at supporting its practitioners to learn?

Most American teachers experience professional development that is woefully inadequate. Call it the worst-kept secret in education—and one of the field’s most baffling paradoxes. Why is a profession focused on learning so inept at supporting its practitioners to learn?

The central problem is not a lack of investment. A hard-hitting national study, not yet released, will soon reveal that states and districts spend about $18 billion annually on professional development. Let that sink in. $18 billion. These funds are spent in highly fragmented ways, typically driven by the preferences of local administrators (often at the district level) who make most of the decisions about how and what teachers are to learn.

A recent report from the National Association of School Boards notes that American teachers have limited support in efforts to engage in more effective instructional shifts and lack sufficient time to learn from their more expert colleagues. Furthermore, most school districts do little to track the effects of what they do spend on teachers’ professional development—which is often in the form of workshops led by external consultants.  

The good news is that we do know what effective professional learning looks like. Another report, released in 2013, by the Center for American Progress, summarized the research succinctly. Effective professional development is aligned with school goals and assessments, sustained over time and job-embedded, focused on core content and active learning, and fueled by serious collaboration and coaching.

Of course, none of this is “news”—compare the evidence and the recommendations in the CAP report to those in a 1995 report from the Consortium on Policy Research.

So why haven’t things changed?

Drawing on thirty years of experience with conducting research inside of schools, along with work with legions of teacher leaders in the CTQ Collaboratory, I’ve identified five key reasons why PD remains unchanged in the US:

  1. Professional learning communities in the U.S, unlike those in top-performing nations, are driven by data and spreadsheets, as opposed to being driven by inquiry and led by teachers;
  2. Most formal evaluation tools devalue the spread of teaching expertise—and teachers have little opportunity to test out, refine, and expand on the feedback they receive;
  3. When teachers are elevated as instructional coaches, they are taken out of the classroom and are soon viewed by colleagues as quasi-administrators, not as peers;
  4. Very little of what counts as professional development in the U.S. builds on the importance of reciprocal mentoring between teacher and coach in collective efforts to improve instructional practice; and
  5. Many administrators do not know enough about how to utilize teachers to lead their own learning—and, under pressure to garner short-term test gains, they tamp down the role of classroom experts in transforming professional development.

What next?

Even some of the most progressive American districts struggle with these factors. I recently visited Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD), which has rightfully received national recognition for its sound professional development programs and student achievement gains. In this outstanding district, surveys reveal that teacher learning opportunities remain seriously short-changed. Only 10 percent of the district’s teachers reported they had sufficient time for “sustained practice” of the teaching techniques learned through professional development, and only 5 percent felt strongly that they had a significant role in selecting their PD activities.

LBUSD administrators, to their credit, are tackling the professional development problem head-on.

More policymakers, administrators, teachers, and teachers’ unions should conduct a fearless inventory of the beliefs and practices that perpetuate ineffective professional development. To transform teacher learning for students’ benefit, we must assess precisely what has gotten in the way of doing so before now.

Good intentions—and knowing what the research says—will not suffice. It’s time for a good long stare in the mirror.

Coming soon: More on what CTQ has been learning about the future of professional learning from a new virtual community of teachers and administrators from eight nations (including Australia,  Finland, and Singapore).


  • Carl Draeger

    Good news.

    If you scan through the ideas posted on the Teach to Lead Commit to Lead forum, there are several focusing on Professional Development (PD). In a way this evidence of the inefficiency of the the current practices. The missing pieces are placing control of differentiation and PD selection in the hands of practicioners and leveraging the talented classroom teacher leaders to engage in meaningful and purposeful conversations about how to grow individual teacher practice resulting in positive changes in student learning. Furthermore, PD should not me a 1 or 2 day experience. It needs to be ongoing with multiple calibration or touchpoints to maintain and grow teacher practice. Thanks for posting. That rumbling sound you hear is the resounding ‘Amen, brother!’ from the teachers in the trenches.

    • John Carr

      effective PD

      I very much like Carl’s comments. However, Carl, please don’t use the term “teachers in the trenches” as do many others. Trenches are related to warfare and there certainly should be no war between students and their teachers. “Talented classroom teachers” is a wonderful term you used.

      Teachers get to see the results of their efforts in students smiling with eyes lit up, loving them and learning, and occasionally thanking them. Educators outside the classroom do not have the opportunity of the most genuine feedback that can be given a teacher. In good districts and schools, teachers have the opportunity to artistically apply the science of teaching/learning.

      To all, I do consulting on PD but nowadays require that leaders plan with me or show me a plan how the expertise I offer will transfer to ongoing, job-embedded practice with support. The last PD I did was with leaders and coaches who had a plan for applying the new knowledge as they collaborated with teachers. All my PD are sets of mini-modules these leaders/coaches can use as part of one-hour teacher meetings.

  • Taylor Ross Milburn

    Right on!

    From teachers everywhere, THANK YOU!

    We continually advocate and beg for the type of professional development you’re describing. It’s important to be reminded that even when we seek out, and generally don’t receive, this type of professional learning, research still proves it’s the most effective. For those of us who continually strive to provide these experiences for ourselves and our colleagues, we appreciate the voice you bring to the issue. Here’s hoping we can start to move forward about increasing the amount of time teachers are given to work together to improve.

  • DavidCohen

    The first point especially
    I couldn’t agree more regarding the problem with “data and spreadsheet” mania. Several years ago at an NSDC Conference (now Learning Forward) I was talking with some literacy coaches from Texas who were proud to tell me how they used data to manage professional “learning” in their school. With the ability to disaggregate everything and expose every dip and gap in the data set, these two felt confident that they were asking the right questions about instruction if, for example, they probed the possible reasons that African-American boys with one teacher handled a certain test question much better than African-American boys with another teacher. That was their actual example. How many assumptions are going into that frame? And if those assumptions even hold up, does this line of inquiry lead to the kind of professional learning that teachers want and students need? That brings us to your fifth point: as long as the pressure for test scores weighs on administrators, there will always be some whose pursuit of short-term gains leads to top-down controlling behaviors that inhibit sustained and meaningful professional growth.

  • BarnettBerry

    more on why the woes of PD

    Thanks for the insights and examples. I am certain, as my friend and colleague Mark Smylie reminded me yesterday, that the woes of PD are rooted in the fact that teaching is still a semi-profession here in the United States (see Lortie’s 1975 book, Schoolteacher for more on this concept.) Mark also pointed out that all teachers may not know “what makes for successful PD” and “if they do know what makes for successful PD, would they also know and be able to pull it off.” A big difference in the US and in the top performing nations is how they prepare and support teachers in leading PD. And more on this later as well. 

  • DaveOrphal

    It can be different!

    What a coincidence, Barnett, that you and I publish two very different stoies about teacher professional develipment.

    I’ve been in the boat before.  A couple of summers ago, I was in two PD’s running concurrently, very Dickensian, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

    You and I have talked over calamari about the wide variance among teachers: some are exemplary, some struggle mightily, and many of us fall inbetween these extremes. 

    Just like teachers can learn much from our more accomplished fellows, professional development organizations can learn from organizations like AVID and Mill’s College in California.  I’m sure there are lots of exemplary PD out there.  I hope many teachers comment on my post and share their amazing PD stories.

    Additionally, just as teachers can learn much from our students, so PD organization can learn from the teachers they serve.

    I get good feedback from my students on periodic surveys I conduct about my classroom’s climate and how I facilitate their learning.

    I learn even more from how my students do on their papers and projects.  Based on the data from my rubrics, I know what skills my students still haven’t mastered. 

    I wonder if PD organization would be interested in following up with their teachers and seeing if, and how well, they implemented the PD ideas into their classrooms practice…


  • Kelly Mueller

    Professional Development

    For years I have offered this comment:

    Forced professional development is neither professional nor likely to result in development.

    Districts make their decisions – often, sad to say, based on what someone with a little power thinks might justify his/her central office position. We spend our time developing different learning plans for our students – individualize instruction – only to have the ‘instruction’ given to us be one size fits all.

  • Ellen

    Professional Development for teachers

    Effective professional development must lead to professional learning. That is, the professional development is “stuff” teachers learn; the professional learning is how well the “stuff” can be applied in the classroom. It’s all about providing effective, ongoing professional development that helps teachers identify goals for learning (theirs and their students) and collaborate with other skilled professionals about ways that transform what they are learning into effective classroom practice.

    Teachers need to be reflective practitioners. They need time to reflect “in, on, and about” their actions and think about their classroom decisions. They need to talk about practice with other skilled colleagues in non-evaluative ways. They need to plan together, practice together, and debrief together about things that influence student learning.  They need to make “mistakes” and then talk about those mistakes in meaningful ways and make adjustments in their teaching where necessary.

    Instructional coaches are in a perfect position to help teachers implement effective instructional practices in a no-risk environment. Coaches are non-evaluative and help teachers collaborate, collectively problem-solve and communicate openly and regularly in things that matter the most… how to help their students reach their highest potential.


  • MaryCurto

    Catch Phrase Pitfalls

    This year’s PD wave in my school comes out of Bill Daggett’s Rigor/Relevance framework. We’ve all been encouraged to “visit Quad D” as often as possible. Certainly, the work has value; however, when teachers perceive PD as the most recent of “31 Flavors,” brought on board post-workshop by well-meaning admin, veteran teachers may roll their eyes. Best practices sporting new labels and nifty graphics can only go so far toward increasing rigor. Anyone heard of Bloom’s taxonomy?

    Ellen is so right in saying that teachers need time. New attacks must be framed up in context with effective past practice, and acknowledging what teachers do well seems critical. PD must build on past experience, rather than toss the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Encourage discussion: how does past practice fit in with the new paradigm? Carve out time to refine and improve lessons. Allow teachers the time to invest in themselves as professionals.

    My PLC spends the bulk of its time on mandated activities: updating pacing guides, aligning curriculum, setting goals, all of which are posted on the district website for public scrutiny. Ultimately, the program looks good but teacher investment in the process is low. We need time to choose, to improve, to invest. We need time to act as professionals.

    If teachers are relegated to “semi-professional status” (Mark Smylie), treating PD as a panacea to current poor practice further undermines professionalism. I work with teachers who are eager to improve their practice, but developing as professionals requires teacher buy in and stronger acknowledgement of what’s done well currently. Too often I get the feeling that PD is just a fresh Band-aid to fix something that’s broken. Teachers overwhelmed by minutiae have a hard time investing in what counts.

  • BarnettBerry

    Your voices are needed

    David, Dave, Kelly, and Mary. Your voices are needed. CTQ will continue to find ways to elevate them in advancing professional learning systems that are driveb expert teachers like yourselves….and there are so many of you.