Is CPD Beneficial to Teacher Development?

Getting great teachers in front of children entails first getting them into teaching and then helping them improve in the classroom.

Women writing on the blackboard some plans
Photo by Christina on Unsplash

According to Lemov (2013), there are two ways to help teachers improve: incentivization, which includes using accountability measures (to reward good practice and 'punish' bad), and development.

Lemov goes on to say that training teachers are difficult for three reasons:

A Google search for teacher professional development yields nearly 10 million results: papers, blogs, courses, articles, presentations, and think pieces - it appears that everyone has an opinion on the subject. However, the current PD situation could be better: teachers can be difficult to persuade and influence, the evidence about what is likely to work needs to be clearer, and spending time and money on PD in light of this needs to be more appealing. And that's before we get into the difficult task of linking professional development to student achievement and outcomes.

As PD leaders, in whatever form that takes, we must be clear about what we want PD to accomplish and how it will accomplish it so we can justify the time and money we invest in it.

What Do We Know About Teacher Development?

The New Teacher Project (TNTP) published The Mirage in 2015, a paper that argued, based on an analysis of more than 20,000 teachers across three U.S. school districts, that teachers' impact on students began to wane around their fifth year of teaching. Fortunately, this finding has been challenged; subsequent research indicates that teachers constantly refine and develop their practice. According to Papay and Kraft (2016) in 'The Myth of the Performance Plateau,'

Furthermore, they argue that teacher quality is more than just student grades. This blog is about what we can do to influence teacher development.

There is a clear rationale for assisting teachers to improve, the impact of which has been demonstrated to be "two or three times as great as the combined effect of all attempts to improve teaching by teacher replacement" (Clifton et al., 2013, p56). Regarding teacher development, the most effective strategy is to 'love the one you're with' (Wiliam, 2010).

What Are Our Current Understandings of Professional Development?

To test the relationship between PD and pupil outcomes, careful experimental designs are required. Desimone (2009), for example, has argued that a 'consensus' on a core set of features of effective PD programs can be identified based on a review of the empirical evidence. This consensus can be a helpful guide, but it is problematic for two reasons, as Fletcher-Wood (2018) summarizes:

In light of this, what should we focus our efforts on if we can't generate a checklist of "features of effective PD"?

How Can We Assist Teachers?

Fundamentally, we're discussing what will change a teacher's practice. Teachers are always doing something (whether it is considered poor, satisfactory, or excellent practice), so while professional development may offer something new and different, it must inevitably replace something the teacher is already doing. 'Enacting a new idea for teachers is more than simply adopting it; it is determining whether, when, and how to incorporate that new idea into an ongoing system of practice that is already satisfactory and may also be largely habitual' (Kennedy, 2016).

PD must then consider "the process by which teacher change typically occurs." According to Guskey et al. (2002), failure to do so is one of two reasons why most PD programs fail. The other is a failure to consider "what motivates teachers to participate in professional development."

This process, as well as the two criteria highlighted by Guskey et al. (2002), is reiterated by Timperley, (2008), who contends that there are four "important understandings that emerge from the literature":

  1. Professional development should focus on what we know about student learning: that it is "strongly influenced by what and how teachers teach."
  2. Because teaching is such a complex activity, professional development must consider the various ways behavior can be influenced, including teachers' knowledge and beliefs about what is important to teach, how to manage student behavior, and how students learn and meet external demands.
  3. Professional development must be "responsive to the ways in which teachers learn." This includes engaging their "prior conceptions about how the world works; developing deep factual and conceptual knowledge organized into frameworks that facilitate retrieval and application; and promoting metacognitive and self-regulatory processes that help learners define goals and then monitor their progress toward them."
  4. The context is critical, and it will have an impact on teachers' learning. This could include the classroom, the school, the larger school culture, and "the community, society in which the school is located."

Teach First has developed a set of Programme Principles based on our literature review, elements we believe are important to consider when designing developmental experiences for our teachers and leaders. The principles are not intended to form any consensus on what constitutes effective PD or to serve as a checklist when designing teacher development but rather to serve as a lens through which we can shape participant experience based on what we know about the development of novice teachers. Fundamentally, they represent our current assessment of what is likely to result in changes in the behavior of delegates on our programs. Writing this blog has already sparked a few ideas for improving them! They can be found right here.

Moving Ahead

To help our students learn, we ask ourselves what change we want to see, what evidence suggests might enable me (as a teacher) to make that change, what my students need to make it, and how we can I remove any obstacles that might hinder their ability to get there as quickly as possible. Anyone in charge of teacher development, including teachers themselves, can ask the same questions. Because effective teachers can make a substantial difference in the students' lives they teach, there is a moral imperative to ensure that teachers can effect positive and lasting change. As teacher educators, we are responsible for ensuring that professional development is as likely as possible to result in the desired change.