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Key research articles: Professional development

Reviewing the Evidence on How Teacher Professional Development Affects Student Achievement gold

Author/s: K Yoon, T Duncan, S Lee, B Scarloss and K Shapley

Type of Study: Meta-analysis
Theme area: Professional Development
Country: United States (authors); Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, United States (studies)
Year: 2007
URL: Get a copy of this article

Summary: This review evaluates the available evidence on the effects of professional development on student outcomes in three core academic subjects (reading and English/language arts, mathematics, and science).

One thousand and three hundred documents were identified as being potentially relevant, however only nine were rigorous enough to meet evidence standards. Across these nine studies, the authors observed an average overall effect size of 0.54 (which is considered large). The authors also concluded that teachers who receive substantial professional development—an average of 49 hours—can boost their students’ achievement by about 21 percentile points.

However, these conclusions should be treated carefully due to the small number of studies from which they have been formed.

Due to the small number of studies and the variability of professional development provision between these studies, the authors were unable to make any conclusions about the effectiveness of specific professional development programs or about the effectiveness of professional development by form, content, or intensity.

However, the article has been identified as gold standard because five of the nine rigorous studies were considered to be robust randomised controlled trials and a sixth was also a randomised controlled trial, although with a less stringent design.


Teacher Professional Learning and Development: Best Evidence Synthesis Iterationsilver
Author/s: H Timperley, A Wilson, H Barrar and I Fung
Type of Study: Synthesis / Meta‐analysis
Theme area: Professional Development / Professional Learning
Country: New Zealand (authors); multiple (studies)
Year: 2007
URL: Get a copy of this article 

Summary: This synthesis consolidates the international and New Zealand evidence about how teacher learning can positively impact student outcomes. In general, little evidence is available that investigates how teachers use the skills they gain from professional learning opportunities, or the impact of these opportunities on teaching practice and student outcomes. In this synthesis, the authors attempt to unpack this 'black box' between professional learning opportunities and their impact on student outcomes.

The synthesis provides advice about what contexts and content lead to effective professional development programs. Elements of context include: length, expertise, goals, and collaboration. Elements of content include: teacher subject knowledge and teacher knowledge of assessment and data analysis.

The authors located 97 individual studies and groups of studies that met high-quality methodological criteria and had positive impacts on student outcomes. Of the 97, there were 72 studies (16 New Zealand and 56 international) that reported sufficient statistical data for student outcomes to be calculated in terms of effect sizes. Due to the authors' decision to map evidence into 'high' or 'medium' categories based on controlling measures, we have rated this paper as silver standard.

After identification, the authors compare the characteristics of successful programs with the characteristics of programs that either did not show positive impacts or did not use sufficiently rigorous evaluation methods. Scher & O'Reilly (2009) state that the authors' approach to examining evidence is interesting, but note that it does not systematically examine the overall effect of rigorously evaluated professional development programs. However, as an analysis of effective context and content elements of professional development that lead to student outcomes, the synthesis is extremely useful.


(Using) Evidence for Educational Improvementsilver

Author/s: A Alton-Lee
Type of Study: Synthesis / Meta‐analysis
Theme area: Professional Development
Country: New Zealand (authors); multiple (studies)
Year: 2011
URL: Get a copy of this article (cost required)

Summary: This article draws on evidence presented in two syntheses compiled as part of the New Zealand Ministry of Education Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration. It demonstrates that effective professional development is a major policy lever for systemic improvement in education’. The authors conclude that ‘systemic improvement requires policy, research [to identify effective practices] and professional leadership to prioritise and create the conditions for productive professional learning’.

The article identifies leadership influences on student outcomes and reveals that ‘when school leaders promote and/or participate in effective teacher professional learning and development, this has more impact on student achievement than any other leadership activity’ (effect size: 0.84).

The article also examines 72 studies to analyse the impact of professional development on student outcomes. The study claims that in general, professional development that continued in some form – often after intensive teacher engagement for one to two years – was found to have the greatest impact on student outcomes.

The author warns that in some cases student achievement can decline as a result of poorly implemented professional learning community arrangements, and provides an example of a tool to support collaborative professional inquiry and knowledge-building in schools.


Effects of Teacher Professional Development on Gains in Student Achievement: How a meta analysis provides scientific evidence useful to education leaderssilver

Author/s: R Blank
Type of Study: Meta-analysis
Theme area: Professional Development / Professional Learning
Country: United States (authors); United States (studies)
Year: 2009
URL: Get a copy of this article 

Summary: The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in the United States won a grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct a meta-analysis study in order to provide education leaders with scientifically-based evidence regarding the effects of teacher professional development on improving student learning. The analysis focused on completed studies of effects of professional development for K-12 teachers of science and mathematics. The meta-analysis results show important cross-study evidence that teacher professional development in mathematics does have significant positive effects on student achievement. The analysis results also confirm the positive relationship to student outcomes of key characteristics of design of professional development programs.

The authors examined 74 documents, to find 16 (12 mathematics; four science) that reported reliable effects of teacher development on improving student achievement. Six documents were randomised controlled trials and ten were quasi-experiments; hence its silver standard rating. They found the following commonalities between programs:

  • strong emphasis on teachers learning specific content;
  • strong emphasis on teachers learning pedagogical content for how to teach the content to students;
  • inclusion of multiple activities to provide follow-up reinforcement of learning, assistance with implementation and support for teachers from mentors and colleagues in their schools;
  • active learning methods;
  • incorporation of teacher learning goals in the design of the professional development;
  • collective participation.

This study also includes useful and extensive information about how meta-analyses are conducted, including information on how to locate and judge evidence on its robustness, effect sizes and evaluation methods.


 What Makes Professional Development Effective? Results from a National Sample of Teachersother

Author/s: M Garet, A Porter, L Desimone, B Birman, and K Yoon
Type of Study: Study
Theme area: Professional Development / Professional Learning
Country: United States (authors); multiple (studies); United States (survey participants)
Year: 2001
URL: Get a copy of this article (cost required)

Summary: This study examines the relationship between different characteristics of professional development and teachers’ learning. It does so by comparing the features of professional development that have been identified in research as ‘best practice’ to teacher survey data. The survey data is sourced from a nationally representative sample of 1,027 mathematics and science teachers. It has been identified as other evidence because it is a survey and therefore does not say much about causality or link results to student outcomes.

Results indicate three core features of professional development activities that have significant, positive effects on teachers’ self-reported increases in knowledge and skills and changes in classroom practice:

  • focus on content knowledge;
  • opportunities for active learning; and
  • coherence with other learning activities.

It is through these core features that the following structural features significantly affect teacher learning:

  • the form of the activity (e.g., workshop vs. study group);
  • collective participation of teachers from the same school, grade, or subject; and
  • the duration of the activity.

The authors state that many professional development activities do not include effective features identified because education providers lack of planning time and/or money. The authors conclude that high quality professional development is necessary to positively impact teaching and learning and thus school districts must either invest more resources or focus resources on fewer teachers.


Professional Learning in the Learning Progression: A status report on teacher development in the United States and abroadother
Author/s: L Darling-Hammond, R Wei, A Andree, N Richardson and S Orphanos
Type of Study: Synthesis
Theme area: Professional Development / Professional Learning
Country: United States (authors); multiple (studies)
Year: 2009
URL: Get a copy of this article

Summary: This report is sponsored by the National Staff Development Council and the School Redesign Network at Stanford University. It summarizes the current state of professional development in the United States and compares that to the professional development efforts of countries that have consistently demonstrated high levels of student achievement on international measures. The report uses data from the federal Schools and Staffing Survey to indicate where the United States stands in building the capacity of educators to help students reach high standards.

The report finds that while the United States is making progress in providing support and mentoring for new teachers and focusing on bolstering content knowledge, the type of support and on-the-job training most teachers receive is episodic, often fragmented, and disconnected from real problems of practice.
It finds that effective professional development should:

  • be intensive, ongoing, and connected to practice;
  • focus on student learning and address the teaching of specific curriculum content;
  • align with school improvement priorities and goals; and
  • build strong working relationships among teachers.

The report has been identified at the level of other evidence because it is a literature review that provides readers with both conclusions drawn from rigorous studies with control groups as well as teacher opinion. Which is not to say that is it not useful.