RESOURCES: The Dollars and Sense of Comprehensive Professional Learning

Article excerpt

Very little of the professional development literature identifies its costs. Many say good professional development is expensive, but what is meant by expensive, and if so, expensive relative to what? This article shows that effective professional development is not expensive relative to overall spending and that its key elements and their costs can be identified and afforded. Further, I have never had a legislative committee addressing school finance adequacy balk at resourcing a comprehensive professional development system (e.g. Odden, Picus, Goetz, et al., 2005). The systemic distribution of the most effective instructional practices is a core strategy in nearly all case studies of schools and districts that have dramatically moved the student achievement needle (Odden, 2009).

A more uniform distribution of effective teaching is the underpinning for what schools can do to close the achievement gaps that plague American school systems. Collaborative teacher work on curriculum and instruction issues is the prime way to have such effective instruction more systemically deployed (Raudenbusch, 2009). Thus, collaborative teacher work using student data to collectively hone instructional practices is the cornerstone for improving instructional effectiveness. Moreover, comprehensive, ongoing, intensive professional development most effectively works through these collaborative teacher teams' work, and together they become the mechanisms through which high-quality professional development penetrates classrooms in systematic rather than random or individualistic ways.


The emerging consensus on what characterizes effective professional development draws on empirical research studies that link program strategies to changes in teachers' instructional practice and subsequent increases in student achievement. These studies include, among others, research on professional development generally, studies of comprehensive professional development to improve reading, mathematics and science teaching, and a major, federal government-supported evaluation of a large-scale, national mathematics and science professional development program (Cohen & Hill, 2001; Darling-Hammond & Richardson, 2009; Elmore & Burney, 1999; Garet, Birman, Porter, Desimone & Herman, 1999; Joyce & Calhoun, 1996; Joyce & Showers, 2002; Loucks-Horsley, Love, Stiles, Mundry & Hewsen, 2003; Supovitz & Turner, 2000).

In summarizing the key features of effective professional development, my research group and others (e.g. Elmore, 2002; Garet et al., 1999; Joyce & Showers, 2002; Odden, Archibald, Fermanich, & Gallagher, 2002a, 2002b) have identified six structural features of such programs. These findings have been incorporated into several publications of Learning Forward (e.g., Hirsh & Killion, 2007, 2009) and are reflected in Learning Forward's Standards for Professional Learning.

Form, duration, and active learning together imply that effective professional development includes some initial learning in training sessions as well as considerable longer-term work in which teachers incorporate the new methodologies into their actual classroom practice. Active learning implies some degree of coaching during regular school hours to help collaborative groups use student data to hone instructional strategies, to help teachers incorporate new instructional strategies into their classroom instructional practices, and to help teachers debrief on the effectiveness of the unit after it is taught.

Content focus means that effective professional development focuses largely on subject matter knowledge, what is known about how students learn that subject, and content for the actual curriculum used in the school.

Collective participation implies that the best professional development includes groups of and, at some point, all teachers in a school or district, who then work in collaborative teams to implement the new instructional strategies, and in the process, build a professional school community. …