Is Professional Development Effective?

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Note: Here’s part four in our Learning to Improve series which is the primary focus of the School Performance Institute (SPI) blog this year. In it, we spotlight issues related to building the capacity to do improvement science in schools while working on an important problem of practice.

Despite spending billions on professional development (PD) in the United States, well-regarded studies by organizations such as American Institutes for Research (AIR) and TNTP show no measurable results from this spending. This was the case even when the training was considered rigorously aligned to the tenets of best practice for educator professional development. At the same time, student outcomes, especially for students of color and students living in poverty, are unacceptable.  

Individual vs. Organizational Improvement
Let’s dig into this a bit more.

On one hand, we are spending billions of dollars in the U.S. to train educators. On the other hand, it’s not resulting in improved outcomes at the school level, especially in high-poverty schools.   

We’ve ascribed a narrative to this failure that often includes blaming school leaders and teachers. While there are certainly educators that shouldn’t be leading classrooms, schools, and districts, my experience and the literature point to a different culprit. The evidence from more than a half century of improvement efforts across numerous industries is clear: improving results in complex systems is not primarily about individual competence, but rather it is about designing better processes for carrying out common work problems.

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So, is professional development effective?

It depends on what you expect to improve based on that professional development. Over the years, I’ve attended many high-quality workshops that have made me a better educator in the focus area on which I was being trained. In other words, well-designed PD can improve individual competence. However, it’s something altogether different to expect that this training will improve organizational effectiveness.

A Healthcare Analogy
Think about it like this.  

If I’m the chief executive officer at a hospital, it may very well be that a key doctor attends a training that improves a specific surgical technique. This is analogous to effective teacher professional development. However, it may also be that this training, while making this individual surgeon better, does little to impact the overall performance of the hospital. A hospital is a complex organization. Its success will rely far more on my ability to put systems in place to organize the work processes of the organization -- things like hiring and retaining outstanding staff, designing well-engineered operating rooms, developing research capacities, or creating efficient admissions processes, among others. While the surgeon may become a star in her field, her success is buried under the organizational dysfunction created by weak systems in other areas, resulting in a hospital with poor outcomes.

Improving Schools
Like hospitals, schools are complex organizations. Relying on doctor-specific training to make the hospital better is a lot like relying on educator professional development to improve schools. Is this training bad? Of course not. It’s just that training that improves individual performance is not synonymous with efforts that will improve an organization as a whole.

To improve schools, the school itself, rather than individual educators, needs to be seen as the unit of change. When we aim change efforts at the school level, very different ideas begin to emerge about our approaches to improvement. Herein lies the promise of improvement science.

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Improvement Science at United Schools Network
Last spring at United Schools Network, we noticed that too many of our 8th graders were off-track for high school readiness. Instead of casting blame on individual educators or quickly jumping to solutions, we committed to using improvement science methodology to figure out why. We started by forming a team charged with improving this problem. Instead of pursuing professional development, we are going on a focused learning journey and deeply studying an organizational performance problem.

We are seeking to identify root causes, to understand variation, and to see the system that produces our current outcomes. It is critically important that this understanding is gained prior to jumping to solutions. It may be that at some point in our improvement science work, we do engage in more traditional professional development. However, the key difference is that if we do, the PD will be directly aligned to countering the root causes of the high school readiness problem on which we are focused.

In short, all of our professional learning is aligned with creating the know-how necessary to improve our effectiveness as an organization.  This is a very different approach to improving schools.

More on How We’re Learning to Improve
With funding support from the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation, School Performance Institute is partnering with USN to improve its high school readiness rates. SPI serves as both the improvement advisor and project manager of this work. Follow our progress this year as we share what we learn during our improvement journey.

We’re also opening our doors to learn from others and share what we’ve learned at our fourth Study the Network workshop of the year at Columbus Collegiate Academy on January 24th.

John A. Dues is the Director of the School Performance Institute and Chief Learning Officer for the United Schools Network in Columbus, Ohio. The School Performance Institute is the learning and improvement arm of the United Schools Network. Send feedback to