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How to Make Professional Development Worth the Investment

Research shows that traditional professional development sessions affect change in instructional practices about 10-15% of the time (see Bush 1984, for example). While that very low rate of return doesn’t appear to be worth the investment of money, time, and resources when trying to raise student math achievement, it doesn’t mean that schools and districts should stop providing professional learning sessions for teachers.

What it does mean is that the professional development sessions, or “events,” must be connected to a larger professional learning program. A program is designed to shift instruction and improve student progress over time, while an event could be a learning opportunity within a program or, less effectively, a one-and-done opportunity.


There are no good schools without good principals.

It just doesn't exist.

And where you have good principals, great teachers come, and they stay, they work hard, and they grow.

- Arne Duncan, Former U.S. Secretary of Education


How can you make sure that the learning event you are planning fits into your overall mathematics professional learning program in order to get higher rates of return? Consider these questions:

1. Does the topic, or area of focus, of the session connect to the identified needs of the students?

Using student academic math achievement data to develop a need for improved student outcomes is really the first step in determining an area of focus for professional learning. Without knowing where students fall short or what roadblocks they face, it’s not likely you’ll create a professional learning program that addresses their content or pedagogical needs.

2. Does the district or school improvement plan include a math goal/learning outcome connected to the area of focus?

Identifying a student need might be the first step, but acknowledging that need in a school or district improvement plan is crucial. Your improvement plan is a dynamic document from which all administrative mandates flow and to which all educator efforts are aimed. The topic of the PD session you are planning needs have a clear connection to the math goals and outcomes of your improvement plan so as not to detract time and energy exerted by participants from prioritized goals.

3. Did those who will be participating in the learning opportunity ask for or identify it as an important step towards student improvement?

While teachers often experience PD as something in which they are begrudgingly required to partake, this shouldn’t be the case. Teachers who understand the need for their students to improve in mathematics are more likely to express the importance of learning how to help them. If the requests for the trainings, sessions, or workshops you are planning were to come directly from your teachers, you’d have more willing and engaged participants. It follows that you’re also likely to yield better instructional outcomes that positively affect student achievement.

4. Do you, the administrator, fully support the area of focus for the learning opportunity?

While you might be feeling magnanimous and deserving of praise and accolades because you answered Yes to Question 3, honestly answer this question. If you just acquiesced to teachers' wishlists but do not believe in the merit of the chosen topic and/or do not express your full support for the area of focus in deed or action, the learning opportunity will fail. Your duty as an instructional leader is to “develop capacity, advocate, and create support systems for professional learning” (Standards for Professional Learning, Learning Forward). Numerous studies show a direct link between school leadership and student achievement: Schools with leaders who are committed to and provide appropriate professional learning for teachers improve student achievement more than schools without such leaders.

5. Will other professional learning opportunities around the same area of focus be provided at other points throughout the year?

Part of being that effective leader mentioned in #4 above requires that your support of teacher growth is sustained over time. Did you know that teachers need to engage in 50 hours or more of professional learning before their instruction shifts enough to have a measurable effect on student achievement? Respect that your adult learners need time to understand, practice, and implement new strategies in their classrooms and give them the support they deserve.

If you have answered Yes to all of the questions above, great! Continue planning your session or contract with an experienced provider. Pear School Solutions, for example, specializes in the teaching and learning of mathematics and facilitates excellent interactive Professional Learning Workshops for preK-12 educators.

If you’d like to be able to answer Yes to all of the questions, start at the first one by going back to your school improvement plan to remember the needs you and your staff leadership team prioritized. Unsure of how to turn a No into a Yes? Pear would love to help you design an effective professional learning program for all members of your team that focuses on increased student proficiency in mathematics.


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