Professional Development

AIR Research: Extensive Math PD Didn't Improve Student Outcomes

A recent study found that while content-focused professional development in math helped teachers improve their knowledge and the richness of their instruction, it did nothing for student achievement. The research project was undertaken by the American Institutes of Research on behalf of the Institute of Education Sciences at the United States Department of Education.

As explained in a report on the research, 165 fourth grade teachers participated in the project. They were assigned by lottery to one of two groups, one involving a three-part, formal PD program and the other putting the teachers' through their usual PD activities, to be used as a control group.

The group of 79 educators put through a formal PD program received 80 hours of training on Intel Math, intended to deepen teachers' content knowledge. The teachers also received access to a math-specific learning community and video feedback, where they participated in five collaborative meetings to analyze student work and identify errors and ways to address them and received three one-on-one coaching sessions related to the quality and clarity of their math instruction.

"The professional development was designed to help teachers understand the underpinnings of the math they teach, so that then teachers would be able to explain them clearly to students and respond to students' questions," explained Michael Garet, lead researcher, in a video about the project. He noted that the formal PD "had a positive impact on teachers' knowledge — a boost of 21 percentile points on a math test we gave the teachers."

Similarly, a teacher who was considered "average" before the PD came (at the 50th percentile) out as a teacher in the ranks of the top third (at the 71st percentile). These teachers were also able to provide "richer instruction" more often, said Garet, during 63 percent of the a typical lesson compared to 46 percent of the time for a teacher rated as average.

But although the teachers were better at their conceptual explanations — such as explaining the "why behind math procedures or comparing different approaches to the same problem" — those improvements "didn't lead to a positive impact on achievement," he noted. The correlational data showed that students did no better on math tests at the end of the school year than those teachers who were part of the control group.

Although the full report offers a nuanced explanation about why the outcomes for students weren't better, the researchers did suggest some areas for future research: first, identifying professional development that specifically would positively influence student outcomes "to a larger degree"; and second, identifying other aspects of knowledge gain and practice that do influence student achievement and targeted the PD on those.

The research output is available on the IES website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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