To Accelerate Student Learning, We Must First Understand How to Improve Teaching
Why the largest driver of student achievement is the effectiveness of the teacher and how to best train teachers to improve those levers.
If there’s one lesson learned from a year of COVID-forced school
closures, it’s the vital role teachers play in the learning
process. Remote learning, Zoom lectures and asynchronous lessons
resulted in millions of students requiring extra support as they
return to school and reinforced for almost every parent just how
critical teachers are in the educational development of their
Educators, researchers and education policymakers have known this for
a while. A large and convincing body of research has confirmed that,
when it comes to student learning and achievement, no other school
factor matters more than teachers. While it’s true that many
factors contribute to a student's success (or lack thereof), it's
teachers that are the most important school-based variable. This is
an educational equity issue as teachers are even more important for
advancing the learning of students from historically marginalized
If parents had yet to realize that, COVID drove it home and exposed
an issue that existed before the pandemic: If we aren’t taking
teacher learning seriously, we aren’t taking student learning
So, if teachers matter so much, how can schools ensure that all
teachers reach their full potential? How can districts ensure that
schools are places where skillful and continuously learning educators
motivate students and accelerate learning as we collectively recover
from the pandemic?
Amidst the various strategies policy-makers can pursue in educational
recovery, investing in more effective teacher learning opportunities
is one of the most promising to ensure every student, not just those
with means to find support outside of school, learns on grade-level
and graduates our school systems ready to pursue their dreams. While
research shows, however, that effective professional learning can
improve teacher practice and student outcomes, the field does not
have great evidence on how best to design effective programs.
A recent review of research on programs for math and science teachers
found that fewer than half of them significantly shifted teacher
knowledge and practice. Only one third improved student outcomes. And
across the country, many teachers report that they are not satisfied
with the learning opportunities available to them.
If we’re serious about advancing educational equity, that needs to
Professional learning can be tremendously meaningful in helping
teachers develop their effectiveness throughout their careers. Over
the last decade, dozens of randomized experiments have identified
specific approaches that lead to large improvements in teacher
knowledge and skills and in student outcomes in specific settings.
These studies have also shown convincingly that there is no one
“best” approach to improving teacher quality through learning
opportunities. Researchers have found that coaching models, rigorous
workshops, peer mentorships, curriculum study and many other formats
can work to improve teacher practice and student outcomes.
Similarly, these effective programs have engaged teachers in a range
of different activities and targeted different teacher behaviors and
But they have some features in common which provide a direction for
What are the key takeaways from the research of successful teacher
development programs? There are six:
Quality is more important than quantity.
Teacher professional learning should be grounded in content.
Expertise matters. (Simply put, the people leading the training must
know their stuff.)
Building professional learning opportunities around the use of
curriculum is a promising approach.
Teacher collaboration can boost professional learning outcomes.
Coherence matters. (The techniques learned in these development
opportunities must mesh with other school policies and expectations)
But even though the field has ascertained, in broad strokes, the key
elements of successful teacher learning programs, it has also learned
that successful programs are hard to replicate and scale. Taking
specific models and growing them in new contexts and conditions is
difficult as issues with implementation fidelity and quality often
arise. And context matters: The same program that works well in one
school may not be as effective at another campus with different
teachers, students, policies and resources.
Additionally, several non-profit organizations and states and
districts are supporting teachers with learning practices that
advance educational equity or culturally-responsive and sustaining
instruction, creating an opportunity to learn more about the
effectiveness of these promising approaches.
To move forward, the field of education needs evidence about the
specific design features that make some programs more effective and
about how teachers’ contexts affect their learning. Recently,
several professional learning providers came together to establish a
new research organization committed to answering those questions.
This organization, called
the Research Partners for Professional Learning, or
RPPL (pronounced “ripple”), aims to deepen the field’s
knowledge of how teacher learning can support and sustain student
success and advance educational equity, especially for students from
historically marginalized groups.
RPPL’s initial members include Achievement
The research team is led by experts in teacher learning and
improvement at the Annenberg
Institute at Brown University and the University of
Virginia. These organizations believe that the field needs a
collective and intentional learning agenda that produces more
rigorous studies and builds a wealth of useful evidence to determine
what works to advance and sustain teacher learning. Moreover, they
believe researchers should be looking into the specific design
features of a program to determine if, how, why, and for whom it
Teachers are learners. Many enter the teaching profession because it
offers the opportunity for lifelong study and learning, and all learn
substantially once on the job. Yet individual experiences with
professional learning often fail to live up to this promise, and
students are worse off for it. Only by thoroughly researching and
understanding what works in teacher development — and why — will
the field be able to make the kind of progress that the educators and
students of this nation deserve.
Sarah Johnson is a founding member and the Vice Chair of RPPL as well
as the CEO of Teaching Lab, a nonprofit organization that partners
with schools and districts to improve teaching and learning.