Professional Development

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 children.

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 groups.

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 seriously.

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 change.

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 skills.

But they have some features in common which provide a direction for future research.

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 Network, Instruction Partners, Leading Educators, Teaching Lab, TNTP, and UnboundEd. 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 works.

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.

About the Author

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.