What Does it Take for a Professional Development to be Useful?

As anyone who has endured and then promptly forgotten a PD knows, most PDs don't accomplish much. So what does it take for a PD to work and change how people teach?

Research to Practice: Professional Development for Teachers

The baseline: What happens with most PDs

Newsflash. Professional development, or PD as it is not so affectionately known, rarely leads to changes in how teachers teach (Hattie, 2009; TNTP, 2015). In fact, even if PDs change teachers’ reported knowledge, they rarely change how teachers teach and even more rarely have an impact on students’ learnings (Hattie, 2008). If you have ever sat through a painful PD or even an amazing, one shot PD and then walked out and promptly forgotten everything except the name of the cute spot where you grabbed lunch (if they gave you a break), then this finding is not a surprise to you.


Districts are spending a LOT on PD. The average is 18,000 per teacher per year (TNTP, 2015). That number is insane. Some districts spend more on it than do transporting students, feeding students, and keeping students secure– combined (TNTP, 2015). Teachers put in time too, with many reporting about 17 hours a month spent on PD. And, overall, there are no benefits to that money. Teachers change little in performance year to year and, when what they do changes, it rarely is linked to any PD. Teachers who improve or plateau have about the same coaching, the same hours of PD, the same hours of collaboration, and so on. Less than half of surveyed teachers describe their PDs as a good use of their time. Teachers report not being given guidance on how they individually can get better at teaching. 

Why most PDs fail to change how teachers teach

Let’s start with some of the reasons why PDs fail. 

  1. PDs are rarely tailored to the needs of the teachers attending. They are one-size-fits-all, not customized (TNTP, 2015).
  2. Teachers are often asked to attend PDs on stuff they already know well, not the stuff they need to learn (TNTP, 2015).
  3. There is rarely any follow up on PDs. It is one and done and questions and implementation challenges are left unaddressed (TNTP, 2015).
  4. Teachers don’t get time to do the types of activities they find helpful, like observing other teachers (maybe 2x a year, if lucky) and instead put their time in one-shot PDs that over two-thirds of surveyed teachers find unhelpful (TNTP, 2015). 
  5. The system is disjointed. The PDs and areas of focus in the district vary year to year, department to department, and level to level (TNTP, 2015). 
  6. Teachers often have little sense of their own strengths and weaknesses, with their self-evaluations rarely matching those of independent evaluators. That makes growth hard (TNTP, 2015). 
  7. When the going gets hard and the new strategies don’t seem to work, teachers go back to old ways of teaching (Darling-Hammond, 2010).

Why PDs matter

There is room for improvement for pretty much all teachers (TNTP, 2015). We all have things we could do better and ways we could better support students if we had the right tools and trainings. When asked about job satisfaction, among many, many other factors, teachers list relevant PD as more important than higher salaries (Zhang & Zeller, 2016). Teachers want to get better– schools are just making it harder than it should be.

Characteristics of strong PDs

In studies of PD that seems to change how teachers teach, researchers have found a lot of commonalities. The best PDs seem to include:

  1. Giving teachers regular feedback and opportunities to practice (TNTP, 2015)
  2. Getting clear about what the goal of PDs are and what it looks like for teachers to “improve” (TNTP, 2015). AKA have an actual clear vision for success and share it.
  3. Focusing on specific content that is clearly linked to the teacher’s classroom context and the subject matter they are teaching (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017; Desimone, 2009).
  4. Making the learning active. Teachers need time to receive feedback, look at students’ work, and observe teaching– not just listen to a lecture (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017; Desimone, 2009).
  5. Making the PDs coherent. The weird disjointed mess of PDs that teachers get now helps no one. Teachers need coherent PDs that align and build towards clear goals (Desimone, 2009).
  6. Allocating enough time for sustained PD. If you are going to do PD and have it make a difference, it can’t be one shot. One shot doesn’t work. Teachers need multiple PD sessions, followed with classroom support, discussions, debriefs and the whole shebang for PD content to stick  (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017; Desimone, 2009).
  7. Building community. Teachers need to do the PDs with other teachers, with colleagues who can reinforce the learning at the site, who can debrief and help them think about next steps  (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017; Desimone, 2009).
  8. Providing models. Teachers need to see what the teaching that comes from the PD is supposed to look like (Darling-Hammond, 2017).
  9. Building in feedback and reflection. Telling teachers what to do isn’t enough. They need coaching, feedback, and time to reflect on the new learning in order for changes to stick (Darling-Hammond, 2017).


If you are running PDs, these are helpful tips. If you are enduring yet another mediocre PD and thinking this doesn’t help, hopefully this list will make you feel validated– and maybe you can sneak it to someone in charge. Or just send them the Darling-Hammond and TNTP pieces! They are both available free and are excellent!