Raising the Professional Development Bar To Elevate Educators

Teacher professional development has gotten a bad reputation over the years: “sit and get,” “sage on stage,” “one and done,” “irrelevant,” “boring”; the list goes on.

Combined, federal, state, and local spending on professional development (PD) is estimated to be $18 billion – annually.  Another analysis found that school districts spend $18,000 per teacher per year on PD. Yet fewer than 1 in 3 teachers report that their PD experience is satisfactory.

There are a number of efforts underway to improve PD, and federal policy is a key driver underlying these reinventions. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has updated and strengthened the definition of professional development, a term which appears over 40 times in the law, mostly describing what activities are allowable (i.e., can be funded) in different parts of the law like Titles I, II, IV, and more.

In the “general provisions” section of ESSA, which contains requirements and definitions of terms that are used throughout the law, is a definition of PD that is worth paying attention to. There are important concepts and provisions in the federal definition to highlight:

  • First, the definition emphasizes that PD is for all educators – principals, other school leaders, support personnel, paraprofessionals, and early childhood educators – to help students succeed in a well-rounded education and to meet state academic standards. ESSA also eliminates No Child Left Behind’s focus on “core academic subjects,” which expands the use of Title II funds for PD to include teachers of every subject.
  • Second, and directly quoting the federal definition, PD needs to be “sustained (not stand-alone, 1-day, or short-term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused.” It is notable and rare for federal law to specifically say what something should NOT be. In this case, ESSA is trying to eliminate federal funding for the ineffective and unwanted forms of PD that have been too prevalent over the years. Every educator should be asking if the PD they will be attending address can be described with these words.
  • Third, the PD definition goes on to emphasize several other important points, including that PD should be part of school and district improvement plans; that it provides educators training in the effective use of technology; that it be evaluated for its impact on teacher effectiveness and student achievement; and that it be personalized “to address the educator’s specific needs.”

Professional Development alignment to ESSA


These are all very important concepts to emphasize, but the last point about personalization is potentially transformative. Just as personalized learning for students is growing in usage and gaining evidence of success, the idea of tailoring the learning and support to the specific needs of teachers is commonsensical, long-overdue, and more likely to yield better results for all involved.

Teachers receive, on average, 24 hours of formal PD per teacher per year, but less than half of teachers report that PD was personalized to their development needs or teaching situation. Giving teachers choice in content, modality, path, pace, and place based on their needs, interests, and goals would be a huge step forward. Personalizing PD requires hard work to systematize across a district, but making PD more personalized, like that of other sectors and industries, building on best practices around adult learning, would certainly be better than the factory model most often employed now.

How can a definition in ESSA be so important to changing the future of PD? For starters, the definition shows up in Title I, the largest federal investment for K-12 education ($16 billion) focused on underserved and underperforming students. This means that Title I funds used for PD must follow the federal definition.

Title II of ESSA, which aims to improve the quality of teachers and leaders, is funded at $2.1 billion and is the main source of federal support for PD across districts and schools. The PD definition in ESSA drives how these funds can be used; we just finished the second year of funding under Title II subject to the new federal PD definition. Hopefully, ESSA’s definition is starting to impact the PD these funds are supporting. Finally, there are other titles and programs in the federal law amounting to billions of additional funding that must also be consistent with the new, improved PD definition.

In one more important change, ESSA requires the use of evidence-based interventions and activities. PD programs and activities must have demonstrated a record of success, and there is reliable, trustworthy, and valid evidence to suggest the program is effective. This is a more flexible and context-informed approach to applying research to practice than the “scientifically-based research” standard under NCLB.

Research has continued to show that teachers are the most important in-school  factor in student achievement. It is essential to move away from the passive delivery of PD and toward a more effective, active, and personalized approach to professional development. We owe it to the professionals in the classrooms and the students they teach to do better.


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About the Author

Doug Mesecar is Senior Vice President of Corporate Strategy at IO Education. He has a diverse background having held senior operational and policy roles at leading education companies, the U.S. Department of Education, and in Congress. Reach him on Twitter @dmes.

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