By Tom Many, EdD

“Ensuring that teachers are provided with high quality professional development (PD) opportunities is crucial to improving pupil outcomes.” – Education Endowment Foundation, 2021

This is a good news, bad news story. According to Sam Sims, the good news is, “Evidence has accumulated showing that PD does indeed improve teaching and pupil learning.” The bad news is, “the impact [of PD] varies widely, which raises the question of what—if anything—differentiates more effective PD from less effective PD.” (Sims et al., 2021) Basically, we agree that PD matters (it is the right work) but have questions about how best to deliver it (are we doing it the right way).

“Educational leaders make more informed decisions when they take into account both the effectiveness and the cost of new reforms.” (Levin & McEwan, 2001)

Professional development (PD) is delivered in one of two ways; the traditional approach which consists of conferences, workshops, and keynotes or the contemporary approach which includes things like coaching, networking, and professional learning communities. David Knight (2012), who conducted a comprehensive study comparing the cost of different PD approaches, suggests the dichotomy created by traditional and contemporary PD is useful when examining the impact of professional development (PD).

Misconceptions about the different approaches to professional development exist around cost, reach (the number of teachers who participate), and overall effectiveness. For example, there is a persistent belief the traditional approach is the most cost-effective way to deliver professional development but an in-depth analysis reveals the numbers just don’t add up. Surprisingly, the costs of traditional and contemporary approaches to PD can be very similar.

For the sake of argument, assume two mid-sized school districts have both chosen to focus on improving the PLC practices of collaborative teams and each has allocated $100,000 to support that effort. In the first scenario, the district chooses the traditional approach to PD and sends a delegation of 30 teachers to a national conference followed later in the year by a two-day, on-site workshop attended by 60 teachers. Using the mid-point of data from Knight’s study as the source, the cost of the PD in the first district is $65,912.50. (pgs. 109-112). In the second scenario, a neighboring district allocates the same $100,000 for PD but decides to spend it differently and invests in a more contemporary approach to improving the PLC process; coaching collaborative teams. Assuming weekly coaching sessions over the course of the school year, the cost of the PD in the second district is $72,673.00. (pg. 85). While each district chose a different approach, the costs were similar.

A second misconception is that the traditional PD approach is more efficient; that it reaches a larger audience but, this also is not necessarily the case. Knight’s research was based on a one-on-one model of instructional coaching and the average number of teachers each coach worked with during his study was 19 (p. 94). In these hypothetical scenarios, if 30 teachers attended the national conference and 60 more attended the one-day workshop (assuming that none of the original 30 conference attendees participated in the one-day workshop which is unlikely), the traditional approach could reach between 60 and 90 teachers as opposed to the 20 teachers who experienced the contemporary approach. This difference in the number of teachers who receive the PD changes if coaches work with collaborative teams rather than individual teachers. If teams are the primary structure through which coaching is delivered, the number of teachers receiving PD increases exponentially. Instead of reaching 20 individual teachers, coaching 20 teams could reach as many as 60 teachers (20 teams of 3 teachers each) making the number of teachers who participated in PD similar in both districts.

Based on Knight’s research, delivering professional development via traditional or contemporary approaches can be more or less expensive and reach as many or more teachers. But dollars alone do not tell the whole story. While the cost and reach (the number of teachers served) can be similar with either approach, the effectiveness is clearly different.

“Several evaluations and literature reviews of the current status of professional development have revealed the shortcomings of traditional professional development models and the strengths of more recently developed approaches.” Knight (2012)

Research on the effectiveness of different approaches to professional development has been consistent for quite some time. In 2010, Borko, Jacobs, and Koellner explained that if the goal is to improve teachers’ professional practice, traditional forms of PD such as conferences, workshops, and keynotes are not effective while more contemporary approaches featuring aspects of job embedded coaching are. Knight (2012) reports, “small scale studies have shown evidence that, compared to the traditional approach to professional development, when teachers work with a coach, they are more likely to use newly learned pedagogical strategies.”

Killion and Harrison (2017) support those previous findings regarding the effectiveness of the contemporary approach to professional development pointing out that, “Since [Joyce and Showers] initial study in 1980, subsequent studies have consistently found that teachers’ implementation of new learning rises dramatically when peer coaching sessions occur.” Furthermore, Kraft and Blazer (2018) state, “Rigorous studies find that PD programs, more often than not, fail to produce systematic changes in teachers’ instructional practice, much less improvement in student achievement.” Finally, Goodman and Taylor (2019) observed that, “Basically, without coaching, teachers brought little of what they learned in workshops back to the classroom.”

Despite an extensive body of evidence supporting contemporary approaches to professional development, most teachers still experience the traditional approach. Knight (2012) reported when teachers were asked to describe their professional development experience from the previous year, 4 in 5 (81.3%) reported they had participated in workshops and conferences while only 1 in 5 (18.7%) described taking part in professional development that included coaching, teacher study groups, and professional learning communities.

As an aside, the contemporary approach to PD creates more frequent opportunities for job-embedded PD because coaching does not require teachers to leave their classroom, secure a sub, or create lesson plans which can all be barriers to delivering professional development in the current environment. Contemporary PD has the added benefit of promoting the development of collaborative cultures and the deprivatization of professional practice.

“Where possible, schools should strongly consider using instructional coaching for professional development. Indeed, it would be hard to justify the use of alternative approaches in the face of the existing evidence.” Sam Sims, 2021

School leaders who believe it would be difficult to operationalize a contemporary approach to professional development should consider how difficult it would be to justify the expenditure of significant dollars on traditional professional development opportunities that have a minimal impact on improving teaching and learning in their schools.

This is simply a case of when we know better, we must do better and what we have learned is that traditional approaches to professional development do not promote lasting changes in teachers’ professional practice. If building awareness or exposure to new ideas is the goal, the traditional approach to PD is acceptable. But, the lasting improvement of teachers’ professional practice demands a more contemporary approach.

Dr. Tom Many is an author and consultant. His career in education spans more than 30 years.

Greenshaw Research School (2021). New Guidance on Effective Professional Development. The Education Endowment Foundation, October 8, 2021.

Knight, D. (2012). Assessing the Cost of Instructional Coaching. Journal of Educational Finance, V. 38, No.1, Summer 2-12, pp. 52-80.

Sims, S., Fletcher-Wood, H., O’Mara-Eves, A., Cottingham, S., Stansfield, C., Van Herwegen, J., Anders, J. (2021) What are the Characteristics of Teacher Professional Development that increase Pupil Achievement? A systematic review and meta-analysis. London: Education Endowment Foundation.

TEPSA News, January/February 2022, Vol 79, No 1

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