Does Content-Focused Teacher Professional Development Work?

Kirk Walters
Rui Yang

Federal and local governments continue to invest billions of dollars each year in professional development (PD) for teachers. Until recently, there has been little rigorous evidence to inform the design and delivery of these PD programs. Nevertheless, there has been growing consensus that deepening teachers’ content knowledge is an essential component of effective PD in both reading and mathematics.

Three recent random assignment studies from the Institute of Education Sciences evaluated teacher PD programs in different grades in reading and mathematics. The PD examined in the three studies emphasized building teachers’ content knowledge and their knowledge about content-specific pedagogy. The PD, which was based mostly on commercially available programs, combined summer institutes with periodic teacher meetings and coaching during the school year.

Each program was substantially more intensive than the typical PD offered to teachers in study districts. All three studies examined the impact of the PD programs on teachers’ content knowledge and instructional practice, as well as their students’ achievement.

Key Findings

Key findings from the three studies:

  • Intensive, content-focused PD improved teachers’ knowledge and some aspects of their practice. The studies provide evidence that PD programs focused on improving teachers’ content knowledge and their knowledge about content-specific pedagogy can produce significant gains in teachers’ knowledge by the end of the year in which the PD program is implemented. The studies also provide evidence that a one-year PD program can improve some aspects of instructional practice. 
  • Improving teachers’ knowledge or practice did not translate into improvements in student achievement. None of the three studies showed a positive effect on student achievement at the end of the year that the PD was implemented, as measured by accountability tests or tests constructed specifically for the studies. The studies found that most of the measured aspects of teachers’ knowledge and practice were not associated with student achievement. The few that were had, at best, modest associations.