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Professional Learning Isn’t Having an Impact. Or Is It?

Professional Growth

Since the release of TNTP’s “Mirage” study a few weeks ago, it’s been interesting to observe the myriad of reactions from the K-12 world and mainstream press. From well-known EdWeek blogger, David B. Cohen, to Learning Forward, the international thought leader in educator professional learning, to U.S. News & World Report, almost everyone who touches educator learning, and many who don’t, seems to have a strong reaction to the findings:

  • “Districts are making a massive investment in PD: $18,000/teacher/year.”
  • “Teachers do not appear to improve substantially year over year. Only three in ten teachers demonstrated substantial improvement.”
  • “There is no evidence that any particular kind or amount of PD consistently helps teachers improve.”
  •  “School systems are not helping teachers understand how to improve – or even that they need to.”

Amid the flurry of inquiry and outburst about the accuracy of the numbers, the methodology and the data points, the study has raised the level of concern about substantiating the impact of professional learning. Whether we agree with the specifics or not, the significant learning is that overall we do not know enough about how professional learning is making a difference, if at all. 

As one who has committed a career to supporting educator learning and growth, this “hard truth,” as the report describes it, is tough to digest initially. We care about this work – a lot. I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with highly dedicated, smart and passionate education leaders at all levels within our nation’s school systems, working together to collect, analyze, interpret and apply data around professional learning designs and outcomes. We look to the pioneering work of Guskey and Killion to provide a framework, review the learnings from visionary school systems, utilize technology tools, allocate the time and add in a protocol to guide the work, yet we continue to grapple with refining effective methods for understanding how professional learning is impacting educator practice and student learning.

This is hard work.

However, I strongly believe that there is hope. I wonder if perhaps we do know – quite a bit – about what works. It may be easier to count hours and track credits, and those activities are often center stage for good reason. While easily managed with technology, this alone does not constitute effective management of professional learning.

At the heart, we know that it’s really about empowering teachers to guide their own learning, based on identified student needs, in job-embedded, ongoing, collaborative settings.  We read about approaches to PLCs, coaching models and action research projects that leverage effective learning designs and do demonstrate impact. Studies show that effective professional learning does have a significant impact on instructional practice, both directly and even indirectly for those who learn from peers who participated in effective professional development (Sun et al). There are also technology tools available to support all of this work if we redefine what it looks like to effectively manage professional learning.

But… how do we assess, replicate, contextualize and scale these learnings?

18000 reasons to rethink professional development report

Guided by the “Outcome” Standard for Professional Learning and the “Mirage” recommendations to “redefine what it means to help teachers improve, reevaluate supports and programs, and reinvent how we support effective teaching at scale,” we can consider approaches to more consistently and strategically evaluate the impact of professional learning.

This work can begin with small steps. Raising the level of awareness around the purpose of professional learning is a key mindshift. Employing existing customizable technology can help redefine what it means to support teacher growth and facilitate self-directed learning and analysis. Tools might include collaborative planning templates aligned with district, school and personal goals and logs to systematically capture new learnings, steps for changing practice, anticipated student results and subsequent impact notes. Reports that compare resources like time and expenditures with outcomes provide a window into what should be replicated and scaled. There are school systems today that are using proven technology designed to explicitly support this redefinition of professional learning.

While we seek to enhance professional learning by strengthening teacher collaboration skills, carving out more time and ensuring a content-based student focus, we can also do more to move the purpose of professional learning beyond generation of knowledge and skills and affective changes, to a coherent laser focus on practical application and study of impact.

There is hope.


1. Guskey, Thomas R. Evaluating Professional Development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2000. Print.
2. Killion, Joellen. Assessing Impact: Evaluating Staff Development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2008. Print.
3. Sun, M., W. R. Penuel, K. A. Frank, H. A. Gallagher, and P. Youngs. “Shaping Professional Development to Promote the Diffusion of Instructional Expertise among Teachers.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 35.3 (2013): 344-69. Web.


Juliet Correll WrightJuliet Correll

Juliet serves Frontline Education as Director of Organizational Learning. She is passionate about helping individuals, teams and organizations enhance teaching, learning and leadership to achieve personal and organizational goals, and over her career she has led large-scale professional learning initiatives, collaborating with school districts and state departments of education. Juliet is a Learning Forward Academy graduate, holds a Master’s from Teachers College, Columbia University and is an ardent community leader in health, education and environmental causes.